#16Days: Lessons from Burundi: Connections between Gender, Conflict and the Spread of HIV/AIDS

Burundi blog post
Weapons being burnt during the official launch of the Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DDRR) process in Muramvya, Burundi. Photo credit: Martine Perret / United Nations.

Article Review: “Conflict and Gender: the Implications of the Burundian Conflict on HIV/AIDS Risks” by Hakan Seckinelgin, Joseph Bigirumwami, and Jill Morris, Conflict, Security & Development 11:01 (2011)

During conflicts, women are often subject to rape and other forms of sexual violence in an effort to demoralize the enemy. As a result, they are extremely vulnerable to contracting HIV/AIDS. Exploring the case of Burundi, the authors of this journal article argue that “pre-conflict gender relations and what happens to them in conflict and post-conflict periods create structural vulnerabilities for the possibility of the spread of HIV.”

The article begins by explaining how pre-existing gender relations have created structural vulnerabilities for the possibility of the spread of HIV. The structure of Burundian family is described as patrilineal and patrilocal thus women either “belong” to the father or to the husband. They often do not have a voice when it comes to any decision-making in family matters. On the other hand, men have a lot of power over women and can easily divorce their wives whenever they wish. If a husband kicks out his wife from their home for whatever reason, and her family does not accept her back, she is often forced to use her body to support herself thus further increasing the chances of contracting and/or spreading HIV. Moreover, since Burundian men travel often, women are left vulnerable to other men – often the relatives of the husband – while the husbands often have sexual relations with other women. These conditions have greatly contributed to the spread of HIV prior to the start of the conflict.

During the conflict, there were various factors that made women more vulnerable to contraction of HIV: the combatants took up bush wives, raped, or had multiple sexual partners and then come back home without getting tested; many people relocated often as they were trying to escape violence and many of them moved into rebel camps and internally displaced people camps where rape was quite common; the long duration of the conflict prevented any efforts at educating people about HIV; and lastly, soldiers and rebels were deployed across the country and both often raped women from the nearby communities. Thus the duration of the conflict, the extensive deployments of forces, and the mobility of people created by the conflict made women very vulnerable to the contraction and spread of HIV.

After the conflict, the ex-combatants were shunned by the communities and thus found it hard to find wives, which contributed to them having numerous sex partners. For married couples, it was not easy either. The wives could not demand that their husbands get tested thus became vulnerable to contracting the disease. Moreover, if they got pregnant, they were often shunned by their families. Without any other alternatives to make a living, these women were often forced to sell their bodies.

Female combatants were also excluded from DDR process. The commanding officers who provided the lists of people to go through the process did not their bush wives to claim married status, as it would negatively affect their social status in the post-conflict political context. Furthermore, female ex-combatants were neglected by the victorious ruling elites who led the rebellion, since many of them were responsible for the sexual violence.

The methodology used for this case study was not rigorous. The informal interviews with a focus on narratives and the undisclosed total number of interviewees make it hard to generalize the findings to all of the Burundi or beyond. The authors justified their approach by highlighting the sensitivity of the subject in general, and especially in the cultural context of Burundi. The findings are nevertheless very interesting and somewhat intuitive.

Indeed, gender inequality that is cemented in the cultural norms of Burundi, and many other countries in Africa and around the world, often translates into subjugation of women. As a result, it inhibits a woman’s ability to take control of her life and health; for example, she can’t ask her husband to get tested for HIV. Conflicts make the situation much worse for women. The increased movement of people raises the possibility of spreading HIV. Moreover, the absence of husbands during the conflict makes the wives more vulnerable to sexual violence from the rebels or soldiers. All of these conditions are very likely to be present in most countries that are experiencing conflict and/or gender inequality. Therefore, more case studies are needed to augment our current knowledge and understanding of pre-conflict gender relations and what happens to them in conflict and post-conflict periods to see how they contribute to the possibility of the spread of HIV. By fully understanding these effects, we will be better able to find effective solutions to stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS.


Margaryta Yakovenko is a recent graduate from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. She specializes in peacebuilding, conflict resolution, and security sector reform. She is currently interning with Women, Peace and Security Network – Canada.

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