Nothing is as unravelling as a story heard for the second time under different circumstances. In Burundi, while in a junior high Kirundi Class, I learnt about a hidden and isolated place where unmarried pregnant girls were left to die. Some were even stoned to death. It was a tradition that even my teacher found unjust and very oppressive. December 2016 on a vacation in Gisenyi, Rwanda with my family, the guide took us to the same isolated Island at Lake Kivu called “Akarwa K’abakobwa.” There I was, standing in a place where thousands of pregnant girls were stoned to death or left alone to die. I was terrified.
Lately, I have been very angry. The future of the average African girl is collectively not cared about. Our African leaders hide behind classed women to brag about their gender equality work. The 1% who broke the glass ceiling and were granted a seat at the table with patriarchs have been consistently used to show how empowered women are. The patriarchy attempts to fool us by conflating economic empowerment and gender equity. We used to think any woman in a position of power represents us – our liberation, our freedom. We were wrong and we still are today. Classed African women will never represent the freedom of the African woman collectively. Our bubble of comfort filled with privileges has only helped patriarchy portray us as their gender equality achievement. But even then through actions, patriarchs never fails to prove to us that they don’t care about women. The sooner we come to terms with it, the quicker we can dismantle patriarchy.
Two weeks ago, a law was passed in Burundi denying every pregnant girl or teen mother to go back to school despite the fact that the Minister of Education is a woman. Burundi is a country with so little basic human rights. The current government kills and destroys with no shame at all. In hindsight, even hoping that the government would do better by women in regards to this law was expecting a lot.
Throughout our history, Burundian culture has truly never protected women, let alone young girls. Allow me to take you to pre-colonial Burundi. “Umwami w’i Burundi, the King was the ultimate supreme. A man who used women anyhow, for anything at any time. Every woman belonged to him. Young girls were raised to serve men. At 16 years old, they had to be married. Some were married off earlier at 14 years old; even 12. One of my grandmothers was married at 13. I remember she told me that she went into her periods 3 years later. And that whole time, she was rejected by her husband who thought she was barren. Sex education was given by aunties. A young girl ready to get married would go to her aunt’s place to learn everything about marriage. You had to be a virgin to get married and virginity for them was to be able to bleed during the first intercourse with your husband. On some occasions, more than one man (husband and his brothers) penetrated the woman by force until she bled. Her bleeding was proof of virginity. Of course, like any other patriarchal society, women were private property to be transferred from one owner (father) to the other (husband).
Decades later, not so much has changed. Teen pregnancies have doubled and the Burundian society like always reacts with judgment, condemnation and oppression. We may not exist in a time where pregnant girls are stoned or left to die on an isolated island; but women are still slut-shamed and rejected. And now in Burundi, they are not allowed to go back to school. Instead of financing institutions that will advance sex education and provide free birth control, our African leaders punish the girls for pregnancy. Instead of abolishing the culture of silence and conditioned belief that a woman’s worth is tied to their sex life, they make it hard for young girls to even discuss sex with their parents while pregnant girls are socially shunned. The stigma, shame, discomfort are the main reasons many women have chosen to get married instead of being single mothers. The new law passed in Burundi will stop many young girls from going back to school after giving birth. The new law will sustain the education gap between men and women in Burundi. There was a time when only boys were attending school. It is still the case today in some villages. Women are seen as wives who don’t need an education.
I am haunted by the future; our liberation. I had to look outside of my privileged social class to see how bad it was. The average African girl is oppressed in ways classed African women can never know. Patriarchy has used us to show we are walking towards a fair world but we are not. No one is free if all of us are not. It is our responsibility to use our class privileges to advance the feminist agenda. It is not about taking a seat at the table and forgetting the women whose names we might not know but who also deserve the little freedom we have. We must never stop nagging, screaming. We must never be silent, nor allow to be silenced. We must demand action and do it without ceasing. We must come together and realize our liberation is entirely collective from the north to the south. We must ask ourselves how we can set all of us free. We truly have nothing to lose but our chains.
In the meantime, may our feminist ancestors grant us courage to continue even when new oppressive laws are adopted every day.
Feature Photo used with permission by Marie Ainomugisha