“This time, we made a big leap forward”. Gender advocacy and women’s governance participation in Burundi

In 2022, Burundi saw the first-ever election of the community councils of notables of hills and city quarters. It is a far-reaching reform of justice governance and decision-making processes. The Association des Femmes Rapatriées du Burundi (AFRABU), as a Just Future alliance member, unabatedly and successfully advocated for the inclusion of women in the new council structure.

Governance structures in Burundi are decentralised down to the administrative level of the municipalities, and to the urban neigbourhoods and hill zones, of which there are some 2900, spread over 18 provinces. With the first-ever election, in every hill, of the conseils des notables collinnaires or council of hill notables, in September 2022, the people of Burundi had a say in how and by whom community disputes and conflicts are managed and settled. Because the council of hill notables is a judicial institution at hill level that carries out reconciliation in dispute cases out of the public order, including cases of gender-based and domestic violence, hereditary disputes, and disputes of land ownership. Elected members of the councils are called ‘abahuza’, or ‘conciliators’, as their core mission is to reconcile conflicting parties at the community level.

Bringing justice services closer to people

This newly created governance structure has points of resemblance with the age-old community-based institution of the Bashingantahe, the councils of elders whose mission is to safeguard peace and social harmony by conciliating conflicting parties. And which, very often, used to exclude women. The idea, ruled by the national government, that the councils of notables replace the older Bashingantahe structures, is much cause for debate. “There are important differences between the old and the new hill councils,” says Marie Concessa Barubike, project coordinator of Just Future alliance member AFRABU (Association des Femmes Rapatriées du Burundi, the association of women repatriated from Burundi). “Bashingantahe councils are not elected, they are traditional and membership is based on status. They do handle disputes, but they do not have any power to settle them legally. Hill and neighbourhood notables are elected, and their council is a judiciary institution, auxiliary to the community court. In case they cannot settle the dispute, they can refer it to the community court system. In short, for citizens, the council of notables is the first entry point in the justice system. Its establishment is an important step to bring justice services closer to the people.”

Breaking through a barrier

In September 2022, millions of Burundian citizens cast their votes and 44,244 notables were elected. Importantly, 10,781 of them were women. This is 24,4%. And even though women’s representation in the councils does not mirror demographical gender proportions by far, according to Marie Concessa this is big step forward. “Women in Burundi never won more than 20% of the votes in hill-level elections. This time, we did. And doing it we have broken through a barrier, we have passed a milestone. This is of historical importance, not only for women but for the inclusivity of governance and decision-making in the country as a whole.” But the leap forward didn’t come just by itself. “Society in Burundi is deeply patriarchal and traditionally women are kept out of a lot of decision-making structures,” she says. “It took a lot of concerted advocacy by civil society activists for women to be elected in such numbers.”

A learning laboratory

After living a challenging life in exile, Marie Concessa returned to Burundi in 1997. Back home she was struck by the degree of discrimination against women, including herself. She started taking part in advocacy initiatives that promoted the rights of women, youth, and minority groups in her country. Ever since 2009, when she joined AFRABU, she has been a strong and now reputable civil society activist. AFRABU has collaborated with Cordaid since 2014 in designing and rolling out advocacy initiatives and campaigns that promote the rights, as well as the representation and participation of women and youth in governance structures. Marie Concessa: “Cordaid has been a learning laboratory for me. Thanks to their support, AFRABU colleagues and myself have become stronger activists, with better lobbying and advocacy skills.” As a Just Future ally, in 2022, AFRABU, hand in hand with other civil society actors and in the run-up to the elections, has unabatedly campaigned for inclusivity of the councils of notables and their electoral process.

Organising advocacy from local to national levels

“The 01/03 law of 23 January 2021, which established the legal framework of the councils of notables and the subsequent decrees that regulated the election process, was completely mute to the call for the inclusion of women. It showed no gender awareness or sensitivity to existing gender inequalities. There were no requirements at all that of the 15 members per council, a certain number had to be women. This is not conducive to gender equality or justice. Yet, the councils themselves are meant to play a key role when it comes to social justice,” Barubike explains. Right from the start, in 2021, and under the umbrella of the Just Future alliance, AFRABU and its allies, advocated for a more gender-aware framework of the council of hill notables institution. “We went to communities and vulgarised, explained, and discussed the law with women in the hill zones in seven of the 17 provinces. This is also when we observed that our concerns were shared by women all over Burundi. Which gave us the support and legitimacy to proceed with our advocacy efforts on higher levels.” Part of these consultations were also the women leaders that, later on, would campaign in favour of female election candidates.   Subsequently, AFRABU connected with other national civil society actors, including the Forum National des Femmes (the national women’s forum) and the Asscociation des Femmes Juristes (association of women lawyers), who provided legal expertise. “Together, we formed a unit that prepared an advocacy paper, analysing the discriminatory character of the legal framework as well as presenting means to make it more favourable to the inclusion of women and youth.” This joint paper, initiated by AFRABU and signed by a large number of national civil society organisations, was then shared personally with political authorities, including the President of the Republic. Two separate notes, expressing the same concerns, were shared as well, one with the national commission overseeing the launch and operationalisation of the councils of hill notables, and the other to the Minister of Gender.

