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CRSV: Burundian Civil War

This case note documents the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. It contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.

Background of the Conflict

The Burundian Civil War took place from 1993 to 2005, having emerged as the result of historical ethnic divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi populations, exacerbated by colonial policies of divide and rule. Burundi gained independence in 1962 after breaking from a colonial federation with Rwanda, having previously been under the rule of Germany and Belgium, both of which re-entrenched existing power structures that perpetuated the dominance of the Tutsi minority over the Hutu majority.

For nearly three decades, Tutsi military regimes held power, beginning with Michel Micombero who led a coup that replaced the monarchy with a presidential republic (TimesMachine, 1983). In 1993, the first multi-party national elections were conducted. In 1972, the Hutu militants carried out systematic attacks on ethnic Tutsi, intending to annihilate the entire group. The military responded with brutal crackdowns and reprisals. In June and July 1993, the first fair and free parliamentary and presidential elections were held. With this, Melchior Ndadaye became the first democratically elected Hutu President (Reyntjens 2006). He was assassinated later that year, and renewed violence began, continuing after his successor Cyprien Ntaryamira died in a plane crash in 1994 (UNOCHA, 2004).

In 2006, a major breakthrough emerged through a ceasefire agreement between the Government and the Front National de Libération (FNL), the last remaining rebel group in the country (UNHCR 2007). finally ending 13 years of civil war. During this time, it was known that between 250,000 and 300,000 civilians were killed, and around 204,000 Burundians were refugees or internally displaced (Human Rights Watch, 2003).

Prevalence of Sexual violence

Both opportunistic and systemic sexual violence prevailed during the Burundian civil war (Bastick, Grimm, and Kunz 2007). The FNL rebels were infrequent perpetrators as they were governed by a strict set of religious rules that prohibited rape and punished the crime with the death penalty (Bastick, Grimm, and Kunz 2007; Human Rights Watch, 2003). Most instances of sexual violence took place in rebel-stronghold areas and in border region, and women were often targeted while working in the fields, in the course of military attacks, at border checkpoints, while on the move owing to displacement, and in refugee camps (Bastick, Grimm, and Kunz 2007; Human Rights Watch, 2004).

Rape and sexual violence were frequently used to target women and children, while a significant number of men also reported facing rape (Amnesty International 2004; Human Rights Watch 2003). Women were forced into prostitution by the conflict, and children and youth were recruited either as child soldiers, or for sexual exploitation and trafficking (US Department of State, 2005). On several occasions, displaced women and girls faced rape at the hands of both civilians and combatants (Nduna and Goodyear 1997). Most perpetrators were rebels or security sector agents – such as police officers and soldiers.

The International Rescue Committee reported that 26% of the 3803 refugee women (12 to 49 years of age) in Kanembwa Camp, Tanzania, had faced sexual violence in the refugee camps (Nduna and Goodyear 1997). In 2004, Medicins Sans Frontiers reported receiving around 125 survivors of rape each month at its centre for survivors in Bujumbura, and noted that there were 4062 cases of sexual violence in Burundi between 2003 and 2006 (Medecins Sans Frontiers 2009). The US Department of State Report on Trafficking noted that as many as 3,200 children were used as sex slaves and combatants, among other things (US Department of State 2005).

Basis of the use of Sexual Violence

While in the early stages, rebels and military personnel were the primary perpetrators, with time, it became apparent that most attacks were committed by members of the survivors' extended families, teachers, and household domestic staff, reflecting a tendency for the breakdown in the security sector and social norms to enable such violence (Zicherman 2007).

The destruction of social cohesion culminated in sexual violence targeting women (Dijkman, Bijleveld, and Verwimp 2014). Opportunistic sexual violence prevailed as well, as poverty caused by the war made several loot property and rape women while doing so (Dijkman, Bijleveld, and Verwimp 2014).


  1. Amnesty International (February 2004) Burundi: Rape – the Hidden Human Rights Abuse, 1-2.

  2. Bastick, M., Grimm, K., & Kunz, R. (2007). Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Global Overiew and Implications for the Security Sector Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.

  3. Dijkman, E. J., Bijleveld, C., and Verwimp, P. (2014). Sexual Violence in Burundi: Victims, Perpetrators, and the Role of Conflict. HiCN Working Paper 172.

  4. Human Rights Watch (December 2003), 43; Human Rights Watch (June 2004) Burundi: Suffering in Silence: Civilians in Continuing Combat in Bujumbura Rural, Briefing Paper, 6-7.

  5. Human Rights Watch (June 2004), 7; “Burundi: Government under Pressure to Curb Continued Rights Violations”, IRIN News, 27 November 2006:

  6. Human Rights Watch (October 2000) Seeking Protection: Addressing Sexual and Domestic Violence in Tanzania’s Refugee Camps, chapter V.

  7. IRIN “Our Bodies – Their Battle Ground: Gender-based Violence in Conflict Zones”, Web Special, September 2004,

  8. Medecins Sans Frontiers (2009). Shattered Lives

  9. Nduna, S. and Goodyear, L. (1997) Pain too deep for tears: Assessing the prevalence of sexual gender violence among Burundian refugees in Tanzania, International Rescue Committee:

  10. Report of the International Conference on Networking against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Eastern Africa (2000) quoted in Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children (2002) Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict: Burundi, 12:

  11. Reyntjens, Filip (January 2006). "Briefing: Burundi: A Peaceful Transition after a Decade of War?". African Affairs. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 105 (418): 117–135.

  12. TimesMachine (1983). "Michel Micombero, 43, Dies; Former President of Burundi"

  13. U.S. Department of State (2005) Trafficking in Persons Report June 2005, 75.

  14. UNHCR (2007) Global Appeal 2007: Burundi:

  15. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (November 2003) Burundi 2004, Consolidated Appeals Process, New York and Geneva, 6.

  16. Zicherman, Nona (2007). Addressing sexual violence in post-conflict Burundi. Forced Migration Review.

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