Elderly Poverty in Burundi
Burundi, located in Central Africa, is one of the least developed countries in the world. According to the U.S. Department of State, more than 85% of its population lives in poverty, with 80-90% of people living in rural areas where agriculture is the main source of livelihood.

Although there is limited data on elderly poverty in Burundi, the country’s life expectancy in 2020 was 62, significantly lower than the 2020 global average of 72. Yet, in 2019, the age dependency ratio — the ratio of unemployed elderly dependents to working-age people — in Burundi was 95.2%, a value significantly higher than the 85.1% global average. The country’s high dependency ratio reflects the inordinate financial stress that its working population, and the economy as a whole, face in supporting the elderly. Factors compounding this stress include a high level of food insecurity; a steadily rising population; poor access to health, education and clean water; and susceptibility to climate-related devastation.  

The Concerns of Burundi’s Elderly

As early as 1999, Cécilie Siboniyo, an 80-year-old woman living in the Buraniro Refugee camp, expressed concern that children were becoming less well-educated and losing their sense of community responsibility. She noted that increasing distractions and a growing lack of respect for elders were making it difficult to teach social values. She was hopeful that directing media attention to this problem would help pave the way for a brighter future.

Still, Abtwahi Al Hajj, a 77-year-old man living in Ngozi, Burundi, feared for the future. He worried that young people no longer felt a duty to care for the elderly.

Such concerns are valid. A comparative analysis of ageism in Belgium and Burundi found that, while both Burundian and Belgian adults living in Belgium valued the elderly, Burundians living in their own country saw the elderly as poor and weak. The study correlated this perception to a lack of social and economic resources and a “lack of government spending on older people (pension and health care systems)” in less developed countries like Burundi.

Need for Action

Land shortages, changing weather patterns and overpopulation in Burundi are making survival increasingly difficult for a population that relies upon agriculture for food and income. With more than 60% of the population undernourished, malnutrition is one of the leading causes of death in the country.

To ensure progress and a better life for Burundi’s elderly, social and economic resources must go toward helping the many who live in poverty. According to a World Bank report, targeting pensions to support elderly people who are responsible for households and children would also have a significant impact on reducing poverty in Burundi overall.

Positive Impact of Organizations in Burundi

Despite the severity of the situation, numerous organizations have partnered with the Burundi government to provide help for the elderly who face poverty and food insecurity.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has partnered with the United Nations to support the Burundi government in providing immediate and long-term assistance for the elderly and vulnerable. In 2022, WFP and its donors assisted 995,651 Burundians in need, an act of service that the organization has committed itself to continue.

The World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have also helped negotiate policies to make the country’s most valuable crop, coffee, more lucrative. Now, European and U.S. companies purchase coffee directly from Burundian producers. USAID is also working to help improve the country’s agricultural resource base. In addition to providing better seed varieties, it is helping to advance crop and livestock production, provide guidance for soil preservation and ensure that the most vulnerable have access to a healthy, diversified diet.

Additionally, USAID is working to build social welfare in Burundi, emphasizing food security, democracy, economic growth and health care. It has strengthened the health system by ensuring access to quality maternal and child care, medications and other basic necessities.

Finally, the African Union has developed the Maputo Protocol to promote human rights and the rights of women, with specific provisions for protecting women who are elderly. In late 2022, the African Union Commission and Gender, Peace and Security Programme concluded a joint mission to Burundi to advance the implementation of the Maputo Protocol, which the Burundi government signed in 2003. The hope is that the country will fully adopt and enforce the protocol by July 2023.

A Brighter Future

Although elderly poverty remains a growing problem in Burundi, the Burundi government and numerous international organizations are working to ensure a better future for the country’s elderly and population at large. Such a clear commitment to this goal is sure to inspire hope and positive change.

