Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The national Statistical Institute does not provide ethnically disaggregated data, but according to a survey undertaken in 2008 by UNIPROBA, an organization representing the Batwa, the Twa population numbered 78,071 individuals.
First language/s: Kirundi
Religion/s: Indigenous beliefs, Christianity
Twa traditionally were hunters and worked as potters or as musicians and entertainers. Excluded by both Tutsi and Hutu, the historical links of some Twa with the Burundi court, and more significantly their recruitment by the army, link them with Tutsis in the eyes of many Hutus. In anti-Tutsi reprisals Twa have also been targeted.
Burundi has become a densely populated country, and most land is used for crops and pasture. Since the 1970s it has been illegal to hunt in Burundi, which deprived the Twa of what was traditionally one of their main sources of sustenance. Land redistribution at Burundi’s independence did not benefit the Twa, and most are now landless. Twa face discrimination from Hutu and Tutsi on a daily basis.
The HIV/AIDS pandemic has hit Twa communities, although data is non-existent. Despite some education about the disease, many Twa hold the view that it is something that affects the Hutu and Tutsi, and is foreign to them. Those Twa who die of AIDS are often said to have died by poisoning, which may reflect a lack of knowledge about HIV/AIDS, or the stigma surrounding the disease. Twa women face particular risk of rape and infection due to beliefs among some Hutu and Tutsi that sex with a Twa woman provides a cure for backache; a new variant of this belief (or mere rationalization) holds that sex with a Twa woman offers a cure for HIV/AIDS. Infected Twa have little or no access to healthcare services.
In 2012, the situation of Batwa people was one of the focus areas of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Burundi’s compliance with human rights standards. During the review a number of UN agencies expressed concern about discrimination against Batwa with regard to access to land, education and employment. Further still, more issues were raised by several NGOs on the fact that poverty remained more prevalent among Batwa than among other groups. Other issues of concern included the level of malnutrition among Batwa children, their lack of access to full medical treatment and the inability of Batwa women to access maternity care due to lack of identity documents.
Unlike neighbouring Rwanda, Burundi does recognise the distinct ethnicity of the Batwa. The 2005 Constitution set aside three seats in the National Assembly and three seats in the Senate for Twa. That notwithstanding, Twa organizations state that selection processes have frequently been manipulated to enable the appointment of non-Twa to these positions. Furthermore, widespread illiteracy and a lack of access to education exclude Twa communities from participating in regional and local politics. An important milestone took place in June 2020, when for the first time in the history of the country a member of the Batwa community, Immelde Sabushimike, was appointed a Cabinet Minister in charge of National Solidarity, Social Affairs, Human Rights and Gender, by the new President, Evariste Ndayishimiye.
Nonetheless, Batwa are still mostly landless face many difficulties relating to land-rights, either through lack of title, discriminatory practises relating to allocation on the part of the authorities, or failure to recognise historic rights to land. Land laws in Burundi blatantly discriminate against Batwa, as they base customary land rights on ‘actual and visible occupation of the land’, while the traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle tends to not visibly impact on territory. Many Twa, having been dispossessed of their land by more powerful neighbours or communities, have little recourse to justice through the authorities. However, in 2016, a Twa family won a 41-year long court case that restored land ownership, in a landmark ruling that the community and campaigners hope may be a turning point in the willingness of the Burundi judicial system to protect and enforce Batwa land rights.
Aside from land issues, Batwa also face discrimination in social services, especially in health and schooling. In primary and secondary levels, access to education remains a considerable challenge for the community, particularly for Batwa girls due to traditions of early marriages, unaffordability and even the lack of clothes. In 2010, MRG published the results of research into the reasons for low enrolment and high drop-out rates of Batwa girls in primary and secondary education in Burundi. The report indicated that Batwa boys and girls from other ethnic groups are twice as likely to go to school as Batwa girls. Drop-out rates for Batwa girls are also double those for Batwa boys. Factors contributing to Batwa girls’ lack of access to education include poverty, the attitude of Batwa parents towards the education of girls and early marriage.
Twa also face a range of intersecting challenges in health, housing and nutrition, with many living in dense informal settlements without access to clean water and sanitation. Their marginalization is reflected in a long process of discrimination that often begins at birth, as many Twa children lack birth certificates due to lack of registration. This can leave them unable to access free education or health care.
Updated October 2020