For a long time, everything I knew about Burundi came in the form of headlines: missives from the New York Times and Guardian that spoke of political instability and coups, a press whose freedom was rapidly decreasing, rapes and mass graves, disease and hunger. When I came to support UNICEF Burundi for two weeks, my first visit to a Country Office, I thought I would be spending time in a warzone. It turns out that Burundi’s crisis is twofold: behind the continual flares of violence lurks a long-term crisis- that of a country experiencing a slow, steady collapse of systems.
Burundi is one of the world’s five poorest countries, according to the last Human Development Index, indicative of crushing poverty that has intensified since the start of the most recent political crisis in April 2015; just this month, the World Happiness Report ranked Burundi as the world’s unhappiest country – below war-torn countries like Syria and Afghanistan. Political tensions run high, culminating in prolonged periods of horrible violence: 4,700 human rights violations have been reported since last April, including killings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, extreme violence and enforced disappearances.
Children have been hugely affected by the crisis: nearly 250 have been arbitrarily detained, and at times imprisoned, alongside adult offenders, and more than half the 250,000 Burundians who have fled to neighboring countries are children. To date, 26 children have been killed in the violence, and thousands more have been injured and seen violent scenes that will surely haunt them for years to come.
Trauma related to the current crisis goes far, far beyond affecting just the children who have suffered in the capital, Bujumbura, or journeyed across the border in search of safety. Due to the political situation, international donors are withdrawing funding. And this is where the long-term impact of the crisis becomes obvious.
Burundi is already heavily dependent on foreign aid, with up to 80% of social-sector government ministries relying on external aid. As major donors pull out, Burundian children’s access to adequate nutrition, health facilities, and quality education is on the line. In a country where close to 3 in 5 children under 5 years old are stunted, the consequences of withdrawing aid will be disastrous.
Despite the dreadful climate created by the political crisis, the young people I met throughout the country blew me away with their optimism and determination to make Burundi a better, safer, healthier place for children. Children make up more than 50 per cent of Burundi’s 10.7 million people, and they are disproportionately affected by the political and economic crises. Even before the crisis, 58 per cent of children under five were malnourished. Food prices are high, harvests are poor, and children sometimes only eat once a day, if that.
And yet the young people I met while on mission astonished me with their knowledge of issues affecting children and commitment to supporting their peers.
Representatives from the National Children’s Forum of Burundi spoke knowledgably and eloquently on a number of issues that might make senior politicians struggle. Gilbert, 17, spoke passionately about the exploitation of children who, unable to afford school fees, are pulled from school by guardians to work – many as domestic workers – or beg for money. Donavine, 17, told me of sexual violence against her peers – particularly girls – of teachers who promise good marks in exchange for sex, of wealthy local men who promise the world to these young girls if they give over their bodies. These problems are widespread in Burundi, particularly in the countryside, yet with Gilbert and Donavine serving as passionate advocates for children, exploited children have a voice, one with the ear of the government’s Ministry of Social Affairs. However, it’s important to note that the National Children’s Forum has not met in Bujumbura since before the start of the crisis nearly a year ago, and there is no telling how long it will be until they are able to meet again.
While Gilbert and Donavine represent the children in the Forum, young journalists Kathia, 19, and Charmel, 17, literally give voice to Burundi’s children through their radio shows. I met them as they conducted their regular quiz show at a primary school in Gitega, where a mob of enthusiastic children fought among themselves to answer questions on children’s rights. Kathia would later tell me that two of the topics they speak about most are accessibility issues for disabled children and the exploitation of children. In Burundi’s current political situation, Kathia and Charmel keep the spotlight firmly on children.
U-Report, an SMS-based service, serves as a vital means of expression for children and young people across Burundi. With as electrification rate at 5 per cent and only 22 per cent of the population with mobile phones, U-Report is hugely successful with 45,000 U-Reporters, and clearly speaks to the fact that Burundian youth are hungry for new ways to express themselves.
The Convention on the Rights of the Children states explicitly that all children have the right to food, clean water, regular access to quality healthcare and education, the ability to live their lives in peace and safety without fear. Despite the alarming headlines in the news, Burundi’s children are widely ignored by the world at large – and they shouldn’t be.
As UNICEF Burundi Representative Bo Viktor Nylund recently said, “This is not the time to stop investing in Burundi’s children.” Children here are ready to make the difference. Let’s give them the support they need to see change they want come true.
Sarah Pilchick is Social Media Specialist with UNICEF’s Eastern and Southern Regional Office in Nairobi. She wrote this piece while on mission in Burundi – her first-ever trip to the field.