When an ethnic civil war broke out in Burundi in 1993, Odette Habonimana learned firsthand how peace begins at home.
Only 9 years old at the time, she watched her mother welcome frantic neighbors, Hutu and Tutsi alike, to shelter with their family of 12 as chaos ensued around them.
“People were killing each other on every corner, burning hills and houses. It was very terrible. The world quickly turned into a hell,” said Odette, who was recently named the new Country Director of Burundi Friends International (BFI), a partner of PCI. “People from my village who were running joined us to seek refuge as they found us calm and united. We made a big community of more than 100 people, both Tutsi and Hutu mixed. I remember my mother convincing all men and young boys not to commit crimes as it was happening in other villages.”
Those frightening first months turned into a 12-year conflict, during which time Odette grew up with her mother’s emphasis on nonviolence and acts of moral courage as her guide. In addition to protecting their neighbors’ sons and husbands from recruitment by rebels, Odette’s mother founded a women’s association made up of both Hutu and Tutsi to farm together and fight hunger caused by the crisis.
“Even now, Hutu and Tutsi in my village live in unity,” Odette said. “… My mother has been my role model.”
Today, as one of ten finalists for the inaugural Women Building Peace Award from the U.S. Institute of Peace, Odette is carrying that legacy of leadership forward.
“I am a woman of vision, a vision to empower my fellow women, especially rural women,” she said. “Empowered women build peaceful families that lead to peaceful communities and ultimately a peaceful nation.”
When political unrest and violence enveloped Burundi during the country’s 2015 presidential elections, Odette focused on building social cohesion in her home province of Gitega. As a BFI volunteer at the time, she developed Women’s Empowerment Clubs (WECs) comprised of Hutu, Tutsi and indigenous Batwa women from various political parties. Using people-to-people reconciliation practices, WECs leverage the relationships between their members to foster trust, tolerance and dialogue within their communities. They also receive training on entrepreneurship, family planning, health, women’s rights and rule of law, among other topics.
“The crisis of 2015 was a sign that Burundians need peacebuilding education,” Odette said. “I doubled my efforts to empower youth and women not only in my home village but throughout the country.”
Recognizing the success of those original WECs in Gitega, Odette began to scale her model to other provinces with BFI. For years, she has been making concerted efforts to reach the most marginalized and vulnerable people in Burundi, who experience overwhelming rates of socio-political and domestic violence and lack opportunities for upward economic mobility. To date, more than 1,000 WECs have been formed across Burundi, boasting over 7,000 rural women as members.
“Through her pursuit of women’s participation and inclusion in peacebuilding and post-conflict settings, Odette has earned the respect of the few urban and many rural communities she has conducted outreach and trainings in,” said BFI board member Ashleigh Subramanian-Montgomery, who nominated Odette for the USIP’s Women Building Peace Award. “Venues across the country repeatedly report exceeding attendance capacity when the community knows Odette will be the speaker. Local commune leaders and administrators regularly attend and are inspired by her trainings.”
In 2018, Odette and BFI also began incorporating PCI’s Women Empowered (WE) program into their work with WECs, training groups of 15-25 people to save and loan together, practice leadership skills and accomplish personal and community-wide goals. Last year, with support from a Rotary Foundation Global Grant initiated by Rotary Club of Del Mar, they were able to expand these social and economic empowerment efforts across Burundi.
“By instilling leadership competencies in our participants, a spirit of teamwork, starting businesses and participating in community services, we prevent violence and promote social cohesion,” Odette said. “My happiness is to see Burundian women capable of supporting their needs, the needs of their children, their families and that of the community at large. My joy is to see rural women having a say in decision-making from the local to national level.”
As of July 2020, a total of 1,330 youth and women coffee farmers in 60 groups have saved over $53,680 and used that savings to offer small loans to each other to launch small businesses, improve their houses and purchase livestock. Members are also working with their groups to make their communities better by conducting home visits, providing financial support for emergencies and ensuring clean water access points are functioning.
“We are grateful to our partnership with PCI allowing greater visibility to the gifts and needs of all Burundians. Odette is a shining star to be celebrated,” said Julie Marner, Executive Director of BFI. “The BFI-PCI partnership has elevated her work with rural women in terms of economic empowerment and community leadership. In Burundi, I often feel it is against all odds that success can occur. … She is a force of peace, a woman with vision and courage.”