When Women Become a Priority...
After 13 years of absence, I returned to Burundi with NO IDEA what I was going to find. One thing was for sure, I was ready to learn. I was in the middle of my graduate studies, and I had already chosen my thesis topic- or so I thought. For as long as I remember, women issues have always been close to my heart. Therefore, I had decided to work on a thesis paper on HIV/AIDS and how it affects women in Post-conflict zones. So I arrived in Burundi ready for research, and I had already arranged my interviews. It did not take long before I realized how naïve I was in my research attempts. After speaking to several women, and seating through meetings with women’s organizations, I realized that the problem of HIV/AIDS was of a causal affect that resulted from gender inequity. Furthermore, there was little research in the field, and it was almost impossible to find information on women and the trajectory (if any) to gender equality.
Two weeks later, I returned to my studies in New York, and realized that if I wanted to affect change then my first step was to contribute to the research on gender equality in Burundi. I had been so far removed from my country and my experiences as a girl/woman in Burundi had been based on the memory of a seven year-old that had left fleeing for her life. I had been blessed to have parents who believed in the value of an education. They made sure, whether we were refugees in the Congo, or settled in Kenya, I always kept up with school. This was rare at that time as many of my friends did not attend school.
By 2011 when I returned to Burundi, the statistics on girl-education had become better, but not ideal. Girls still had their relegated roles, which did not value education. This was more profound in rural Burundi. With a country that has one of the lowest GDP in the world, there were several contributions to this lack of education for girls. Economy and societal values are the major contributors. For every family that realized that their girls needed to be educated, there were two more that would prefer for their girls to stay home and help with chores, and be prepared for that day that they would get married. This reality was confounded by post-conflict environment where the family structure had changed. More than ever before, girls had been forced into motherhood because of the rampant raping of girls during the war. The challenge then was not only to educate the girls, but to also make sure that they also have access to viable means for income.
The good news is that the challenges in girl’s education present an opportunity for women to define and redefine their roles in society. By the time I submitted my thesis in June 2012, I had been able to speak to so many women who were ready to fight for women’s rights, but more importantly, bridging the gap between boy and girl education opportunities. As more girls become educated, they are paving way for other girls to aspire to be educated, and fight for their rights to education. As girls become women, and they see the value of education and the correlation it has to better economic opportunities, more families will also aspire to see their girls educated. This is probably not the easiest path to getting girls educated faster, but it is a process that will last. In the meantime, programs are being developed, programs that not only include scholarship on gender equality, but programs that are building support programs for those girls who want to go to school or are in school. These kinds of programs give me hope because it is through these kinds of programs that we will see an increase in girl’s education in Burundi. In a society that values experience, the best people that girls can learn from will be the women who have walked down the same path to attaining an education.