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Benoit Ruratotoye is the Research and Training Director at the Living Peace Institute, Equimundo’s affiliate in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). On September 21, 2016, he joined American actor and filmmaker Ben Affleck, former United States President Bill Clinton, and others to present at the closing plenary session of this year’s Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Annual Meeting. Read his remarks on peace and healing in DRC and watch his presentation (starting at minute 9:05) below:

Listening and Empathy: Living Peace in Democratic Republic of the Congo

Over the past 20 years, we’ve lost millions of lives. Nearly 1 in 4 women – including Kyalu, who was kidnapped in 2008 – have experienced sexual violence related to the conflict, and trauma has touched the lives of almost everyone, including myself.

This trauma – family members dying, being injured, or forced to leave home – has left a lasting legacy in our communities. I’ve seen it compromise men’s and women’s physical safety and well-being, and their ability to earn a living.

But there is another side effect of war in DRC. Women who have been raped are often rejected by their communities and families, deepening the stigma and isolation. These negative feelings – and this pain – if unaddressed, can destroy relationships, and can lead to further violence at home.

Three months after the kidnapping, Abby and Kyalu finally reunited. Rather than a moment for relief and joy, Abby, Kyalu’s husband, told us “Finding out what they did to my wife was unbearable.” He said he felt powerless to do anything, and that the trauma made him feel crazy. He took this out on Kyalu.

Our research finds that while nearly a quarter of women experienced conflict-related sexual violence, nearly two-thirds experienced violence from a male partner. That means that long after conflict ends, its effects can live on in our homes.

I helped to start Living Peace in 2013 with Equimundo and HEAL Africa and other partners. After dealing with my own personal experiences of violence, and seeing it affect my friends, my neighbors, my colleagues for too long, I knew we had to do something about it. And, women were asking us to help: to reach their husbands and to end the stigma of having experienced sexual violence.

Direct health and support services for those who suffer from violence are absolutely an essential first step to healing, but to prevent this violence from living on, we would also have to work with men alone and alongside their partners, young people, police and military, and whole communities to help restore faith and trust – to re-introduce empathy, to promote peace and equality at home, and in our communities.

But, in a country where there are no trained psychologists, counselors or psychiatrists, we knew this work would not be easy. We would have to rely on the community’s own resources, and help the population find a way to cure itself.

I knew that group therapy could be a very effective strategy for healing. So, with the help of referrals from community leaders, military authorities, and others, we built these groups and started meeting with men, and bringing in their wives at key moments.

For some men, it was difficult to open up at first. They were asked to talk about issues they hadn’t often or ever discussed, and some faced criticism from friends, family members, or neighbors who didn’t understand the process – or the point. By meeting in group therapy sessions and joining the community together in a process of social restoration, we started to slowly peel back these layers and the resistance faded.

In the groups, we discuss what it means to have power – and to be powerless. What to do when anger moves towards violence, and how to stop that cycle. How to see strength in equality and power in peaceful relationships. How to challenge and redefine what it means to be a man and to be a woman in DRC today. These are not easy conversations, but they’re essential in order to move forward, and to move past using violence to cope with pain.

What we see is truly inspiring. While, of course, the changes vary person to person, overwhelmingly, after about three or four months in our program, men and women are telling us that men are using less violence. That men and women are communicating better, and are seeing themselves as more equal partners. And, an external evaluation that followed couples two years later has confirmed this impact as well. The process is even mending relationships between civilians and the military, and decreasing inter-ethnic tensions.

Abby, who joined the Living Peace groups, told us that changing the way he lived was difficult at first, but that he found comfort in listening to the stories of others. Kyalu noted that after Abby began the process, he started talking to her differently, and caring for their children. Abby confided that they found the love he thought they had lost.

We’ve used this group therapy process with survivors of sexual violence, police, military, husbands of conflict-related rape survivors, and with witnesses of genocide and other forms of violence. For over three years now, it’s been giving individuals the space to address the root causes of violence, to practice empathy, and promote nonviolent paths to healing for individuals, families, and communities.

Abby and Kyalu are not the only ones who have undergone this process of healing. The gratitude and feeling of ownership we’ve seen from the community, and support from the government, gives us the motivation to keep moving forward. We’ll have reached thousands of men and women like Abby and Kyalu by the end of this year, and hundreds of thousands over the next two years.

There is much more healing that needs to happen, but I think we’re moving in the right direction. I’m hopeful because I know that we’re helping those who are suffering to reclaim their personal peace.

My name is Benoit Ruratotoye, I am living peace, and I’m honored to be here today.

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