My take, your take: Women's rights in Burundi, then and now

In this intergenerational series for the Generation Equality campaign, young people take the lead to shape the conversations. In this discussion, Marleine Kubwayo, 25-year-old women's rights activist talks with Marguerite Bukuru, former Minister of Women's Affairs and a women's rights activist since the 1980s. She participated in the Fourth Women Conference in Beijing in 1995.


Mujiji Joseph. Photo: Odette Kwizera/Women Burundi
Marleine Kubwayo interviewing Marguerite Bukuru. Photo: Odette Kwizera/UN Women Burundi

Marleine Kubwayo was only a few months old when the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted. Twenty-five years later, she acknowledges that the Beijing Platform for Action brought lasting changes to Burundian women. In particular, Kubwayo credits the Platform for the introduction of gender quota in political institutions, the creation of many women's organizations and women’s mobilization for the creation of income-generating activities.

She regrets, however, that parity between men and women has not yet been achieved and that, notwithstanding the gender quota system, 30 per cent representation of women is not reached at all spheres of public life. Marleine also notes that “the retrograde mentalities towards women have not yet changed.”

In Kubwayo’s view, high school dropout rates due to unwanted pregnancies and the disproportionate share of family responsibilities borne by women and girls are the most pressing issues affecting young Burundian women today—and make it harder for them to get involved in politics. "We need to revisit the notion of equal sharing of responsibilities between men and women," she says.

Marguerite Bukuru (centre), discussing with Marleine Kubwayo about the rights of Burundian women before and after the Beijing Conference in 1995. Photo: Odette Kwizera/UN Women Burundi
Marguerite Bukuru (centre), discussing with Marleine Kubwayo about the rights of Burundian women before and after the Beijing Conference in 1995. Photo: Odette Kwizera/UN Women Burundi

When and why did you become a women's rights activist?

I became a women's rights activist in 1984. After graduating from law school, I was appointed legal adviser to the Minister of Women's Affairs [Ms. Euphrasie Kandeke, the first woman Minister in Burundi]. I was tasked with identifying laws that discriminated against women and proposing amendments to them. Learning from the experiences of the women who came to the Minister to lament discrimination made me aware of women's issues. Minister Kandeke’s passionate commitment to the women’s cause also was a lasting inspiration.

I went on to become General Director of the Ministry of Women's Affairs, where I set up a legal service for women. Then I was Minister of Women's Affairs. From 1995 onwards, I worked in the field of human rights and transitional justice. So, you understand I had a career that led me to become aware of women's rights, to promote and defend them.

What has been the biggest change for women in Burundi since the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action?

If I look back at a time when women in Burundi were not allowed to have their children cared for with their health insurance card, a time when women were not entitled to housing and could not work without their husbands' permission, and more, I can see that progress has been made since Beijing.

But the biggest shift that the Beijing Conference brought about is the recognition that women are key partners to be taken into account and that we therefore need gender equality, but also women’s empowerment.

The Beijing Platform for Action inspired the introduction of a gender quota system in Burundi, setting a minimum of 30 per cent representation of women in government, parliament and public administration. Quotas are critically important, because we have not yet acquired the habit to put women in leadership positions. Therefore, you need institutional guarantees. And in Burundi, these institutional guarantees were enshrined in the constitution that was passed after the Arusha Accords of 2000. By the way, I must say that Burundian women have been a force for change in the Arusha negotiations, through their participation as observers.

Another key milestone was the UN Security Council resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which Burundi is strongly committed to. Women's organizations pushed the government and drafted the first National Action Plan for its implementation to ensure women’s meaningful participation in the resolution of armed conflicts.

At the economic level, we see a growing number of initiatives for the empowerment of women. Women are increasingly confident to participate in the well-being of their society as a whole.

What hasn't changed for women? And where do we go from here?

First of all, equality should go hand in hand with parity, and parity means 50/50. The 30 per cent quota should be mandatory for the states. But we are not there yet. It is a work in process.

Secondly, women are still considered as second-class citizen, especially in rural communities. We must change attitudes, and this requires awareness raising. The law must also fill long-standing legal gaps in the areas of inheritance and donations and matrimonial regimes. New legislation should be passed without further delays, because we have been discussing these issues for over 50 years now.

We need young people to stir things up and continue the fight.

What do you remember most about your participation in the Beijing conference? 

What I remember most vividly is the massive mobilization and commitment of women from all over the world. Everyone mobilized, even men, to make the issue of women's participation a priority. There was a huge number of participants, nearly 50,000 in total: 17,000 participants representing governments and 30,000 representing associations. I was very impressed by the Beijing conference. The atmosphere was euphoric.

What do you think we gained at the conference?

We have gained greater awareness around women’s rights in both women and men. I am mentioning women, because it is not always obvious that, when you defend women's rights, women themselves feel concerned!

Many women’s organizations have been created after the Conference. We also gained the introduction of the 30 per cent quota. Today, when you prepare electoral lists to be elected as deputies or senators, this quota is required: one out of three candidates on the list must be a woman. And when the list does not meet this quota, the list is rejected.

This is a very important thing, but I always say that we have to move forward and achieve parity!

It's a long fight, and we make progress one step at the time. Each generation does its part. We're counting on you, the youth, to complete the unfinished business of gender equality.

This is a special editorial series for UN Women’s Generation Equality campaign. The intergenerational series connects youth activists with veteran women’s rights activists and explores inter-generational perspectives on today’s issues.