Bringing Peace to “Homes, Communities, and Countries”
An interview with Ida Ntawundora, Country Program Manager, EngenderHealth, Burundi
During a recent visit to EngenderHealth’s New York headquarters, Burundi Program Manager Ida Ntawundora sat down to talk about Burundians Responding Against Violence and Inequality (BRAVI), a U.S. Agency for International Development–supported project that aims to improve efforts to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence. Ida reflects on BRAVI and her long career in women’s empowerment in her country.
Tell us about your background and how you got into this field of work.
I started working in this field in 2003 as the Program Coordinator on Women’s Empowerment for Care International in Burundi. It was a big program where I interacted with both women and men to improve the social, economic, and political empowerment of women.
As a professional, what inspires you?
What inspires me is my life and my experience as a woman. I tell myself I am living in the same condition as many other women. Through my experiences, I have worked to transform my situation, and I can help support others to change as well. What is needed most is our collective commitment.
Speaking of your inspiration, lets discuss the project—what are the primary project objectives?
BRAVI seeks to improve prevention of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and the response to it within local communities. Gender-based violence (GBV) is one of the root causes of major human rights violations, and as long as we do not fight GBV, we cannot successfully respect or promote human rights. Everyone has to fight against GBV to establish human rights across all spheres of society.
Can you help us understand the project’s overall approach?
The project is working to strengthen the health sector response, promote awareness and use of SGBV services by survivors, strengthen referral networks, and promote gender equity at the community level.
One of the greatest challenges is silence: Survivors often do not report an SGBV incident. At times, they may be discriminated against, or the girl’s or woman’s family feels fearful to engage in conflict with the family of the perpetrator.
We are closely working with community leaders to engage and support SGBV victims. We bring community leaders to clinics to assess and improve health care services and to host and participate in discussions with providers and clients on services and barriers. This way, community leaders are now prepared to accompany victims to clinics, and they have an established relationship between community leaders and health service providers. In-person interaction helps improve dialogue, and survivors feel more confident.
EngenderHealth is also building the capacities of health care providers and supporting them to provide SGBV services with respect to minimum standards. The training focuses on SGBV screening, even among clients who came to the health facilities for other services. It is the role of health providers to discover if the client is a victim of violence. They must be sensitized and be able to inform clients about all the services available to clients, so that women can make informed decisions based on their own experiences. BRAVI does not directly offer services, but it extends support to health care providers.
Do clients also get access to legal assistance?
This issue is very challenging, because survivors often fear persecution from perpetrators and their families. Many women hesitate to seek medico-legal certificates because they lack the financial means to pay. With BRAVI, we plan to offer financial support to all survivors to pay for these services. We are also working to help strengthen the government structure and build capacity and raise awareness around the legal assistance needed. We try to advocate with the ministries in government, those involved in legal assistance, and at grassroots levels. The situation is currently better than before, as communities and survivors are more aware of their right to legal assistance.
What do you think is the role of family planning in SBGV services, or vice versa?
SGBV is closely linked to family planning. For example, when a woman is a victim of violence by her husband, she is in a situation where she is unable to negotiate the use of a condom. She fears to go and access family planning services because they are not discussed with her husband. In the context of Burundi, having more children is considered a sign of richness for men, so sometimes the husband and wife do not share the same understanding on family planning. SGBV is a barrier to accessing family planning services. Vice versa, when you are subjected to intimate partner violence, there are some methods you cannot use. For example, you cannot use female condoms when you have not had a conversation about family planning.
What have been the entry points to reach out to engage and partner with men?
Often, the common perception is that men are only perpetrators of GBV. However, this is a perception that men themselves do not hold. The challenge is to bring them together for discussion and to really try and see what can be the response of men to prevent and fight GBV. We want to bring in men as partners and not paint them solely as perpetrators of SGBV.
What are some of the lessons that your work has taught you?
I’ve learned that when women are empowered, they can bring change and peace in homes, communities, and countries. They should have the right to autonomy and agency because when women in households are empowered, there are immediate changes in the economic, social, and political spheres. Empowering women and girls can have a sustainable impact on behavioral change at the community and national levels.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
We should bear in mind, we are not the experts, but we are the catalysts of change. The communities where we are working, they are the experts, and they are the owners of their solutions. We should remember we are only facilitators and not experts in bringing change to our communities.