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A young mother during the literacy classes in the JRS agricultural school in Kibimba, Burundi (Danilo Giannese/JRS)
Bujumbura, 10 July 2012 – Since the end of the civil war in 2005, hundreds of thousands of refugees have returned home from exile in Tanzania. Excruciatingly high population density, poverty and ethnic tensions result in frequent out breaks in communal conflict. Enhancing the role of women and reducing food insecurity have long been a strategy of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Burundi.

The last element of this strategy has been establishment of the JRS agricultural school for women, offering courses in agricultural technical, animal husbandry, literacy and civic education. At the end of June, 144 women concluded the first semester of lessons, and the desire among the students to strengthen inter-communal solidarity and promote peaceful cooperation between returnee refugees and the local communities was already palpable.

Expecting too much in so little time would be unwise. The challenges facing Burundians trying to build a stable future are immense. Yet after only a few months in the new JRS agricultural school, these women from the southeastern village of Kibimba are clearly more aware of their potential as both breadwinners and peace advocates.

"We women always work in the fields. It's always us who put the food on the table at home. Here I have understood how important our role is, both in the family and the community. And now I'm able to read and write I could become a local counsellor and do my part in resolving conflicts between neighbours in the village. I think we women have the capacity to help the community come together in solidarity and peace", said Cyrilla Ndabarushimana, an 18 year-old participant in the project.

Peaceful coexistence. In recent years, thousands of Burundian refugees have returned home to Rutana, the province in which the school is situated. To prevent the outbreak of land conflicts between new arrivals and the local population JRS established a food security project in Giharo, which will close before the end of 2012, after four years.

The agricultural school seeks to consolidate local progress made in the field of food security, and the consequent good inter-communal relations, by helping local women strengthen their capacities. This includes teaching modern agricultural and animal husbandry techniques, but also offering education, knowledge of their rights and of methods of family management.

"For me learning reading, writing and arithmetic means becoming aware of my potential, which before I had ignored. I feel stronger and also see that my husband and neighbours have a higher opinion of me", said 25 year old Odette Niyonzima.

"Now I have improved my household sanitation skills, learned ways of taking care of the animals without annoying the neighbours, and taken responsibility for my children's education. And all this is an example for others, that they asked me to teach them all I have learned", she added.

Defusing conflicts between neighbours. Odette explains that she has also embraced a more decisive role within the community.

"Tensions rise and conflicts break out frequently among us, particularly between former refugees and locals. People accuse each other for the most banal reasons, like if one family has their animals outside their house and this annoys their neighbours. Neighbours become overwhelmed by hate for no reason. I want to work to ensure peace reigns so that in moments of tension, we can sit the parties around a table and examine the situation together. I try to make them to reason and come together to agreement in a very simple way", Odette continued.

Attending the JRS courses, Denise Sindayihebura, 23 years of age, has made friends with women from other hill communities.

"Before, I was always at home, alone, closed in on myself. Now it's great to share and discuss things with other women like me. I feel more open and no longer want to distrust anyone only because she or he is a former refugee or from another hill community. I want to go out and meet these new friends of mine", Denise said.

Students of the JRS agricultural school have also decided to create some associations for women, local community members and former refugees for the cultivation of land and to put into practice what they have learned to increase their harvests.

"We want to be examples to our neighbours. Seeing us together they will understand that a more united and cohesive community is a place in which it is easier to live. If we are together and we put conflicts aside, we'll be a stronger community than before", Denise said convinced.

If overcoming the challenges ahead means building the foundations for stability, then much can be learned from the wealth of human resources available among the women of Kibimba.

Danilo Giannese, Advocacy and Communications Officer, JRS Great Lakes Africa