Exposing university rituals in Burundi

Restrictive gender norms are deeply entrenched in Burundi and RNW Media’s Yaga team face an uphill battle when dealing with topics such as women’s rights and sexual harassment. When a recent article exposed a secret initiation ritual at the University of Burundi, it provoked a lot of angry and critical comments from the platform’s male followers. Both the discussion and the ritual show just how important Yaga’s work is in changing attitudes towards gender-based violence in Burundi.

By Louise Rasmussen

“Please, say something!”
One of Yaga’s bloggers wrote the article after receiving this text message from a student who underwent the ritual earlier this year:

I know that it won’t change much, but please, say something! If they cannot stop this initiation altogether, they should at least do it with dignity. Our bodies belong to us, and to us only, and they have no right to touch us anyway they like.

The text message led the blogger to recall her own experience of the initiation eight years earlier. The ritual begins by selecting a tenenge, a girl with a small waist and an impressive backside, and a giti, a skinny male student. In front of roughly a hundred other students, the tenenge has to caress the inner thigh of the giti and see if he gets an erection. The tenenge must remain calm during the initiation – otherwise she faces mockery. Yet, refusing to participate isn’t really an option, as the alternative is to perform tasks that could be even more humiliating.

Men’s voices dominate
The description of the ritual fuelled a heated discussion online, which was largely dominated by young male students from the University of Burundi. Their dominance not only reflects the gender imbalance in access to the Internet in Burundi, but also that universities still have more male then female students. Most commenters criticised the story for being inaccurate or fake, arguing that the ritual didn’t exist anymore or that it was not as bad as the article suggested. Elodie Muco, one of Yaga’s moderators explained that only a very small number of users agreed that the tradition was as serious as the girl in the article had claimed. Other students were dissatisfied and angry with Yaga for revealing a secret ritual.

Comments were particularly negative because we touched on the ritual of a specific community. It was as though the male students wanted to preserve the image of their institution”

No respect for human rights
The ritual only exists at the University of Burundi, and students from private universities criticised the tradition in the online discussion. As the writer of the original Yaga article indicated, private universities are actually more attractive to female students in particular, because they don’t have initiation rituals. However, many students continue to choose the University of Burundi because it is free whereas private universities charge relatively high tuition fees.

Yet, the initiation ritual at the University of Burundi has not always treated new students the way it does now, explains Yaga’s Elodie Muco.

Originally, the ritual was used to accustom students from different backgrounds to a series of shared rules and norms at the University. However, in the past years, a number of students have complained that these rituals are no longer carried out with respect for human rights and dignity. Women are basically treated as sexual objects in these rituals.

No surprises
The colleagues at Yaga were not surprised by the online backlash or by the imbalance of men’s and women’s opinions. “In fact”, said Elodie

The story should throw up a lot of comments because we touched on a sensitive subject. We already know from the context we work in that gender-based violence is something that most men in our society don’t understand.

Elodie and her colleague Bella did their best to moderate the discussion, asking users to consider that other people may have a different perception or experience of the ritual. However, such prompts didn’t seem to change the course of the debate:

It was as though the men that commented on the story didn’t take into consideration the pain that the girl who got in touch with us went through. After I while, I asked a male colleague of mine to help with the moderation.

Change takes time
However, the moderators were eventually so overwhelmed by the number of negative comments and the dominance of male perspectives that further moderation seemed fruitless, and so they decided to step back from the discussion.

Several users threatened to un-follow Yaga on Facebook but the platform didn’t actually lose any followers. And even though this particular discussion was difficult for the Yaga colleagues to deal with, they also know just how important it is that they continue to approach controversial topics and to engage young Burundians in debates like this one. Bella and Elodie along with their fellow Yaga colleagues know that it takes time and continuous effort to bring about change in people’s attitudes.

Click here to read the original article in French on Yaga’s website: