Batwa children in Burundi realise their right to education

BurundiEconomic, social and cultural rightsNews

Kigarama, Burundi, 10 June 2013 – Thanks to Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF), 17 children belonging to the minority Batwa are attending school. These children were denied access to their village school not only because of the discrimination their community faces, but also because the school fees were too high. By ensuring the right to education, ASF’s intervention illustrates the importance of access to justice for the most marginalised people in Burundi.

Making up one of the three ethnic groups in the country alongside the Bahutu and Batutsi, the Batwa represent less than 1% of the total population. Traditionally excluded from holding land in a country dependent on a subsistence farming economy, the Batwa people are among the poorest in the country. In addition, they are subjected to multiple forms of discrimination, which have dramatic consequences on their ability to realise their rights, especially their economic and social rights.

“One day, a teacher said to my whole class: ‘it’s not worth the trouble to teach the children of Batwa thieves!’” says Charles Ntakiyica, a young Mutwa* from the Kigarama sous-colline.

Many young Batwa drop out of the education system, due both in part to the stigma, but also from hunger or lack of financial resources to pay formal and informal school fees. As a result, only one in four Batwa children under the age of 18 attend primary school, and only 1% of these pupils reach high school. In 2008, throughout the country, there were only 429 Batwa students attending high school out of a total of 289,000 students.

“Yes, there are schools and teachers. The problem is not availability of educational facilities but rather in terms of accessibility and acceptability” says Jean Berchmans Ndayishimiye, Head of the ASF sub-office in Gitega, 60km east of the capital Bujumbura. “So we met with administrative leaders, known as Hill Chiefs (chef de colline), to better understand why the schooling system was inaccessible for Batwa children.”

The Batwa Community in Gitega, BurundiA Hill Chief confirmed that the school fees charged at the time of registration were too high for Batwa families. For example, the school required 15,000 Burundian Francs for the purchase of desks, equivalent to 4% of the average annual per capita income. This financial constraint alone presents a huge obstacle to school attendance. In Burundi, Hill Chiefs may grant a certificate of indigence for anyone too poor to pay school fees. “The big flaw in the system”, says John Berchmans Ndayishimiye “is that it has no legal basis. It thus opens the door to subjectivity and injustice.” And indeed, the Hill chiefs interviewed did not agree to certify the need of Batwa children.

The Head of the ASF sub-office in Gitega appealed to the commune officials to consider the Batwa as indigent and to ensure that there was a legal standard for distributing a certificate to those who qualified. ASF also followed up, ensuring that the teachers knew that discrimination was against the law, and that their treatment of Batwa pupils was illegal.

Since then, 17 Batwa have benefited from these certificates exempting them from school fees. Thanks to these interventions, these children will be more likely to escape poverty, and most importantly can glimpse a future with hope.

*  The word “Batwa” is used to refer to several people or to a group . When speaking of one single person, the word used is “Mutwa”.

Read ASF’s report about the social and economic rights of the Batwa

Jean Berchmans Ndayishimiye, Head of the ASF sub-office in Gitega
Jean Berchmans Ndayishimiye, Head of the ASF sub-office in Gitega