Burundi is a country of about 8 million inhabitants, subdivided into three main ethnic groups: the Hutus (about 85%), Tutsis (about 13%) and Batwa (about 2%). This last component of Burundian society is a section of the indigenous peoples recognized as the oldest occupant of African tropical forests that cover almost all of Central Africa.
Burundi is a country whose recent history has been characterized by cycles of armed conflict between the two predominant ethnic groups, namely the TUTSI and the HUTU. The bipolarization of the Burundian national scene has been detrimental to the Batwa indigenous people, whose access to public services, education, health care, land and other fundamental freedoms remains well below national averages. The Batwa of Burundi suffer from marginalization, discrimination and extreme poverty, and are neglected in all areas of economic, social, political and cultural development.
Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that Burundi is one of the few countries in Central Africa where the Batwa cause is increasingly emerging with hope. Three (3) members in each of its two chambers currently represent this community in Parliament. This representation of the Batwa of Burundi in Parliament is unique in the sub-region where we find other Batwa (Rwanda DRC Congo, Congo and Uganda) and deserves support even though it presents some critical aspects. The most relevant is that this representation of the Batwa is not guaranteed in other sectors of national life, particularly the economy, public service, etc.; the law on the organization of the municipal administration also does not guarantee representation of the Batwa and yet it is at this level that more efforts should be made.
Burundi remains one of the eleven member countries of the United Nations General Assembly that abstained from adopting the UNDRIP, while 144 voted in favor, 11 abstained (including Burundi), 4 voted against (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United States of America). The Batwa and indigenous rights defenders have repeatedly and strongly recommended that the Burundian government formally support the UNDRIP, but the Burundian government has not responded to these requests.
Importance of the Lands for the Survival of Indigenous Peoples / Indigenous Communities faced with Lands Expropriation
Indigenous peoples face extreme poverty as they attach great importance to the land for their survival. The land is the embodiment and symbol of the cultural identity of indigenous people/ indigenous communities because the land protects their right to life and these indigenous peoples cannot fully enjoy their cultural rights without the protection of their ancestral lands. Added to this is the fact that once these indigenous peoples have been dispossessed of their lands, they are automatically or even always unable to preserve their culture and even their language.
Discrimination against Indigenous Peoples
With regard to discrimination, the indigenous Batwa of Burundi continue to be victims of all forms of discrimination, in the areas of education, employment, access to justice and health services.
In defiance of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, stigmatizing names are frequently used to refer to the Batwa, such as: Abayanda (those who steal), Abashenzi (those who practice witchcraft), Intarima (those who are unable to cultivate), Abaryantama (those who eat sheep: considered repugnant food) or Abaterampongo (those who eat antelope).
These entire different names mean that the Batwa face many poverty-related problems while they traditionally depend on their lands for their survival and on their sacred forests for food, clothing, health and other needs. It follows from the above that the earth is their life and without land, there is no life for these people.
Right to fair justice for the Batwa
The Batwa face many problems related to the denial of fair justice, the violation of their right to recognition, representation and participation in public life. They also undergo the violation of their rights to existence and their own development.
The Batwa of Burundi suffer exploitation and injustice from their non-Batwa neighbours. Many Burundian Batwa are unable to fully enjoy their right to equality before the law, to a fair and impartial public trial, to an effective remedy before the courts, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty and to be protected from interference or arbitrary attacks.
This violation of the right to fair justice is often seen in the fact that the Batwa are frequently victims of arbitrary arrests, physical attacks on their homes and property, expropriation of their land, racist and discriminatory attitudes by the rest of the population. The concrete case is that the Batwa often say they need the support of a non-Batwa to support their complaints to the authorities before a case is opened on their behalf. They also say that they have been threatened by those who violate their rights by referring to their lack of official status. Because they often do not have a National Identity Card, peoples claim that they can harm them and that none will listen to their complaints.
