Earlier this year, PAI reflected on how this year’s various elections in Africa could impact African women. The current crisis in Burundi is a prime example of how election-derived political instability can rapidly have far-reaching and devastating consequences for women (as well as the rest of the population). During periods of transition, women are especially vulnerable to diminished or eliminated access to reproductive health care, rights suppression, and gender-based violence, among other negative consequences.
The Burundian crisis began when Burundi’s current president, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced he would seek a third presidential term in Burundi’s upcoming June elections, despite a constitutional mandate limiting the presidency to two terms. This announcement resulted in mass protests across Burundi, many of which turned violent. Furthermore, a failed coup, the assassination of one of Burundi’s most prominent opposition leaders, and the amped up presence of the increasingly menacing and violent Imbonerakure, the current ruling party’s youth wing, have plunged the country into further chaos. As a result, more than 112,000 refugees have crossed into Tanzania, Rwanda, and the DRC since April.
In particular, women and children fleeing Burundi have felt the effects of this crisis. Reproductive healthcare in refugee camps is sub-par, at best. For example, according to a UNFPA official at the Kagungna Refugee transit center in Tanzania, “there are no delivery beds, no antenatal clinics, and the two nurse-midwives present are overwhelmed because they also take care of other refugees who have acute diarrhea.”
Women caught in the middle of this crisis sometimes have no choice but to give birth in unsafe conditions.
One woman recently gave birth aboard an overcrowded ferry on the way to a refugee camp. Obviously, unsafe facilities and conditions make births riskier and make women and children more prone to a variety of diseases, including malaria and cholera.
Furthermore, women are especially susceptible to gender-based violence in Burundi, particularly when they’re traveling to a refugee camp, and the risk of violence continues once they’re settled in a camp. Reports from staff at the Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania indicate hundreds of assaults against women have taken place in transit from Burundi to the camp, and the International Rescue Committee aid workers report an increase in reports of sexual violence and assault — both in Burundi and during women’s journeys to seek refuge.
The Burundian crisis could become an even larger conflict and humanitarian crisis. Regardless of the direction it takes, though, it is highly important to ensure the unique needs of women and children are met. In the Burundian case, women and children compose the vast majority of refugees, and failing to tailor humanitarian assistance to their specific needs will be especially perilous. UNFPA, the International Rescue Committee, and other organizations are trying to ensure their needs are met by distributing hygiene supply kits and reproductive health kits at refugee camps, and aid groups are stocking rape treatment kits and conducting sexual assault screenings at the camps.
But considering the vast number of refugees that continue to flee Burundi, these resources need to be readily increased, and more needs to be done to prevent gender-based violence. Women’s safety must be ensured both at refugee camps and in transit to them, including providing enough means for sustenance within camps so women don’t have to travel outside of them to search for firewood and put their own safety at risk.
The international community seems to recognize these health and safety shortcomings and seems to be doing what it can to address them, but due to the urgency of the situation and sheer number of refugees, the community needs to take swifter action. The international community should be on alert and prepared with humanitarian assistance for future potentially volatile elections across the region that could have highly negative consequences for women and children, as there are still a substantial number of upcoming elections across Africa this year.
Finally, and most importantly, the heaviest burden of responsibility falls on countries and the elected officials within them to ensure free and fair elections. As we’ve seen in Burundi, interfering with a country’s existing democratic processes does not just affect a country’s internal politics, but it can also have devastating and life-threatening consequences for an entire population, with women and children bearing the brunt of these consequences. State leaders must realize the far-reaching ramifications of their political decisions, and the international community must do as much as it can to ensure that existing democratic processes are not interfered with, and if they are, be prepared to help address the consequences of this interference.