The low social status of Burundi's women leaves them vulnerable to sexual violence, while cultural taboos prevent them from seeking help. This is compounding their risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, according to local non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
In its annual report, Ligue ITEKA, a local human rights group, found that despite the end of 13 years of war, when ethnic and sexual violence were common, and a return to democracy in 2005, sexual violence continued to rise, with 1,930 cases reported in 2006, compared with 983 in 2003.
"Sexual intercourse being the most common mode of HIV transmission, it goes without saying that rape, which in most cases is accompanied by physical trauma, drastically increases the risks of infection," Dr Jean Rirangira, technical manager at the National Council for HIV/AIDS control, CNLS, told IRIN/PlusNews.
The government and NGOs have developed several initiatives to help women and girls affected by sexual violence, but "only half the victims come for treatment", Rirangira said.
Shamed into silence
"The community almost blames the crime on the victim rather than the criminal; this makes them hold back," said Aline Ndayikeza, programme officer at Nturengaho 'STOP', a centre where women are offered post-exposure prophylactics (PEP) and trauma counselling after being sexually assaulted. "Many of those who come here tell us they are ashamed of telling their family for fear of their reaction."
Aline Iradukunda was 17 when she was accosted and raped on her way from church one Sunday evening. Although she was taken to hospital when her friends found her shortly afterwards, she did not receive PEP and a few months later found out she had contracted HIV.
"I felt so low ... as an orphan taking care of my young brother, with no possibility of continuing studies, life had no more a meaning," she told IRIN/PlusNews. Iradukunda's aunt, with whom she was living at the time, did not bother to send her back to school after the rape. She now does petty trading through Nturengaho.
Like many rape survivors in Burundi, she did not report her attack to the police, so her attacker has never been brought to justice.
According to Nturengaho's Ndayikeza, local traditions also condoned harmful sexual practices: rural women, especially, were subjected to sexual advances from their male in-laws, and refusing to have sex with a father-in-law could result in a woman being denied land or cattle that she ordinarily would be entitled to. Widow inheritance by brothers-in-law was also common.
"This was perhaps tolerated in a community with no HIV threat, but it is very dangerous now; many families have been completely decimated because of this practice," she commented.
Young girls and even infants were also at risk. An ITEKA survey in 2004 found that of the 2,173 people interviewed, 40 percent believed that "sexual violence with teenagers [children, especially infants, protects against HIV/AIDS, while 34.8 percent believe that teens are not infected."
The government and groups like ITEKA are providing legal aid to survivors of sexual violence but, according to Scholastique Ntirampemba of the ministry of national solidarity, human rights and gender, few women made use of the service.
"Many victims seem reluctant to start a legal procedure, as they know that in the long run the crime will not be taken seriously," Ntirampemba said. Her ministry's main focus has been on changing the community's perception of sexual violence, especially with regard to reporting it and assisting survivors.
She also noted that the penal code dealt too lightly with sex offenders, and said a revision of the code with stronger punishments urgently needed to be passed by parliament.
The CNLS's Rirangira agreed, and said the tougher stance should be accompanied by training for medical staff to ensure that they offered survivors the correct assistance, including training in testifying in sexual assault cases.
President Pierre Nkurunziza has made fighting HIV/AIDS a priority, and the government and its partners have set up several centres where women and girls can receive post-trauma counselling and medical attention.