Meet Our Executive Director
By Rebecca Patt
Pascal Akimana is the Co-founder and Executive Director of Umoja Now. Born in Burundi, Pascal spent most of his childhood witnessing community violence and war. He spent many years off and on living in refugee camps in border countries, where he observed significant emotional, physical, and sexual violence against women and girls. Unable to remain a bystander, Pascal decided to focus his life and career on building peace and equality. He has spent more than a decade working with and consulting for various organizations throughout Africa and the US on issues of gender, HIV/AIDS, conflict transformation, and peacebuilding with such organizations as Men’s Resources International, Sonke Gender Justice, UNHCR, IRC and EngenderHealth. His personal history and professional work have made him a leader in the field of peacebuilding and gender equality with experience at approaching violence prevention in conflict and post-conflict settings.
Who or what inspired you to become involved in work aimed at ending gender-based violence?
My inspiration comes from a need for peace in my country. The Burundian people have been devastated by the civil war, which has resulted in many problems and much misery. Personally, my family has been affected by enormous violence: torture, rape, sexual assault, and killings. I left my village as a refugee and started to question why was I in a refugee camp. Why had I lost so many friends? Why are women and girls treated this way? Why do I not understand the difference between Hutus and Tutsis? Why has my country been at war for so long? Why are people hurting and killing each other? My inspiration came from those sorts of questions. I found a need for peace, stability, and mutual understanding. I also wanted justice for myself and my family and for all of the people who were raped, tortured, and killed. I asked myself what I could do to help my country which has been torn apart by violence.
Tell us the story about how and why you started Umoja Now.
I started Umoja Now to respond to the violence that has occurred in my country, specifically the violence aimed at women and girls. Through Umoja Now, we can have a dialogue about the root causes of violence by engaging both men and women to work as allies to promote gender justice and inequality. We can start to see what makes us violent instead of united. Without this honest conversation, we cannot develop and we cannot create sustainable peace. Without getting to the root causes of violence and promoting gender equality, our efforts to move forward in developing our country cannot reach very far.
Why is it necessary to unite the genders for issues that are often seen as simply “women’s issues”?
So much work has been done to promote women’s leadership and empowerment, but women are still oppressed and are still not treated equally. Their human rights continue to be violated. With all of the work we were doing to inform women, we were still not seeing enough change. We came to understand that we needed to include both men and women to work as allies if we wanted to see real change.
We have assumed that men are not affected by the inequality of women and that this was a “woman’s issue,” but that simply isn’t true. Men are likewise affected by violence against women. While men are often the perpetrators of the violence, they are also the victims and witnesses too. More importantly, though, men are change agents. We see men in all spheres of life where they hold power. They are the chiefs in villages, they are the policy makers. We live in a patriarchal world. And so if we don’t involve men, we are likely not to go very far in this work for equality. If we want to see lasting change, we must work with both women and men together.
Why have you decided to focus your efforts on Burundi?
It is my country – my motherland – and it has been forgotten. If you ask 5 people on the street in America if they know of Burundi, I guarantee only 4 will have heard of it. However, if you ask the same 5 people if they know of our neighbor Rwanda, 4 of the 5 will know about it and its history. Burundi and Rwanda are formerly one country, and share the same history, language, culture, and ethnic problems, yet people only know of Rwanda. The international community has let Burundi down. Although the peace agreement in Burundi has been signed, without the same international support that was given to Rwanda, it is more likely that we will see Burundi slide back into civil war. We must support Burundi in building sustainable peace. Burundians are in a process of rebuilding, and I need to help in any way I can and shed light on the problems there.
The problem of gender inequality is not unique to Burundi, however – or to Africa for that matter. It exists everywhere, including in the United States. Violence against women happens in all spheres of life, on all continents, and in all countries. While we are starting our programming in Burundi, that is not the end for us. We hope that this is just the beginning, and hope to expand across countries and cultures. Currently, we are looking at providing programming to resettled refugees in the United States.
What is Umoja Now’s role in Burundi?
Umoja Now’s mission is to build sustainable peace by involving men and women as allies to promote gender equality. Some of our strategies we plan to utilize to that end are educational workshops, campaigns, sending positive messages through media, legal advocacy, lobbying, and talking about health issues, specifically HIV/AIDS. We plan to train the next generation that will take the country into their own hands. One of our specific programs that we are developing is UMOVE: Uniting Men to Oppose Violence. It involves men and boys as partners to ending gender-based violence. Through focus group discussion, youth programming in schools, social and mainstream media and art, we will engage men and boys and address the gender inequities.
Using media is very key to reaching out to people, particularly the radio in Burundi. Eventually, I would love to open a community radio station for women and later maybe progress to TV. I want to show images of humanity and love and change the way we address violence. Right now, there are billboards with images of a man hitting a women and it says “No.” But these are negative images which perpetuate the gender-based violence mindset. We want positive images that show good men who are loving, kind, and compassionate.
What’s the best way for people reading this interview to support Umoja Now?
There are a few different ways. First, get familiarized with our mission and vision by visiting our website. You may also contact us about how best to get involved. You don’t need to be in Burundi to help. We can find a way to utilize a person’s skills from anywhere in the world. We can find out where you will fit in best to give your helping hand. Of course, one of the best ways to support our work is through financial contributions which make our work possible. People may make donations through our website. They may also purchase traditional crafts through our website “Store.” All proceeds from sales go directly to support our programming.