The Burundi legal clinics
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The Burundi legal clinics04 March 2016
Land is one of the keys to building better lives and equality for poor rural women in the developing world. Yet women often have weak land rights, or are denied rights entirely, resulting in increased poverty for themselves and their families. In Burundi, years of civil conflict, insecurity and displacement of people have exacerbated the dispute over land, with significant effects on agriculture and food security. With ninety per cent of Burundians living in rural areas, the majority of the population rely on agricultural activities for their livelihood. Women's economic vulnerability is closely linked to their lack of assets, and in particular, access to land. Due to the increasing pressure on available land, women tend to be more deprived of ownership and control over it. This is the result of gaps in national legislation regarding land ownership and the persistence of customary rules that are traditionally based on a patrilineal system. According to customary practices, women are excluded from land succession and in most cases, traditional practices prevail over national legislation.
The Transitional Programme of Post-Conflict Reconstruction in Burundi works to restore livelihoods, build social capital, and promote dignity and food security in poor communities. Under the "legal support" sub-component, the programme has established legal clinics, run by women lawyers, that disseminate legal information, encouraging rural women to fight discrimination and exercise their rights in land cases involving family relations and inheritance. The clinics are mobile and travel to rural communities in the hills, ensuring a higher outreach to vulnerable community members. Activities also include visits by judges to the hill communities to ensure compliance with judicial decisions, and if necessary, enforce them.
The legal clinics are interacting with local institutions, including community development committees and the Bashingantahe, the traditional notables of the hill communities, to strengthen the pre-existing structures committed to conflict resolution at the local level. While building a new body of case law and rules is an important part of the work of the legal clinics, mediations out of the court are equally important to reduce local tensions. When conflicts are brought before a court, the involved parties often develop hostile relations, implicating and opposing families, neighbours and other community members. Still, the legal clinics have facilitated the development of trust and collaboration between community and institutions, and beneficiaries now refer to the law as the main tool to resolve their conflicts. As in the case of Nzeyimana, who was chased off her land by her brother, the legal clinics allow beneficiaries to pursue their rights and restore dignity.