Right to Representation and Participation in Public Life
There are some positive examples of recognition and participation in public affairs that could serve as a source of inspiration. This is particularly the case in Burundi where the Batwa are currently represented by 6 members in Parliament as it is stipulated in the Constitution of the Republic of Burundi.
Despite this constitutional and legal recognition of Batwa participation in the management of state affairs in Burundi, there is no shortage of the most relevant criticism.
These include not guaranteeing the representation of the Batwa in other sectors of national life including the economy, public service, etc. not guaranteeing a quota for Batwa women in the 30% of political positions provided to women in general, which does not seem to take into account the double discrimination suffered by indigenous Batwa women, the fact that the law on the organization of the municipal administration does not guarantee the representation of the Batwa, etc.
We note that in Burundi, according to the Constitution, power is shared through ethnic quotas: in the parliament and the government, 60% for Hutus, 40% for Tutsis, and 0% for Batwa, in the police and military 50% for Hutus, 50% for Tutsis and 0% for Batwa.
The Right to Health Care and Medical Assistance
The health situation of Batwa is often very precarious and they receive very limited attention from the relevant health authorities. To a large extent, they greatly suffer from impoverishment and low literacy rates. Batwa access to primary health care is very limited and they receive no medical assistance for themselves or their children.
Similarly, the situation of the Burundian Batwa is the same with the one of Batwa from Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda because most of them live in straw huts, suffer from malnutrition, poor hygiene, respiratory infections and malaria, without any access to education or primary health care.
In addition, vulnerable groups (women and children under 5 years of age) in Burundi are entitled to free health care, while only holders of National Identity Cards and Birth certificates receive free medical treatment, and many Batwa do not have such identity kits.
In any case, the Senate of Burundi (Senate Report “Living Conditions of the Batwa of Burundi,” October 2008, p.13 ) had pointed out that the Batwa’s poor access to health services is due to economic factors (lack of financial resources, distance from health centers, malnutrition, poor hygiene and housing conditions), but also to psychosocial and sociocultural factors (lack of information, traditional obscurantist beliefs, particularly in witchcraft, fear of going to public places, such as health centers due to their lack of clothes and the fact that they must face contempt from others). The report also pointed out the lack of access to health care, particularly maternal and child health care, which has become more expensive, the lack of access to vaccination, etc.
The right to health care also includes the right to housing. However, this right to housing, a prerequisite for the right to health, is violated for the case of Batwa simply because they live in tiny, precarious and unhealthy huts made of shrubs, branches and banana leaves that are not resistant to bad weather (storms, fires) and do not protect them from rain, heat or cold, and families are completely unaware of the physical hygiene, clothing and household habits.
With this in mind and in order to improve the health care of the Batwa on the one hand and their shelter on the other hand, it is necessary to provide all Batwa with a free Medical Assistance Card, to accustom them to the use of modern medicine, especially in terms of vaccination of children, and to encourage them to build decent houses by, for example, granting free metal sheet to any Mutwa who has made the effort to erect at least the foundation and the walls of his/her house.
Right to Education and Employment
The right to education is also enshrined in article 53 (1) of the Constitution of Burundi, which states that: “Every citizen has the right to equal access to education, education and culture”.
For most Batwa peoples (in Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda), the common prejudice is that the Batwa are considered as mentally retarded, and the vast majority do not attend school. Even those who start the school do not go until the end simply because of the contempt and discrimination from their teachers and classmates and due to their poverty. Due to their poverty, Batwa parents are not able to pay for all the school supplies, such as uniforms, books, pens, without forgetting to mention the lack of food.
These problems, which prevent Batwa children from accessing school on one way or the other, are reported by the Senate of Burundi in its “living conditions of the Batwa of Burundi.” in the same terms as motioned above. But the reports only adds that these constraints mean that out of an estimated Batwa population of around 60,000 people, only a few dozen of their children attend higher education. There are a few dozen in secondary school and a few hundred in primary school.