Exploring ubuntu and women’s empowerment in Burundi
In October 2022, at the CGIAR GENDER Science Exchange organised by the CGIAR GENDER Impact Platform, five early-career researchers put themselves forward for ‘GenderVision!’—an idea contest inspired by the international song competition Eurovision. Contestants pitched their research ideas in a bid to win USD 10,000 to take their dream project forward.
Esther Leah Achandi, a post-doctoral fellow at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), was announced the winner for her pitch to investigate context-specific definitions of ‘empowerment’.
Context-specific exploration is important for understanding how empowerment, as a global concept, fits within local culture and ways of life in communities. It also explores local perceptions towards empowerment when it comes to daily realities and ideals. In 2023, Achandi set out to explore the link between empowerment and the ubuntu way of life.
What is ubuntu?
Ubuntu (pronounced ùbúntú) is a longstanding, dominant philosophy across African communities. It is defined as altruism—a regard for and devotion to the interest of others. It is a way of life where one does not measure their value based on what they can attain of their own desires. Instead, value is defined by ideals of integrity, compassion and even self-sacrifice, such that the significance of one’s life lies in raising the value of other people’s lives¹. Ubuntu exists in African languages across the continent: ubuntu bulamu in Uganda, ubuntu in Rwanda and Burundi, umundu or umuntu amongst the Kikuyu of Kenya, vumuntu in Mozambique, unhu in Zimbabwe and giMuntu in the Democratic Republic of Congo are amongst several known uses.
Ubuntu creates a relational, broad frame for social relations within communities. But social relations are also often framed through axes of differentiation such as gender, or age. With gender being a primary aspect of social identity within most rural African communities, it is important to understand gender relations within ubuntu. Furthermore, how is the framework of ubuntu interpreted, experienced or even aspired to within the concept of empowerment? Because women do not live or pursue empowerment in a vacuum, reflecting on what empowerment means to both men and women in communities, and how this perception is influenced by ubuntu, can give a more complete picture of women’s empowerment within local contexts.
Discovering the link between Ubuntu and women’s empowerment
With the support of the gender team at ILRI and the country team at ILRI Burundi, Achandi focused on communities in the livestock-based farming systems in the Kayanza and Gitega provinces of Burundi. Specifically, the team explored: i) the local context concept of ubuntu, and ii) the local context conceptualization of empowerment within the ubuntu way of life. She amassed qualitative data through focus group discussions (FGDs) and key informant interviews (KIIs) from 27 November 2023 to 2 December 2023.
The exploration uncovered that ubuntu in the Burundian context is understood as a collection of values encompassing being humane, expressing good behaviour (what is acceptable within the community), sharing one’s resources with others, living in harmony and unity with others, being a peacemaker amongst community members, expressing empathy towards others, helping those in need, and living not only to make oneself happy but to make others happy too.
However, the expression of ubuntu values is often gendered, with men and women expected to express ubuntu within the socially defined gender roles and norms. For example, during community social events men are expected to express ubuntu by performing more laborious tasks, offering financial support, and speaking in public. While women are expected to support by upholding socially defined feminine roles, like respecting their husbands, serving food and drinks during social events, and not speaking during these events. There exists a local saying that ‘a hen should not crow where cocks are’, implying that women should not speak where men are gathered! Besides gender, the expectations and expression of ubuntu vary according to additional social identity factors such as age and wealth.
When exploring the local conceptualisation of empowerment, it was found that men understand empowerment as the state within which one has the freedom to choose what they can do, without being restrained by or requiring the permission of another. Women conceptualise empowerment as having the ability and wisdom to reach one’s own goals. Men observe that women cannot have empowerment because they can only act with the permission of their husbands. Women, however, perceive that empowerment for a woman entails having the freedom to choose even when her choice goes against her husband’s. Women also note that men think empowered women are not submissive or obedient to their husbands. There is a clear tension between men and women’s perceptions on women’s empowerment. Men see it as not achievable under their watch as husbands, while women see it as achievable—exactly by going against their husbands!
One striking aspect of these local perceptions is that women’s empowerment is conceptualised through the context of marriage. Within Burundian society, marriage is a rite of passage that most of the population is expected to experience. Individuals that do not go through marriage are viewed as unfavourable exceptions. Therefore, with marriage as the norm, any interpretation of women’s empowerment takes particular reference to women’s subordinate position to their husbands and men’s headship position in marital relationships.
How is empowerment linked to ubuntu? Both men and women interpret that having ubuntu and empowerment means they can express ubuntu values without being influenced by or restrained by another individual. Women, however, are noted to be more likely to uphold ubuntu but less likely to be empowered. This is because they require the permission of their husbands prior to any action or decision, including expression of ubuntu.
Ubuntu is seen as a highly desirable ideal for both men and women to uphold within a community. It is acknowledged that a higher percentage of community members uphold ubuntu than not, and this includes more women than men. Yet alhough empowerment is perceived as desirable for an individual to reach their own goals, it is considered almost impossible for married women to achieve because they need their husbands’ permission to act.
These findings indicate that local perceptions around women’s empowerment have not yet been well aligned with dominant local philosophies such as ubuntu. And so there still remain sections of the community who do not uphold ubuntu ideals.
While it would be fitting to find women’s empowerment is understood as part of the humane ideals of ubuntu, this is not the case in the community. The subordination of women, limitations on their mobility, decision-making, asset control and self-determination by husbands are not obviously viewed as contradictions to ubuntu. For as long as ubuntu remains executed within the existing gender order, without questioning the underlying inequalities, this beautiful ideal commonly fronted in social justice arguments may not be positioned to deliver what it certainly could for women in society. It may even be used to further buttress inequalities for powerholders, subordinating those at the bottom of the gender pecking order.
Women’s empowerment, as a goal of international development, still requires time and targeted effort to integrate it at the community-level and within local ideals such as ubuntu. And this is especially so in contexts where women’s empowerment has not been a prevalent norm. Integrating women’s empowerment within ubuntu while engaging within communities can be a first step towards clarifying local interpretations. Local perceptions that frame women’s empowerment as an unachievable goal should be further engaged with, especially with men who are powerholders.
Progress to women’s empowerment must engage both women and men in dialogue, negotiation and actions. An initial step can be to clarify to communities that empowerment does not need to be a zero-sum game, with men losing power that women gain. Rather, women’s empowerment can be framed such that the enhanced power of women in turn enhances the power of men. In the case of ubuntu, men can adopt its ideals to support women’s empowerment. Men’s status can also improve with women’s empowerment, which enhances their own empowerment.
By engaging with communities through gender transformative approaches (GTAs)², which aim to address the root causes of gender inequalities and transform them, both men and women can become more aware of the current contradiction between upholding ubuntu ideals in the face of women’s continued disempowerment—and how they might find ways of aligning these concepts for better empowerment for all.
We acknowledge the funding provided by the CGIAR GENDER Impact Platform, through the Platform’s Alliances module. We acknowledge the technical inputs of the ILRI gender team, ILRI Burundi country office and logistical support of International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) Burundi office. We would also like to extend our gratitude to the smallholder livestock farmers, agro-vet officers, cultural leaders and village leaders in Kayanza and Gitega provinces in Burundi with whom the exploration of ubuntu and empowerment reported in this study was done.
1. Lubogo, I. (2020). Obuntu-Bulamu and the Law. Jescho publishing house.
Written by Esther Leah Achandi (ILRI) with support from Madeline Wong (ILRI).