“My happiness is to see Burundian women capable of supporting their needs, the needs of their children, their families and that of the community at large,” says Burundian leader Odette Habonimana. In BFI, she found a home for realizing her vision. Appointed BFI Country Director in July 2020, Odette is our “Julie Marner” in Burundi, organizing and leading the work of BFI on the ground.
Odette brings to the role impressive leadership skills and a rich background promoting education, peacebuilding, and economic progress in Burundi. At the U.S. Embassy’s American Center in Bujumbura, Burundi, she created a STEM training and mentorship program for girls and women. As Gender Program Associate for the U.N. Development Program in Burundi, she ran peacebuilding, solar energy and economic empowerment programs for women. While earning a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership, she organized Women’s Empowerment Clubs in Gitega, Burundi. This paved the way for Odette’s volunteer work developing BFI’s Women Empowered (WE) program, where – prior to her new position as BFI Country Director – she organized highly successful savings groups that today support economic stability and growth for more than of 7,000 rural Burundians.
Odette has overcome many challenges along the way. She grew up in a rural village in Burundi, one of a family of 12. It was a peaceful life – until violent civil war erupted in 1993, when Odette was 9 years old. Odette’s mother organized more than 100 fleeing Tutsis and Hutus into a community, helped protect neighbors’ sons and husbands from rebel recruitment, convinced men and boys not to commit crimes, and founded an association of women farmers to fight hunger. What a powerful role model showing how one woman can bring peace in troubled times!
Odette took this to heart. Although the girls in her village grew up to be farmers, she knew that education was her road to bringing peace and prosperity to her fellow Burundians. Odette completed high school, and in 2013 she earned a B.A. in English Language and Literature at the University of Burundi – the first in her family with an advanced degree. This success was followed by positions as primary school teacher (French, Kirundi, mathematics, and human sciences), intern and American Corner Project Coordinator at the U.S. Embassy, and Gender Program Associate for the U.N. Development Program. With tuition support from BFI, she received her Master’s degree at International Leadership University-Burundi in 2019 and was honored as class valedictorian.
The empowerment of women has become a major focus for Odette. In 2015, political unrest enveloped Burundi again. Odette was a BFI volunteer and in-country advisor at the time. To prevent violence and promote social cohesion, she organized Hutu, Tutsi and indigenous Batwa into Women’s Empowerment Clubs (WECs). WECs leverage the relationships between their members to foster trust, tolerance and dialogue in their communities. The women receive training on entrepreneurship, family planning, health, women’s rights, and rule of law.
In 2018, Odette and BFI began incorporating PCI’s Women Empowered (WE) program into their work with WECs, training groups of 15-25 people to save and loan together, practice leadership skills and accomplish personal and community-wide goals. Today, more than 1,330 youth and women coffee farmers have saved over $40,000, helping each other with small loans to launch small businesses, improve their houses, and purchase livestock. The groups are also working in their communities to improve home life, financial stability, and clean water access.
Odette’s leadership and many accomplishments are recognized both in Burundi and beyond. In 2020, she was selected from 150 applicants worldwide as one of 10 finalists for the U.S. Institute of Peace’s inaugural Women Building Peace Award. This prestigious award recognizes a woman whose substantial and practical contribution to peace is an inspiration and guiding light – and Odette was honored as a finalist at the age of 35!
As BFI Country Director, Odette has a clear vision for where we are going and how to get there. “By instilling leadership competencies in our participants, a spirit of teamwork, starting businesses and participating in community services, we prevent violence and promote social cohesion.” Her courage and dedication are exactly what we need to make these goals a reality in Burundi.
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