The Democratic Republic of Congo’s uneasy peace may be about to fracture.
Millions died during the civil war between 1998 and 2003, which drew soldiers from eight other countries into the fray. Today, 15 years on, more than a tenth of the world’s malnourished children live in the DRC. Some 4.5million people have been internally displaced. And tens of thousands of men and women struggle with the traumatic aftermath of rape as a weapon of war.
With an overdue election to replace President Joseph Kabila scheduled for December, bringing with it the potential for more violence, efforts to stabilise the country and heal its post-conflict scars are becoming more pressing. This year’s $93million cuts to the DRC’s UN mission are adding fuel to the fire. Much of this work falls into two camps: UN peacekeeping missions that try to neutralise conflict between hundreds of rebel groups and the government, and development missions that focus on emergency relief or economic strengthening.
But what’s lost in the middle is the psychological pain that locks people in a cycle of violence. Now, a program is providing psychological first aid to traumatised men in eastern DRC, and it could go nationwide.
The Living Peace Institute, a non-profit organisation established in Goma in the North Kivu province in 2015, is the nerve centre of efforts to heal trauma in the region. Its flagship program — the Living Peace Methodology — is a 15-session course of group therapy that teaches men non-violent coping mechanisms to deal with the psychological fallout of conflict. After a small-scale pilot in 2013, the project is scaling up to reach tens of thousands of men across the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu between 2015 and 2019.
In 2014, researchers revealed that 70% of men in North Kivu reported having experienced at least one conflict-related traumatic event, including injury, displacement or bereavement. Rather than seeking help, these men developed coping mechanisms to “reduce feelings of vulnerability”. Alcohol and drug abuse are widespread, both of which make men more violent.
“We address trauma first, because we believe that it’s trauma that pushes men to commit violence,” said Aloys Mahwa, Director of the Living Peace Institute. “Where there is trauma we can’t work on other aspects of the human being,” Mahwa added. “You can’t give money to a traumatised man and just expect him to start a business. Programs for economic empowerment and healthcare work best when men have first been treated.”
The way that trauma and violence are expressed is shaped by harmful ideas around gender in the region: 62% of women and 48% of men believe men have the right to sex even when a woman refuses. These beliefs translate into a range of damaging behaviours: half of all women in a study conducted in North Kivu report experiencing sexual violence from a partner, and just under half report physical violence. More than one in three women across the DRC will experience intimate partner violence in the course of a year.
“Where there is trauma we can’t work on other aspects of the human being”
By addressing damaging gender norms and underlying traumas, the program aims to break the intergenerational transmission of violence that could pose a threat to the DRC’s future. Studies show that even witnessing violence during childhood makes men much more likely to be violent in later life, particularly towards their partners or children. The country’s stability depends not only on the conclusion of politically motivated insurgencies, but the rebuilding of relationships and communities without violence.
Living Peace’s sociotherapy classes are led by trained facilitators recruited from the communities they serve. They begin with a discussion of past experiences and the causes of trauma. Then, focus shifts to gender attitudes and the notion of what makes a “real man”. The aim is to change attitudes towards women, particularly those who have suffered sexual violence and are stigmatised. Some women even suffer further violence when they disclose their abuse.
“In this region, people believe that a real man should be brave, he should have a house, a family, a wife and children. For many men, the war destroyed those things,” explained Mahwa. “This traumatic loss had a serious effect on masculine identity itself.” That loss often manifests itself in lashing out.
When Living Peace facilitators first enter communities, some men are are resistant to participating in the program. Emotional openness goes against the grain of masculine ideals in some places, and many men are not ready to address their trauma. Some adaptations to the project eased those fears: both men and women in North and South Kivu are resistant to the language of gender equality, whereas articulating the project’s goals through the lens of peace and harmony tapped into long-held community desires.
“You can’t give money to a traumatised man and just expect him to start a business”
“Resistance comes from the culture,” said Mahwa. “We’re challenging certain beliefs and norms around masculinity. Sometimes, the community is not yet ready to accept that a ‘real man’ can also be humble and non-violent.”
Nonetheless, results have been positive. The sessions target a broad range of men: ex-combatants, community leaders, victims of sexual violence and perpetrators. “It removes the stigma of attending,” said Mahwa. Participants are self-referred or identified and recommended by local leaders and women in the community.
The pilot program, serving 324 men and their partners, began in 2013 and showed significant reductions in violence perpetration. In 2017, Promundo, an NGO that engages men to achieve gender equality and which developed the methodology, conducted in-depth interviews with 40 participants, three years on. Men reported significant reductions in alcohol consumption, new-found acceptance for their partners who had been raped during the conflict and a more equitable approach to engaging in household tasks and child-rearing.
Women reported that the violence they experienced either dropped significantly or stopped completely, and said they felt their children were safer thanks to the changes in their partners’ behaviour. Those behaviours spread to the community, and men who participated in Living Peace reported taking a more active role in community affairs.
The study did not quantify reductions in violence perpetration, but the fact that attitude change lasted over a sustained period was encouraging.
“Programs for economic empowerment and healthcare work best when men have first been treated”
Living Peace works in North and South Kivu, where an estimated 100 armed groups still operate. “Armed groups still commit a lot of violence here,” said Mahwa, who recalled times when group therapy sessions had to be postponed following raids on villages.
But the immediate danger of attacks is just one challenge among many.
The infrastructure in North and South Kivu remains threadbare. Traveling through the provinces to train new facilitators and reach new communities remains taxing.
Despite the challenges, Living Peace is scaling up. Since 2015, it has expanded its remit from a select few villages to the whole of North and South Kivu — a region measuring approximately 100,000 square kilometres. The method is also finding support within state structures. Living Peace has provided training to police officers and elements of the military in order to prevent brutality that remains all too common.
Laying the foundations
According to Giovanna Lauro, Vice President for Programs and Research at Promundo, what the project offers is more than just a decrease in intimate partner violence. “It’s also a contribution to social restoration,” she said.
During the civil war, both government forces and rebel groups used violence not solely to kill enemy combatants, but to destroy the social fabric of communities — often through gang rape and torture. Rebuilding community cohesion is a piece of the puzzle without which economic development is unlikely to succeed.
“Sometimes, the community is not yet ready to accept that a ‘real man’ can also be humble and non-violent”
Lauro sees trauma therapy as a foundational part of the numerous other attempts by grassroots organisations and international NGOs to stabilise the region, not least by improving the lot of women.
“Sometimes, when women’s economic empowerment increases, we see increases in violence within a couple because men feel threatened,” she explained. “That’s why it’s important to address the roots of men’s discomfort or sense of inadequacy to encourage better, non-violent coping mechanisms.”
Healing the DRC’s trauma is a vital element in a precarious peacebuilding process, one that will need to spread from individual relations across communities and regions.
“2018 is an election year,” said Mahwa, “so there is likely to be more violence.” The hope is that working through the trauma will be more than just a band-aid on a wound growing ever larger as the conflict continues — it will be a preventative measure against further catastrophe.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Julien Harneis)