Being selected as one of the ten finalists for the US Institute of Peace’s (USIP) inaugural Women Building Peace Award is no minor feat. The Women Peace Building Award was created this year to honor women working in fragile or conflict-affected countries in pursuit of peace. The USIP’s Women Building Peace Council selected BFI Country Director Odette Habonimana from over 150 nominees, commending not only the innovation and skill through which she has been promoting peace building work in Burundi, but her lifelong dedication to the empowerment of the women and youth in her community.

 

Who is Odette Habonimana?

 

Odette Habonimana was born November 12th, 1984 in Gitega, Burundi. Born the fifth of 10 children to a construction worker father and a farmer mother, she understood the importance of community from an early age. Odette’s mother’s philosophy of tolerance, peace, and nonviolence guided her through an adolescence steeped in the turmoil of Burundi’s 12-year ethnic civil war. Over the course of the war, Odette’s mother sheltered over 100 women and children of both Hutu and Tutsi descent, exemplifying moral courage and leadership to Odette and setting the stage for Odette’s tireless peacebuilding efforts in the future.

 

Odette earned her secondary school diploma in Teacher Training Section at Lycee Sainte Therese in 2007 - a level of education that was unfortunately not guaranteed for all Burundians at the time, especially for young women. After graduating secondary school, Odette postponed her entrance into university by 2 years - working as a primary school teacher in order to support her family’s medical expenses. At that point in time, she was the only one who could support her parents because her elder sisters were uneducated. All of these experiences shaped Odette into the compassionate, dedicated agent of peace and progress that she is today.

Odette Habonimana at the podium during the graduation ceremony for her MA in Organizational Leadership

Upon earning her BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Burundi in 2013, Odette embarked on a new career path - one empathizing her passions for women and youth peacebuilding, entrepreneurship, and social justice. As Project Coordinator for the US Embassy’s American Corner in Gitega, Odette brought innovation to the existing programming, modifying them to be more inclusive for women and people of varying socioeconomic statuses. Odette has worked closely with BFI since 2015, when she founded the BFI Women’s Empowerment Department  as a means to bring social cohesion through women’s peacebuilding efforts in light of the political crisis caused by the Presidential elections. In 2019, Odette completed her MA in Organizational Leadership from the International Leadership University in Burundi, writing her dissertation on “The Effect of Women’s Savings Groups on Rural Women’s Empowerment in Burundi: Case Study of Project Concern International”. Nowadays, alongside her role as BFI’s Country Director, Odette currently works as a Gender Program Associate for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), where she incorporates peace building and development within the UNDP’s gender projects to meet UNDP objectives. 

 

Why was Odette selected as a finalist for the USIP’s inaugural Women Building Peace Award?

 

Nominees for the Women Building Peace Award must embody 4 key principles in order to be considered: commitment to peace, exceptional leadership, outstanding practitioner, and substantial impact. With her mother’s vision of peaceful coexistence among Burundian ethnic groups as a guide, Odette has always worked tirelessly on nonviolent pathways to peacebuilding. Odette utilizes inclusivity and people-to-people reconciliation practices to build community-based women’s empowerment, resilience, and peacebuilding programs. Her positive leadership and entrepreneurship conferences directly target the unemployed youth that are most susceptible to joining the rebel groups, providing them with alternative options and pathways towards nonviolence. Furthermore, her roundtables on peace and reconciliation create spaces for change, where attendees constructively engage on current dynamics within their communities and develop solutions to the ongoing conflict impacting daily lives.

 

Odette is also a proactive leader who not only identifies problems affecting women, but takes the initiative to develop innovative and sustainable solutions. Noting that the American Corner’s free online business and entrepreneurship training was inaccessible to the 94.8% of Burundians without internet access, Odette invited Kenyan experts to deliver these trainings in person - utilizing a Do No Harm approach to champion south-south cooperation and promoting Burundian integration into the East African Community. Taking issue with the fact that the free IT training programs offered were exclusively attended by male students, Odette developed a training and mentorship program for girls and women in STEM. Through her pursuit of women’s participation and inclusion in peacebuilding and post-conflict settings, Odette has earned the respect of the few urban and many rural communities in which she has conducted outreach and training. 

 

With regards to her capacity as a peace building practitioner, she excels due to her concerted efforts to reach the most marginalized and vulnerable throughout Burundi, especially women in rural areas who experience overwhelming rates of socio-political and domestic violence, with a severe lack of opportunities for upward economic mobility. Through her peacebuilding modules, Odette empowers these women to build trust, reconciliation, and dialogue within their communities, while in parallel creating community-wide awareness on the importance of women's participation in all levels of decision-making. Odette also brings women facing domestic violence closer to justice by conducting trainings that inform them of their rights and where and how to access legal services

 

Odette’s peacebuilding work has a clear and tangible impact on the women she serves. Odette’s formation of BFI’s Women's Empowerment department in 2015 led to the creation of 1,000 WECs with over 7,000 members in 5 provinces. Her training on entrepreneurship and business skills has led to the creation of over 650 savings groups of 5-25 women per group to address socio-economic inequality. Likewise, she mobilized 1,056 facilitators to deliver conflict prevention training at the local level in rural communities. The Solar Energy and Innovation for Women's Empowerment pilot project she works on with UNDP has reached 2,156 women in five provinces. The Women's Socio-Economic Empowerment project she supported with UNDP reached 5,500 rural women in three provinces.

 

We at BFI could not think of a better fit for the award, and are proud to have her achievements recognized by the USIP. The winner of the award will be announced on September 15th. Until then, please keep checking back here for more information on Odette.