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By Alexa Hassink and Nadia Shabani
Originally posted on the Engendering Men: Evidence on Routes to Gender Equality (EMERGE) blog.

This blog is the second in a series of blogs from partners in the EMERGE project on work with men and boys for gender equality. The blogs will be published regularly in the run up to the sixtieth session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March 2016.

Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has often made headlines for its on-going conflicts, which have led millions to lose their lives, suffer displacement, or become the victims, witnesses, or perpetrators of violence. Living Peace, a program in DRC dedicated to gender equality and the prevention of violence, could provide lessons learned for other countries dealing with on-going conflict and post-conflict recovery around the world.

From 1996 until 2013, DRC experienced successive wars, including the war waged by Laurent Desiré Kabila against then-President Sésé Seko Mobutu in 1996; the war by the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD, or Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie) against President Kabila in 1997; and many more, up until the 2011-2013 conflicts involving the M23 in eastern DRC.

Each of these wars and conflicts has compounded misfortunes in the country. The destruction of property, loss of life, and widespread sexual violence have caused people to flee their homes. This intense, conflict-related trauma in DRC has only been further aggravated by other natural disasters: volcanic eruptions, fires, and heavy rain.

Violence – particularly sexual violence – has been highlighted most publicly in DRC’s post-conflict state, and with good reason. However, the psychological impacts of conflict on both men and women are often ignored – even though they may have some of the most difficult, and perhaps longest lasting, effects.

After conflict, both men and women are forced to reconcile experiences of violence, displacement, and loss, as well as to redefine their identities, which often no longer fulfill traditional expectations of femininity or masculinity. For men, these crises can be particularly dangerous; men’s economic stress, caused by lack of ability to provide and protect, along with insufficient or negative coping mechanisms and already entrenched gender inequalities, is linked to the perpetuation of further violence.

Living Peace, a program led by Equimundo and first piloted in 2012, uses a combination of group socio-therapy, community work, and engagement of local stakeholders and institutions to address conflict-related trauma and its psychological impacts. It seeks to restore peace and promote nonviolence, healthy relationships and gender equality at home, as well as in the wider community.

The program follows the belief that peace in communities, and in DRC more broadly, must begin within couples and families. An open dialogue among men and their partners sets the stage for re-opening lines of communication, and for establishing positive coping and conflict resolution skills. This work often requires redefining what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman.

Testimonies from the partners and children of Living Peace’s participants confirm the program’s positive impact on their families and communities. Changes noted in the program’s pilot include improved and more peaceful partner relationships, reductions in men’s alcohol abuse and drinking, improvements in men’s control of their frustration and aggression, greater income-sharing by men with their wives, happier children, and improved health outcomes.

Between 2015 and 2019, Living Peace is expanding from a pilot program of less than 400 individuals to a multi-province initiative reaching hundreds of thousands in North and South Kivu. Equimundo and its Living Peace partners – Institut Supérieur du Lac (ISL), HEAL Africa, and Benenfance – are working to bolster the impact of the program’s couple-based group socio-therapy with strategic media campaigns and engagement of the police, military, health sector, and religious institutions. In the meanwhile, the long-term impact of Living Peace on the communities where it was first piloted is currently being evaluated – two years after the end of intervention.

The scale-up of the program is already demonstrating favorable results. The partners of military Living Peace participants, for example, overwhelmingly attest to positive change:

  • 95% confirm a significant reduction in their husbands’ use of violence in the relationship and in the family;
  • 92% report that their husbands are improving relationships with them and with their children;
  • 93% testify that they are now involved in the decision-making within the relationship;
  • 90% testify that their husbands have reduced their infidelity and their use of drugs and alcohol; and
  • 90% testify that their husbands now obtain consent prior to sex.

Although state-based conflicts have declined globally over the past 20 years, approximately 1.5 billion people continue to live in areas that are fragile, in conflict, or subject to large-scale organized violence. For communities in DRC, Living Peace has been well received and successfully scaled up. The program’s positive results lead to the question: What are the lessons learned that can be replicated and adapted in other post-conflict settings around the world?

1. Context, resources, and security matter. Implementing programming in conflict and post-conflict settings is inherently insecure. Creating security guidelines and contingency plans can maximize the safety and security of facilitators and participants, as well as provide safe spaces where men and women can discuss their trauma securely and confidentially. Additionally, since qualified psychologists and psychiatrists may not be readily available in such settings, it is important to create a system to adequately train the facilitators and mental health professionals who are available in group socio-therapeutic techniques.

2. There are no quick and easy solutions for long-term change. In any context, gender transformation is an interactive, long-term process that allows men and women to learn new behaviors through action. Creating these conditions should include addressing both men’s and women’s needs, as well as allowing space to critically question and challenge harmful gender norms using culturally appropriate framing. Individuals’ current coping mechanisms must be identified, positive coping mechanisms (i.e. those not reliant on violence, alcohol, or isolation) must be strengthened, and negative coping mechanisms must be reshaped. It is also important to look at the diversity of experiences and roles that both men and women have played in conflict: as perpetrators, as victims, and as witnesses of violence; as children and as adults; as agents of change. Each has their own distinct roles, motivations, and impacts.

3. It’s about more than just individuals. In order for an approach like Living Peace to be sustainable, individual-level change should be bolstered with community and structural support, encouraging restoration from trauma and the collective healing of individuals, families, and communities. Furthermore, to make changes sustainable, building capacity within local organizations, as well as training leaders and facilitators from within the community, can lead to a locally owned and driven approach.

4. Evaluate and scale up. It is important to determine and define what long-term, sustainable change looks like in each context and to design approaches that measure this. Approaches should be scaled up, when possible and when responsible, to reach greater numbers of individuals and communities.

5. Each context is different: adapt. Whether by adapting the program to address militarized masculinities, inter-ethnic tensions, or harmful masculine norms as part of conflict prevention; or by working with youth, young fathers, women, and girls, a foundation of therapy and community action can be used to target change across demographics. It is necessary to determine, in each context, how the approach can and should be adapted.

Living Peace has improved hundreds of lives in the DRC, with thousands more to come. It is important to learn from what has worked – and what has not – to improve the lives of individuals in other post-conflict settings, one conversation and one community at a time.

To find out more about Living Peace’s work in DRC, read the EMERGE case study and Story of Change here.

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