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A former diplomat's wife fights for refugee women's rights

A former diplomat's wife fights for refugee women's rights

"Life in the camp is empty. People are frustrated and many take it out on women."
15 October 2001
Burundian refugee Caritas Sebushahu plays with her two-month old daughter during a recent visit to Geneva, where the activist spoke to the yearly meeting of the UNHCR Executive Committee about the plight of refugee women.

GENEVA (UNHCR) - Once the wife of a Burundian diplomat in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Caritas Sebushahu still finds it hard to believe that she and her family are now refugees living in a tiny one-room, mud-walled house in the sprawling Kanembwa refugee camp in western Tanzania.

"I never thought that I would be a refugee. Burundians have been refugees for a long time and I knew some of them. I knew life was hard for them but I never imagined it would be like this," she laments, nursing her two-month-old baby. "Life in the camp is empty. People are frustrated and many take it out on women."

The mother of five works with the U.N. Refugee Agency on a project to deal with violence against refugee women, mostly domestic and sexual abuse. Through her work in the camp of nearly 20,000 refugees, Sebushahu often listens to the accounts of battered women, advising them whenever she can or helping them to get professional counselling.

"The women confide in me. They tell me how they are beaten at home. Some talk about sexual abuse," she said, "or of the nights spent outside their homes because they have been sent away by their husbands."

Sebushahu said the women endured indescribable abuses as they fled from Burundi to Tanzania. Many were raped. Some families were duped into sending their daughters to people claiming they could arrange food or shelter for them, only to have them disappear forever. Other women returned to the camps after days or weeks of sexual captivity.

"Many of the refugees do not openly talk about these experiences," Sebushahu said during a recent interview in Geneva, where she spoke about the plight of refugee women to the annual meeting of the UNHCR Executive Committee. "And even when they do so in confidence, they decline to name the perpetrators."

Sebushahu is also one of three refugees representing camp women at the Arusha Peace Process mediated by the former South African President Nelson Mandela. Eight years of civil war in Burundi has led to the flight of 350,000 refugees and the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands of other people.

"Some refugees seemed happy [about the talks] because they saw a chance for peace and an end to refugee life," she said. "But some of us realised that there were going to be discussions and that agreements would be reached, but that no one was going to present the views of those of us outside Burundi."

Under pressure from the women, an agreement was reached allowing the refugees to participate as observers in the talks.

Before becoming involved in the effort to bring peace to ethnically torn Burundi, Sebushahu attended the Beijing+5 World Conference on Women in New York, where she had the opportunity to speak with the delegates about sexual violence against refugee women.

Sebushahu has attended three peace talk meetings in Arusha, talks that got off to a difficult start. "People were very distrustful of one another, even the women were divided. We could not sit together."

But the women eventually came to realise that they shared common concerns. They agreed, for instance, that Burundi's inheritance laws must be changed to allow women to inherit land. They also called on the government to appoint women to 30 per cent of the civil service positions. The refugee women also want the peace agreement to guarantee that refugees, particularly women, will participate in coordinating the expected repatriation process.

"We do not want a replay of the atrocities suffered by women on their way to Tanzania," Sebushahu said.

She admitted that some refugees in the camp remain skeptical about the prospects for peace in Burundi, but that others are pinning their hopes on a positive outcome of the peace talks. "They hope and pray for peace every day. They cannot bear the thought of staying in the camps much longer. "

When asked about her own hopes for peace in her homeland and her dreams for her daughters, who have spent much of their childhood in the refugee camp, Sebushahu became silent. After a long while, her chin sank slowly into her chest and tears rolled down her face as she began to cry.

By Millicent Mutuli
UNHCR Geneva