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16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence

Honouring my mother and sister

Pascal Akimana

2008-11-28, Issue 408

http://pambazuka.org/en/category/16days/52308

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I was born 27 years ago in a little village called Gatumba, 15 km from Bujumbura in Burundi. I am a product of a teenage mother forced to marry the man who impregnated her and later had three more children with him. I grew up in a very violent home. Gender based and sexual violence was daily bread in my life. My father assaulted my mother every day in front of the entire family and no one said anything. Sometimes he would force my mother to have sex in front of me. This puzzled me because it didn’t seem normal, nor did my mother like it.

I was born 27 years ago in a little village called Gatumba, 15 km from Bujumbura in Burundi. I am a product of a teenage mother forced to marry the man who impregnated her and later had three more children with him. I grew up in a very violent home. Gender based and sexual violence was daily bread in my life. My father assaulted my mother every day in front of the entire family and no one said anything. Sometimes he would force my mother to have sex in front of me. This puzzled me because it didn’t seem normal, nor did my mother like it.

As a child, I asked myself why my father fought with my mother every day, but could not see the answer. I found out after that the main cause of the fights was my father cheating on my mother. Later, I realised that women in the entire village experienced gender based and sexual violence. To my father, beating and assaulting my lively mother was his way of proving his manhood.

He used to say that he is the man, and all things must be directed to him to have the final say. He used to beat my mother almost to death. When she talked to her family and elder women, they said that is how you build the house! You must stay; he will change.

Sometimes she would wake up with a swollen face and fear telling the truth, so she said that she fell at night because it was dark. However, it was always because of the beatings. He would kick her against the wall or beat her with sharp objects. He would insult her in front of us, telling her that she’s less than a woman, she’s nothing, stupid, ugly, she doesn’t know how to cook, etc.

When he started beating my mother he would turn to my sisters, and me, beating us, chasing us away, saying that we were ugly like my mother, we were stupid, we were nothing. I grew up with a lot of anger and hurt towards my father and until today, I am still finding ways of dealing with it and forgiving him.

In the end, my father finally chased my mother away naked. I remember that night: he took all my mother’s clothes and he burnt them, saying that he’s the one who bought them. According to Burundian culture, if a women separates from her husband she must not take the children with her, so she was forced to leave me and my sisters behind.

Two hours after my mother left that night, my father brought another woman, who then

became my stepmother. Some people have the good fortune to have a good and kind stepmother, but it was not the case with me. This stepmother came with full information about my mother and father; she started harassing and abusing me a lot.

Many times, she would report me to my father and when he came, I would be punished and tortured – disciplined, as he used to call it. However, my father disciplined me in a manner as if he was disciplining a criminal and not his own child. This continued for a long time. I remember, my father learned that I had gone to visit my mother. He beat me as if I had committed a crime or unforgivable sin.

He did this to cut the ties between my mother and us.

Not long after, the community started dividing themselves in two, some calling themselves Tutsis others Hutus, and killing one another. In 1993, the democratically elected Burundian president was killed, and the whole country was in havoc, with many people fleeing to different countries. I left Burundi at the age of 12. My father and my stepmother with two other kids took a different direction, so my sister and I joined a crowd of people running to DRC.

Just as we entered DRC, Congolese soldiers stopped us, raping my sister in front me. I was screaming and shouting but could not find or get any help; instead they beat me seriously. Once they finished, they left and UNHCR officials took my sister to hospital.

Because I have experienced all this violence - abuse in my family, community and the whole country - I decided to advocate for women’s rights, because whenever I hear or see an abused woman, I see and remember my mother and what we went through.

Before I started this work, I was a dangerous young boy, maybe because of the violence I grew up with. I used to be very angry. Many times, I would fight and this led me to join a bad group of people who abused women and girls. Later I realised I did not want this, because whenever I reflected on my mother’s situation, I could see that what my father did to her is what I was doing to girls. I became conscious and started to think how I could change, though it was very difficult.

I still find it difficult to date girls. Many girls expect me to be violent or behave in a violent manner, and when I behave the way I want, they push me back in the gender box. Some drop me, saying that I’m a confused young man, or that maybe I was supposed to be a gay so I don’t know what I want.

My father and I still have many disagreements. When I try to raise these issues he denies them, but I have taken the decision to confront him with the whole truth and remind him of all the bad things he has done to me.

I am writing this down, as it is a healing method for me. More importantly, I want to share my story with others, especially those who are working with displaced people: refugees or women and children who are in abusive relationships. This story of mine can be an eye opener to other people and help them to take necessary measures.

Men can change and men are actually changing. Personally, I have changed and I know

those who have changed. The shocked expression I see and stories I hear from men when I conduct training shows that they don’t know about women’s violence, and later they recognise that their own sisters, mothers, daughters are going through abuse and violence.

When you involve men in solutions to sexual and gender based violence, men will use their power in a positive way by working together with women. I have seen women go back home excited after participating in training, sharing the information that they gained, and the violence started. When we train men, those men leave with a pledge of changing themselves and a promise to communicate better with their partners. If we engage more men, together of course with women, we shall get solutions. I have dedicated my life to this work based on my principle of honouring my mother’s experience, my sister’s and myself, and as a man I will use my voice to bring change.

* Pascal Akimina is a Senior Transformation Agent with EngenderHealth. This story is part of the I Stories series produced by the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence

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