The Widow Peacemaker

Jaqueline Nyandwi is a returned refugee, a mother, and a widow. She lost her husband during violence in Burundi and fled to the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. As she cooks a stew for her children from bean-leaves she recounts the misery and struggle of her life but also her hope that her children would find a way out of the cycle of poverty and violence. She asks that as her country discusses justice, they would remember her and her children[1].

After almost ten years of a tenuous but consistent peace, Burundi may again be standing on the brink of conflict and violence. Like its more famous neighbor, Rwanda, Burundi has been wracked by divisions and violence drawn along the “ethnic” lines of Hutu and Tutsi—a distinction largely imagined and instrumentalized by those seeking to manipulate power from 1993 to 2005. Old ambitions and wounds persist, and as elections loom in 2015, tensions run high between the ruling party and the opposition, pushing the country again toward armed violence. 

In the midst of these perilous struggles for power stand so many women, like Jaqueline, whose husband has died, whose many children face an uncertain future, whose voice is seldom heard in her family or church, whose body is at the mercy of men and an unequal cultural system, and whose life is dependent on a quickly shrinking piece of arable land. Today poverty, violence, and disease claim the lives of many men, leaving their wives and children behind. 

But though this loss is likely the major factor determining her life and choices now, her story starts before this. It starts with her entry into matrimony, celebrated with gifts of cows and repeated wishes for children, especially sons. The stage is set for a relationship where—despite the promise of free family planning services through the Burundian government—she has little power over her own reproductive choices, where she will not be called woman—“mama”—until she gives birth to her first child, and where her worth is determined by her fruitfulness in bearing sons. Her husband and her church likely forbid her from using any modern contraceptive methods,[2] whether to prevent or space pregnancy. Large families are touted as a source of pride and a “blessing” to the community; a woman in Burundi bears on average about six children during her lifetime.[3] Frequent maternity leave is expected from the typical Burundian woman, making it difficult to gain the experience necessary to have a career outside of the home, or to progress to any professional positions of leadership. 

This lack of voice and choice extends beyond her reproductive life to her bodily integrity. Rape in marriage and domestic violence are largely accepted by Burundian society as, at best, inevitable, or at worst an appropriate form of “discipline.” The “virtues” of the submissive woman who accepts her husband’s guidance and desires are often praised from the church pulpit—the primary community gathering-point and authority. Indeed, Burundi, as a former Belgian colony, is 85 percent Christian[4], and churches, both Catholic and Protestant, are one of the most respected institutions in the country. 

When her husband dies, the widow enters a precarious space where her livelihood and that of her children are acutely at risk. Ninety-three percent[5] of the population in Burundi live on subsistence agriculture and as the population grows in this tiny heart-shaped country, the land accorded to each family gets smaller and smaller. Pressure on land has been cited as one of the major contributing factors to continued conflict. [6] 

Although a widow legally has full rights to her late husband’s property, customarily, she is “completely dependent on the goodwill of [her] family-in-law.”[7] This goodwill, in turn, is dependent on whether or not she has sons and is weighed against the economic needs and ambitions of the family-in-law. She is often driven out or it is suggested that she marry one of her deceased husband’s brothers.[8] This practice, common in many parts of East Africa, represented protection for a widow in a traditional patriarchal society and the relationship was not necessarily expected to be physically intimate. However, as land scarcity and poverty have grown, the practice is often abused and widows commonly experience increased violence, rape, and are deprived of their access to land. If she loses the favor of her in-laws, the widow and her children could quickly become one of the families trolling the streets of the capital, Bujumbura, for money from strangers and benefactors, regardless of her level of education or training. Even if she manages to negotiate her rights in her family-in-law, the future of her children, and especially her daughters, remains uncertain. She must advocate for their support to access education and healthcare—the key ingredients for future choice and opportunity.

In the face of the marginalization of the Burundian widow, churches heed the oft-repeated call of the Old Testament to care for her by negotiating with the family-in-law and by providing her with material assistance. These are admirable efforts, but they stop short of reaching into the very system that leaves her at the mercy of her male relatives and deprives her of choice and of voice. When Jesus talks to a vulnerable, marginalized woman in John 4, he does not give her money nor does he offer to speak with her community to convince them to treat her better, instead he reveals his identity to her and thus entrusts her with the vital task of bringing his message to her people, giving her a voice and a purpose. Perhaps Burundian churches have something to learn from this example. By acknowledging her dignity and supporting her God-given gifts, the church may serve a vital role in giving these women agency and power within their community. 

As highly respected institutions, churches are also uniquely positioned to change the local culture and political environment to support women as equals before God, with equal value in the social and economic systems of their communities. Many development agencies and community-based organizations design programs around micro-credits for small-scale businesses or sensitization campaigns on domestic abuse. Again, these are worthwhile efforts, but they do not address the fundamental question of justice—enforced land rights and protection from gender-based violence, real access to family planning, quality education, and healthcare. There is a wealth of strength and ingenuity to draw from among Burundian churches if the rhetoric of assistance for the victim were replaced by a call for justice. 

As Burundi seems to teeter on the precipice of renewed violence, it may appear that a woman like Jaqueline must again bide her time. But, perhaps she is not simply an unfortunate casualty to poverty, war, and hardship. Instead, in line with Paul’s insight in 1 Corinthians that God chooses “the foolish things of the world to shame the wise,” perhaps she has a vital part to play in bringing about lasting peace. If accorded agency, perhaps she represents a key answer to the heart of Burundi’s challenges. Given access to land and other economic resources, perhaps she is more likely than male heads of family to steward this well and to prioritize education and healthcare[9]. Her children may grow up to be educated and healthy, to be equipped to build Burundi out of poverty and toward lasting peace. Given access to realizable family planning choices, she can halt the country’s maddening population growth, and in turn the pressure on the land. Jaqueline may be the key Burundian peacemaker and the churches of Burundi are well positioned to be her advocate in fulfilling this calling. Let us remember her. 

[1] “La CVR divise les rapatries et les deplaces,” Iwacu, May 2, 2014. 
[2] Though currently more than 70 percent of clinics in Burundi offer free access to modern birth control methods, only about 21 percent of households claimed to be using any modern method according to the Burundian government report on reproductive health made public in February 2013. Burundian Ministry of Health, National program on reproductive health: strategic revised reproductive health plan 2013-2015, February 2013.
[3] ibid., p. 11. 
[4] CIA World Factbook.
[5] ibid.
[6] International Crisis Group, Les Terres de la discorde (I): la reforme fonciere au Burundi, February 12, 2014. 
[7] Pekagie Gahungu and Gertrude Kaziviyo, "The Issue of Inheritance for Women in Burundi," FRIDE, March 2011. 
[8] ibid.
[9] The World Bank, 2012 World Development Report: Gender Equality and Development.

This posting is part of a collection addressing the nexus of women, religion, and the family. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Berkley Center or WFDD. The goal of the entire collection is to generate discussion around these important topics.

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