How one single mother in Burundi started helping women like herself

These women get support from a group for single mothers in Bujumbura called l'Association des mamans célibataires à Bujumbura.
These women get support from a group for single mothers in Bujumbura called l'Association des mamans célibataires à Bujumbura.

When teenage girls get pregnant in Burundi, they are often kicked out of school, rejected by their families and ostracised by their communities, especially if they come from poor families. But a new organisation in the country's capital Bujumbura is helping these young women regain confidence and find a place for themselves in society.

Pamella Mubeza had a difficult time after she became a single mother at a young age. She wanted to keep other young women and girls from living the same experience and, so, in 2007, she founded a group called l’Association des mamans célibataires (the Organisation for Single Mums) in Bujumbura. Her organisation focuses on helping young women in some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the capital, like Kinama and Kinyankonge. Young women in these areas often have little information about sex or reproductive health.

"Many teenage girls don’t know how their bodies work"

Many teenage girls are completely ignorant, they don’t even know how their bodies work. Most girls who become pregnant were manipulated or sometimes even raped by men.

In Burundi, women who become pregnant outside of marriage are seen as 'loose' women and immoral. They are often kicked out of school and, sometimes, out of their homes. Society turns its back on them. Many of these young women end up living in the streets with their new babies. Some of them have to turn to prostitution in desperation.

Our organisation brings in psychologists to talk to these young women and help build up their self-esteem. But one of our main aims is to get them back into school.

Pamella Mubeza (far right) stands with other single mothers during a workshop on women’s rights held in a school in Bujumbura in late 2018. (Photo shared by Pamella Mubeza).

This year, we were able to get 40 teenage girls back into school. It’s an extremely difficult task, because we have to start by convincing the schools to take them. We are constantly organising meetings and workshops with teachers and school authorities to try and show them that just because a single woman or a teenage girl has a child doesn’t mean she has bad morals. Having a baby and raising it is any woman’s right.

A single mother speaks about her experience during a class. (Photo shared by Pamella Mubeza).

I tell them about my own experience. I was a young, single mother, but, in spite of that, I graduated from school and became independent.

Our work is far from finished. We have about 250 mothers that we want to get back into school.

No money to buy sanitary napkins

In the poorest neighbourhoods, most young women don’t have the money to buy sanitary napkins. One packet costs about 2,000 Burundian francs [Editor’s note: equivalent to around one euro]. Some young girls ask their boyfriends for money to buy sanitary napkins and the young men take advantage of this to ask for sexual favours. Our aim is to keep the young women from falling victim to this kind of thing.

Sanitary napkins are handed out at the headquarters of Pamella’s group.

Every three months, we hand out about 1,500 sanitary napkins at our headquarters. Our aim is to help these young women become independent.

It’s incredibly important because young women who are on their periods are often incredibly ashamed and don’t leave their homes, often missing school. Many young girls try to make their own pads from unhygienic materials including plastic bags, rags, paper and grass, which can cause vaginal infections.

Pamella Mubeza.

Mubeza’s group is also fighting more broadly for equal rights for women in Burundi. In this small country in Africa’s Great Lakes region, many women do not have access to land ownership. There are no official inheritance laws so land is passed down through traditional customs that only give ownership to men. In another case of discrimination, women were banned from playing the country's traditional instrument, a drum called a tambour, in 2017.

Our Observer Ferdinand Bisengi first told us about this initiative.

This article was written by Djamel Belayachi.