Maria Teresa and Marguerite Barankitse, Worlds Apart, Help Victims of Rape


The first woman is called the grand duchess by her subjects; the second calls herself a “citizen of the world.”

Maria Teresa, the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, was born into a wealthy family in Cuba, educated in New York and Geneva, married into royalty and runs a foundation promoting women’s and children’s rights from the royal palace.

Marguerite Barankitse grew up on a farm with no electricity or running water in one of the poorest parts of Burundi, saved children from ethnic slaughter and created a center to shelter and educate them there and defied death threats by fleeing as a refugee to Rwanda.

In the last few years, the duchess and Ms. Barankitse, founder, most recently, of the humanitarian Oasis of Peace in Rwanda, have joined forces to help children in need, including orphans and child victims of politically motivated sexual violence.

The duchess, 62, and Ms. Barankitse, 60, have become so close that they refer to each other as “my sister.”

On March 26 and 27, they will meet in Luxembourg when the duchess sponsors a two-day international conference on the fight against rape — as a weapon of war and a byproduct of mass migration and political instability. The duchess organized the conference with Dr. Denis Mukwege, the Congolese gynecologist who specializes in the treatment of women raped in war and conflict, and who, with Nadia Murad, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018.

The conference, “Stand Speak Rise Up!” will hear testimony from some of the 40 rape survivors coming from war-ravaged countries, including Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kosovo and Rwanda. The survivors will join leading crusaders for change, including Ms. Murad and Dr. Mukwege; Céline Bardet, a founder of We Are Not Weapons of War, an NGO that provides support for victims of rapes in conflict; and Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize winner for 2006.

“I admit this is not at all a usual cause for the wife of a royal,” the duchess said in an interview from Luxembourg. “But I have made it my responsibility to take on the causes no one wants to talk about. The survivors had no platform from which to speak. We are giving them a voice.”

In an interview from Kigali in Rwanda, Ms. Barankitse agreed. “The survivors of rape will stand before these great personalities, before the world, and be recognized,” she said, speaking in French. “It can help give them back their dignity.”

The conference will discuss concrete strategies to eliminate the stigma and humiliation of rape in traditional societies and give girls and women education and training to help them support themselves and their families.

Rape has been used as a weapon of war and armed conflict throughout the world, throughout history. But the crimes of rape, sexual slavery and sexual violence carried out by armies, rebel groups and terrorist organizations as a tool of war and civil unrest have begun to be prosecuted as a crime only in recent years.

Ms. Barankitse will be at the side of the duchess at the Luxembourg conference. The two women became close a decade ago when the duchess started a campaign to free minors from prison in Burundi, Africa. Visiting the country, she found adolescent boys suffering in prison — some who were routinely raped, others who had AIDS and were untreated. “There were boys of 13 and 14, holding our hands and pleading, ‘Please, help us get out of here,’” the duchess said.

In four years, the two women worked together to free about 600 minors convicted of minor crimes like shoplifting or stealing food, and the duchess financed education and job training for them, she added.

“No one expected the wife of a royal and a head of state to go into a Burundi prison,” the duchess said. “But I am a Latin, with a Latin temperament. I always say and do what I believe. And my causes have never been at all usual.”

For Ms. Barankitse, the grand duchess has become a trusted partner. “We definitely come from different worlds,” she said. “Sure, she’s royalty, but she has opened her heart to others. You never get the feeling you are in the presence of someone grand.”

Ms. Barankitse has seen the uncontrolled violence of ethnic hatred firsthand. In 1993, when Burundi was torn by ethnic conflict between Tutsis and Hutus, she hid a group of Hutus at a Catholic diocese where she worked. A Tutsi mob tied her to a chair and forced her to watch as the Hutus were slaughtered. Ms. Barankitse, a Tutsi, paid the killers a ransom to spare 25 Hutu children under her protection.

When the killers left, she went to the Catholic chapel to pray. “It was like a thunderbolt,” she said. “At that moment I felt the force of God. I saw Jesus nailed to the cross, and I understood that we can carry the burden of the suffering around us. I knew I had a sublime vocation.”

Afterward, she turned an old school into Maison Shalom, an organization that provided shelter and access to health care and education for more than 20,000 orphans of different ethnic backgrounds. “Hate kills the person who carries it,” she said. “It was a refuge against hate.”

Ms. Barankitse was even more of a rebel than the grand duchess and did not conform to the traditional life she was expected to lead. A devout Catholic who studied at the French shrine of Lourdes for three years, she never married, but adopted a dozen orphaned children over the years.

“I remember one time an uncle asked, ‘How can a young woman do this? How can you not marry?’ My family would ask me, ‘Are you sure of your choice?’”

Then during a political crackdown in 2015, there were random killings; rape was used by a police militia to terrorize the population, she said.

“It’s not just women, but also men who were sexually abused,” she said. “And it is sometimes more than rape. Sometimes the attackers burned women’s genitals with a lighted candle or mutilated a man’s genitals to render him impotent.”

Facing a death threat by the government, she donned a disguise and fled the country for Rwanda with the help of the Belgian government. There she created Oasis for Peace, a branch of Maison Shalom that continues to run many of its projects.

It has expanded its mission to provide counseling to victims of torture and rape, education for children, job training and programs in microfinancing for some of the 90,000 refugees from Burundi who have moved to the country. There is a garden where children play, a cybercafe for young people and work areas for apprenticeships, for fashion design and making clothes. Luxembourg helps support the center financially.

“Some people say I’m like Sisyphus,” she said, referring to the figure in Greek mythology who as punishment from the gods was forced to forever roll a boulder to the top of a hill.

“No. It’s the arm of God that is pushing me up. And it’s people like the grand duchess of Luxembourg who is pushing me up. As my mother always told me, ‘Life is a celebration.’”

Source : Nytimes