Chidinma Nwoha
Photo: Flickr

FGM Sierra Leon
Female Genital Mutilation in Sierra Leone has recently become a topic of conversation both nationally and internationally since it is one of the 28 African countries that still partake in the practice. The World Health Organization officially described female genital mutilation (FGM) as “procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” The procedure usually involves some kind of cutting or removing of the genital flesh of a female as part of the initiation into womanhood. Several organizations are spreading awareness of the devastating results of this barbaric procedure and working to end this practice once and for all.

Why FGM Occurs?

The reasons for the procedure of FGM depend on the culture, they but usually fall into four categories: psychosexual, as a way to control female sexuality and maintain virginity; sociological and cultural, the practice is viewed as a vital tradition to the cultural heritage; hygiene and aesthetics, as some communities view the external female genitalia as unappealing and unclean; and finally, socio-economic factors since FGM is often a pre-requisite for marriage and the right to inherit.

The procedure is often performed with penknives, razors or even cut glass, and can result in severe pain, bleeding, cysts, infections, complications in childbirth, infertility and in extreme cases, death. The initiation can also often result in psychological issues from the trauma and pain of the event as well as from the inability to experience sexual pleasure thereafter. An estimated 200 million women and girls have undergone the procedure worldwide, with a staggering 90 percent in Sierra Leone.

Challenges in Stopping the Practice

The practice is ingrained into the culture and holds high social significance. In fact, 69 percent of women and 46 percent of men aged 15-49 believe in the continuation of the practice. FGM has been viewed as an initiation into womanhood and has been an important cultural touchstone for the people of Sierra Leone. This makes it difficult to stop the practice, as many see it as socially embarrassing and being unworthy of marriage if they have not received the initiation.

Another challenge faced to end FGM is that many Soweis, who usually perform the initiation, refuse to end the practice as they see it as a threat to the traditions of the Bondo society. They also receive large amounts of money for the initiations and do not want to lose this source of income.

Organizations Working to End FGM

The Amazonian Initiative Movement (AIM) is a non-governmental organization aiming to end the procedure. It was founded in 2002 by Rugiatu Turay, a victim of FGM herself, and many other women while living in a refugee camp in Guinea during the Sierra Leon’s civil war. AIM activists visit villages and speak with the women who perform this procedure and try to convince them to give it up. They have convinced 700 practitioners from 111 villages to stop practicing FGM.

AIM believes that one of the most efficient ways to begin the ending of practice is to teach women how to read and write since most of the procedures are performed by illiterate elder women. Providing them with the knowledge to read and write will open opportunities for them to pursue alternate means of income and reduce their interest in performing FGM.

Another non-governmental organization, AMNet, is fighting against the old fashioned initiation rite. AMNet works with Soweis, the senior female community members, to change the social stigmas surrounding women in regards to FGM in local communities. The group has high profile supporters like Sia Koroma, the first lady of Sierra Leone, which helps bring attention to their cause.

Legislation is Needed

Non-governmental organizations are working hard to provide knowledge on the issues surrounding FGM, but formal legislation against the practice will further help end the societal pressures and stigmas that encourage the continuance of the initiation rite. Several countries have banned the practice, including more than 20 countries in Africa and most Western European countries. Ending the practice has also become a part of the United Nations 2030 sustainable development agenda.

Female Genital Mutilation in Sierra Leone is not yet illegal, though progress is being made to eradicate the procedure. The country recently ratified the African Unions 2003 Maputo Protocol on Women’s Rights, stating in Article Five of the protocol that female genital mutilation should be prohibited by the government in order to finally end the procedure.

Female Genital Mutilation in Sierra Leone has been a huge cultural touchstone for many communities. The procedure, though, is highly dangerous for females in many areas of their mental and physical health. Many of the activists fighting to end the procedure recognize that immediate ending of the practice will not work, but could lead to underground practices, as the social and cultural significance of the initiation is far too important to many communities. Instead, they hope to use education to spread awareness about the harms of the practice, hopefully, changing opinions over time with respect to cultural significance.

Mary Spindler
Photo: Flickr