DRC: Changing Gender Norms is Essential for Peacebuilding in Congo (Opinion)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010
The Guardian
Central Africa
Congo (Kinshasa)
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

I've been working in the development field for a long time, and I've increasingly been frustrated by the way that when gender was talked about, it was always in terms of women. We talked about engaging men in reducing violence against women, rather than engaging them with their own issues. The underlying assumption is that men are still in positions of power and therefore they can't ever be vulnerable. A lot of men have experienced vulnerability and they don't relate to these discussions.

I'd been doing a lot of thinking around issues of sexuality, writing country reports for LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual] asylum seekers. It became clear to me that all the assumptions about gender being just about women's rights have a tremendous negative impact on other areas of work.

So I have been studying how gender is done in development field, and finding it very limited and inadequate. It does take this very dumbed-down version of gender – I see women's rights as incredibly important, but that's not what gender is only about.

In 2008 I was part of the team putting together the documentary Gender against Men. In the work I had been doing in Uganda in the preceding years, the rape of men was a constant theme, it was almost like an urban legend where something had occupied an immense space in people's minds, yet it was very much under the radar of aid groups and public discussion.

But at our refugee aid project, with refugees from all over the region, we were seeing a lot of male survivors of sexual violence. There were many different organisations working with survivors, but they didn't really provide any kind of service for these men, and we found a lot of men who hadn't been accessing medical care as well.

What I find really fascinating is that the only people who don't like the film tend to be professional women working in gender. They say it is going to take away resources from women's issues. They see it as a turf war, but I don't see it as that at all.

We were trying to present the issues around sexual violence against men. Masculinity makes it very difficult to talk about such things – the fact that an attack on individuals is also an attack on their community.

Now, it is at immediate level making access to services and support for male survivors easier; people don't feel too humiliated or embarrassed. And that's important. As someone dealing with refugees, I see families falling apart, men end up withdrawing from lives and families, if they don't get help.

More broadly, working in conflict situations, what I would like to see happen is for men and women to see the gender norms they are living under as a common enemy, making all of them very vulnerable to violence.

Since making the film, the more I've thought, the more I think we have to help people understand the ways gender norms are used to control them. They are used by the state and by the church, ensuring strong gender norms is fundamentally a governance intervention.

I don't see how you can have a democratic situation where you've got very, very strong gender differentiation. You've got to work on deconstructing all of that if you want to work towards democratic government.

I've just done a bit of research with EU funding for International Alert in eastern Congo. We were asking about gender norms, about marriage, the relationships between men and women.

What was really interesting was that most of these things had never been discussed; all these NGOs are working around gender-based violence but they hadn't got people talking about the underlying issues. Their interventions seemed to be centred around teaching people the law – an alien creature in many communities, a law that doesn't work.

If that's the focus you don't get into a discussion about where each of us fits in our community. When we were talking about those kind of things people got really, really animated.

One focus group with young people went on for seven hours; they just got really interested. One of the questions we were asking was "where do young people get their sex education?". The answer was that there is generally none, although maybe if you're lucky to be in right school, or if you get married through the Catholic church, there will be a little. Effectively, however, most people learn about sex on the streets - not just mechanics, but bigger discussion about where sex fits into identity.

And we found young people really interested in having discussions; they were much more open to thinking about it than older people. But still they found it easier to talk to sex than gender.

We asked people: "is the war over?". Everybody said no; there's a whole list of things happening to them, personal harm, and top of the list was sexual violence. From a peacebuilding perspective, dealing with issues around sexual violence is really important.

And there's a whole issue with impunity, which reflects the way in which the justice system is not really functional. The 2006 law provides for up to 20 years in jail for sexual assault, but that hardly ever happens.

My sense is that people are falling back on traditional culture and ethnicity because the modern state is not working, and they are closely linked to the kind of gender norms we have been talking about.

If alternatives are suggested, then these can easily be seen as a form of neo-colonialism. When attempt to change the way men and women think about or relate to each other, that can easily branded as globalisation – which means an imposition from the outside.