The role of the media in advocacy

AFRABU also involved local and national media outlets in its advocacy work. “Together with other civil society leaders we have frequently conveyed the message on radio, in on and offline opinion articles, that at least 30% of hill notable council members have to be women. We aired advertising spots telling listeners and viewers to vote for women. And prior to the elections, we also arranged with media outlets that women candidates had the opportunity to get their messages across, express themselves freely and convince voters on tv and radio shows,” Marie Concessa adds.   This concerted action had an impact. Maybe not the 30% impact women fought for, but still. “The electoral code that was established leading up to the September 2022 elections, contained certain articles stating that gender had to be taken into account. And some national and local authorities publicly announced that at least 30% of council members had to be women. This in itself was a recognition of our demands,” Marie Concessa states.

The joy is bigger that the feeling of disappointment

As for the election results, indeed the 30% goal was not met. “24,4% of the elected hill notables are women”, Marie Concessa says. “Hill-level elections, not for these new councils of notables, but for other governance structures, have existed since 2005. Women’s representation always lingered around 5% to 8%. This time, we made a big leap, thanks to hard work. All the more so, because the hill notable councils settle the kind of disputes in which women’s demands for justice aren’t met, like land disputes, family disputes, and cases of sexual abuse and gender-based violence. So, the joy is stronger than the feeling of disappointment for not having met our 30% goal. And of course, the struggle continues.” Through community sensibilisation, joint advocacy towards national political decision-makers, and media campaigns, AFRABU and other Burundian civil society leaders fighting gender inequality, managed to curb the gender muteness of the 01/03 Law. Not by changing the law, but by influencing its application on the ground and in the lives of people. After the election of thousands of women, AFRABU’s job wasn’t finished. “After the elections, in seven provinces, with Just Future support, we started training some of the newly elected hill notables. These training sessions were mainly about gender awareness and conflict sensitivity. By this I mean, for example, that hill notables must be very well aware of other conflicts within the community, related to the case at hand, and how a judgment or settlement can influence and sometimes aggravate other tensions and disputes. For this, you need to have the skills and the sensitivities, also to set up and lead community consultations in the right manner. Which is what we focused on in our training sessions.”

The ’gender effect’

The elections took place. In 2910 hill communities the councils of notables have been installed and have been in office for some months. Is there any noticeable ‘gender effect’? “We are in close touch with communities in the seven provinces where we have been doing citizen consultations and where we trained council members. What we hear and see there, is that decisions are taken jointly, by men and women. It might seem trivial, but it isn’t, it’s crucial. Because usually, in these kinds of decision-making structures it’s men who decide. Now, what we see in the councils of hill notables we follow, is that men cannot and do not take decisions by themselves. They can only come to a concluding decision if the women of the council took part in the decision-making.”

Follow-up and data collection

To properly follow up on previous advocacy and training activities, AFRABU set up a trimestral data collection mechanism in 41 municipalities spread over seven provinces. “In our next data collection round, we will include interviews with community members, including elected councillors, women and men, of how and to what degree dispute settlement took place in gender and conflict sensitive manner.”   Data collection and on-the-ground gauging of gender and conflict awareness are mainly done by the many community members AFRABU has been training and working with over the years. “They now have the tools and questionnaires to do this on a regular basis. They probe members of their community, on topics like women’s and youth’s participation in decision-making, and on how satisfied they are with the gender awareness of community leaders, including hill notables and other leaders. Gender awareness is about more than addressing wrongs done to women. It is about addressing social inequality in all its forms. We will check, by taking samples of settled dispute cases, whether women, but also people with a handicap, young people and other groups that are often discriminated, were fairly treated and that their justice demands were properly addressed.”

Every step is a victory

Every year within the Just Future alliance, up to 2025, comes with specific goals and targets. 2022, with the elections, was an intense and successful year in Burundi, when it comes to the struggle for the inclusion of women in decision-making. But what is AFRABU’s long-term goal? Their dream? “To end the inequalities that come with the patriarchal system we are living in. We want to see the end of man’s superiority over women, in governance, legal systems, norms, and traditions. We will not get there in my lifetime, but every step is a victory. And change has to start at the community level, and from there, we change our country. Which is exactly what we have done in 2022.”

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