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Burundi: traditional midwives assist women victims of violence

06-03-2003 Feature

"It was the middle of the night and I was asleep. Suddenly, I heard a noise. Our houses don't have any doors, so I got up to investigate.

That's when a bright light was shone in my face, blinding me and preventing me from seeing my attackers. But I know there were two of them. For several weeks afterwards, it hurt to urinate but I was too ashamed to go and see a doctor. "

The woman speaking is a widow who was raped in the northern part of the capital, Bujumbura. Her 14-year-old niece was also raped and is still traumatized. In the outskirts of the capital, where clashes between armed groups are common, many women are the victims of violence. The suffering this causes them often further aggravates their plight as poverty-stricken widows and displaced persons. Young girls and older women are generally more exposed to such crimes, which they have trouble speaking about.

The ICRC recently carried out a broad survey of existing medical facilities and conducted various interviews with members of the groups most concerned by the problem (women, young people and married men living in the affected neighbourhoods). It then set up a project designed to give the victims psychological and social support. Carried out with the help of local associations, who provided the contacts, and public medical facilities, the project will teach a group of 60 traditional midwives from the affected areas to come to the aid of these women. The training, which is to take place in March, will focus on various aspects of reproductive health. It will give the midwives greater authority within their communities and strengthen their role among women who would not otherwise – whether through shame, lack of resources or ignorance – receive the necessary care for the physical and psychological wounds they have suffered.

Mia Ntahobari, a Burundian psychologist on the ICRC team, plays a key role in the project. According to her, " the midwives will learn, during their training, how to spot women who have been the victims of violence and how to provide them with psychological support by actively listening to them; in turn, the victims will learn to trust and confide in the midwives. Having until now worked virtually underground, the midwives will also gain recognition and be able to refer the victims to specialized medical facilities.