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No longer a victim: Esperande’s story of survival

Esperande Bigirimana shares her thoughts on hope, healing, and speaking out after surviving gender-based violence.

Written by Tarryn Pegna | 09 Dec 2022

Esperande Bigirimana, woman, survivor, advocate for change

Note

Contains mention of sexual and gender-based violence that some readers may find upsetting.

These are the powerful, hopeful words of Esperande Bigirimana. Woman. Survivor. Advocate for change: ‘Together, we can create the world we want to see.’ She is an inspiring woman and her story is one of strength, hope, healing and restoration after the trauma and violation of sexual violence. But it’s a trauma that should never have happened. Sadly, it’s one that is disturbingly common.

‘The most important thing we need to understand,’ says Esperande, ‘is that sexual abuse is not a women’s issue. It’s a world crisis, which needs global attention, and a global solution.’

‘Sexual abuse is not a women’s issue. It’s a world crisis, which needs global attention, and a global solution.’
Esperande Bigirimana, sexual violence survivor

Esperande was in the UK recently to attend a government conference – the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI). This is a UK-led initiative aimed at leading the way in strengthening action to prevent sexual violence in conflict, and Esperande was invited to give input on how to support survivors.

With horrifying statistics showing 20 to 30 per cent of women and girls in conflict-affected settings around the world being subjected to some form of sexual violence, it is clear that much needs to be done – both to end the problem and to provide support and healing for those who have survived it.

Journey to Healing

Esperande, herself, has been through an incredible process of healing and restoration. She moved to South Africa after a terrible experience of sexual violence in the context of conflict in her home country of Burundi, but she says the fear and stigma and trauma followed her there.

‘I was in South Africa, where there is peace,’ Esperande explains, ‘but there was no healing for me. The tears were still there, and the fear, the anger. And then, that's a way in for other problems.’

It was in South Africa that Esperande came into contact with Tearfund and got involved in a programme called Journey to Healing. This is a peer support group framework which helps to create a safe space for survivors to be heard as they tell their stories, and in so doing, start to find support and healing. ‘Then we found hope,’ she says, ‘in that safe space that we created for ourselves.’

Place for the church

The survivors also receive support from the church – giving them a place to be accepted, listened to and valued. A place to have their stories believed, to have their voices heard and to have people stand alongside them and welcome them into community.

‘Finding the church ready to sit there and listen to me, and believe my story – that was a huge achievement which changed my heart in the way I see the church,’ says Esperande. ‘I started to see the church as a place where you find wholeness, where you find courage, where you feel strong.’

Along with that, having church leaders acknowledge the problem of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and be willing to preach about it and against it from the pulpit has provided huge amounts of encouragement for Esperande to speak out. She says the hope that was born out of being heard and believed gave her the motivation to go back to university and, as she puts it, ‘to make the changes that I want to see happen and [help build] the world I want.’

Esperande tells us, ‘I used to see a world full of injustice, which is not good, but I was able to learn in that support group that I can create the world I want to see.’

‘Together, we can create the world we want to see.’
Esperande

Changing legacies

As Esperande points out, SGBV creates a legacy of brokenness – passed on to generations in the behaviours born out of pain that it creates. ‘As the church, we need to come together to speak out. And the solution is possible – it is in our hands. Speak out.’

And that is exactly what Esperande is doing. She is speaking out and advocating for change and awareness of the problem, and she is working to support survivors in the process of healing.

No victim

‘I am no longer a victim,’ she says. ‘I'm a survivor. There has been a restoration of my spirit. And through it I am able to see that I am created in the image of God. No one is allowed to hate or to do anything bad to that image of God that I am created as. Understanding that gave me confidence that it doesn’t matter what's happened in the past.’

Through finding restoration and healing, Esperande says, ‘after being supported, we're able to stand on international platforms and speak out our needs.’

But it’s not only Esperande who needs to speak out. It is all of us, as the church, who have the responsibility to stand up and see changes made.

As Esperande says: ‘The church has the power to change our world. So we need to pray that our churches get organised and they use their power, which they are given by God.’

Pray with us

  • Pray for women and girls around the world who have experienced SGBV. Ask for healing and restoration and that they will find support around them.
  • Pray that the church (including each of us, wherever we are) will rise up and speak out against SGBV.
  • Pray for women like Esperande who are using their stories of pain and overcoming to lift other women out of dark places.

Esperande Bigirimana is co-leader of the Phephisa Survivors Network. Pephisa ‘exists to give a voice to survivors and to advocate for safer environments for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in South Africa.’ Esperande is herself a survivor of sexual violence in conflict (which she experienced at a young age during a period of conflict in Burundi). She is now an outspoken activist. Esperande speaks passionately about her participation in Tearfund’s Journey to Healing process, which has been developed through listening carefully to understand the needs and hopes of survivors of sexual violence.

Written by

Written by  Tarryn Pegna


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