"Now I exist": Delivering identity cards in Burundi

Mayisha Sikitu of Bujumbura, Burundi.
Mayisha Sikitu of Bujumbura, Burundi. Photo: UNDP

Those of us possessing an identity card can imagine how things would be without one. Those of us who don’t possess one don’t need to imagine. We know. We know we can’t vote, can’t be heard, and certainly can’t run for office. But it doesn’t stop there.

Mayisha Sikitu lives in Buyenzi, a neighbourhood in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. She has five children — Karara, Hami, Jola, Mariam and Hodari. She gave birth to her youngest, Hodari Karibu, at a hospital in October 2009 through a social programme that covers free birth-giving care. She wasn’t able to benefit from the same programme for Karara, Hami, Jola and Mariam because she did not have an identification card, for which she could not afford the processing fees.

In 2009, however, Sikitu took advantage of a UNDP-sponsored programme that delivered free identification cards to Burundi citizens as part of UNDP’s support to the 2010 election process.

Highlights

  • Forty-six percent of Burundi Senators are women, the second highest such average in the world, second only to Bolivia.
  • Just over half of women are literate; Burundi has the sixth highest rate of maternal mortality in the world.
  • Close to a million Burundians, 59 percent of whom were women, received their identification cards through a UNDP-supported programme.

As a result, 968,882 Burundians, 59 percent of whom were women, received their identification cards. With additional support from the Government of Switzerland, the campaign was very successful in mobilizing citizens. A healthy turnout resulted in an average of 40,000 cards being issued per day, empowering an additional almost 1 million Burundians to benefit from the rights and responsibilities of being recognized citizens.

“It was important for me to be able to get an ID card for free,” Sikitu said. “I hadn’t been able to afford one before, and had convinced myself I did not need one since I rarely left my neighbourhood. What I did not understand then is all I could do with an ID card.”

Besides receiving free care when she gave birth to Karibu, Sikitu is now able to travel and be a witness at official functions.

“Before I had my ID card, if I needed to take the bus to go to town to sell my crops and buy necessities, I ran the risk of being ordered out of the bus,” she explained. “Without an ID card, policemen could not identify me and I became a threat.

A couple of times the police made me get out of the bus and sit down on the sidewalk. Not only was I not able to sell my crop on those days, but I lost some of it, and for several days my children went hungry.”

Forty-six percent of Burundi Senators are women, the second highest such average in the world, second only to Bolivia. But Sikitu sees the impact of the free delivery of identification cards has had on the women around her.

“Unlike me, my eldest daughter, because she had an ID card, was able to marry legally,” Sikitu said. “With my ID card, I was able to be a witness at her wedding. With our ID cards, a friend of mine was able to run for office and I, along with many women in the neighbourhood, was able to vote for her and elect her. Now I am thinking about running for office myself.”

When asked what she likes best about her ID card, Sikitu smiles and then responds with a degree of rare intensity: “Now I can vote. Now I can move. Now I don’t need to say ‘Wait, I’ll go get my husband’ anytime something in our lives needs fixing. Now I exist.”

By Aaron Nsavyimana, second place of UNDP's storytelling contest.

Bio: Aaron Nsavyimana is a Public Information Associate in UNDP Burundi. Before joining the UN, he worked as a reporter for the Burundi Press Agency from 1989 to 1991.

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Photos: Delivering Identity Cards in Burundi
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  • Burundi identity cards
  • Burundi identity cards
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