The eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is sometimes called the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. In reality, it is an equally dangerous place to be a man. The year 2014 marks twenty years since one of the world’s most destructive wars began, resulting in horrific levels of sexual violence, displacement, economic upheaval, and poverty. At least seven state and more than twenty-five non-state armed groups have operated largely with impunity in a series of violent conflicts that seems to never end, only change.
Well over three million civilians have died. Millions more have lost their homes and live in extreme poverty. Sexual violence remains a reality for women and girls and is wide-spread against boys as well. The extent of the suffering is partially documented in the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES)—created and coordinated by Promundo and the International Center for Research on Women—which is one of the most comprehensive studies ever on men’s practices and attitudes as they relate to gender norms, attitudes toward gender equality policies, household dynamics including caregiving and men’s involvement as fathers, intimate partner violence, health, and economic stress. IMAGES has been carried out in ten countries, including the DRC, with additional partner studies in Asia. In June 2012, the survey and accompanying qualitative research were implemented in the DRC by Promundo-US, the Institute for Mental Health, and the Sonke Gender Justice Network, with 708 men and 754 women between the ages of 18 and 59 years as subjects in four different areas in eastern DRC: Goma, an internally displaced persons camp (Mugungu 3), a military base (Katoyi), and two villages (Kiroche and Bweremana). The preliminary results, released in November 2013 in Kinshasa, DRC, found that approximately 70 percent of men and 80 percent of women reported at least one traumatic event due to the conflict, including being displaced, being injured, having family members injured or killed, or being forced to have sex.
The tragedies that accompany conflict are often reluctantly accepted as the price of war. As peace talks ensue and guns are relinquished, a country may be prematurely considered fixed, healed, or a post-conflict state. While the prevalence of guns is more easily measured, assessing the state of social and relational well-being, or lack thereof, in a community is more elusive. In the DRC, nearly two-thirds of men and women reported having lost the capacity to love or care for others. In the wake of conflict, gender relations are skewed, economic instability produces further stress, and egregious acts of violence are imbued with a sense of normalcy. Men in particular struggle to live their day-to-day lives, to reestablish their livelihoods, and to reconstruct their identities. As one man in Goma described, “We are not men anymore, we lost our responsibilities, our masculinity.”
Men’s roles are in part constructed around their ability to function as providers in their families and communities. Boys are shown various pathways to manhood, an outline of what they need to accumulate—often land, livestock, a home, and a bride—to fulfill their socially prescribed roles. Conflicts often derail these paths and, in the aftermath of war, ex-combatants may lack either the skills or opportunity to provide an income for their families as civilians. Most men, even if they possess marketable skills, face a disrupted and stagnant economy. In the DRC, IMAGES revealed that 71 percent of men after conflict (versus 39 percent before conflict) reported never having enough means to support their families. In the same survey, 76 percent of men reported feeling stressed or depressed because of not having enough income or work. Many women and men reported stress related to lack of income, lack of work, and displacement as triggering men’s depression, substance and alcohol abuse, and use of violence. A man in Goma talked about not having enough money to purchase food, “When she [my wife] accuses me of not bringing home anything, sometimes I feel like killing her. What kind of a man am I being insulted by his own wife?”
In the DRC, IMAGES found that men also reported losing their manhood due to injuries from conflict. As one soldier recounted, “A man measures himself by the level of sexual performance. When I lost sexual power due to my injuries, I was not a man anymore.” Soldiers felt that a lack of acknowledgement by the government of their injuries (through salaries and benefits for their efforts) was insulting to their manhood. Men tended to cope with vulnerability, extreme stress, and trauma through alcohol and substance abuse and often through continued violence. As the wife of a soldier said, “When my husband is not happy and he drinks a lot, he can be very violent when having sex. He beats me a lot.”
It is impossible to look at the way forward for the DRC without reflecting on why violence and abuse may continue after war and conflict end. Men, although primarily nonviolent and often victims of violence themselves, are the most frequent perpetrators of violence. While many studies and efforts focus on empowering and assisting female survivors of sexual violence in post-conflict settings, fewer examine the effects of conflict on men’s social roles and how the shifting roles and perceived loss of masculine identity may contribute to further violence.
Women suffer incalculable losses in conflict, and efforts to include and elevate women’s various perspectives as leaders in peacemaking processes are needed; they are part of the solution for the DRC’s future. However, men’s experiences of conflict as perpetrators, witnesses, victims, brothers, fathers, and friends of victims, and how their experiences contribute to violence in the aftermath of armed conflict, must also be considered for gender relations to move forward equitably and for violence to dissipate.
Men’s multiple identities must be understood and efforts must be made to engage men as gender-equitable agents of change, with women as their advocates and equals in the peacemaking process through the construction of healthy, nonviolent, and gender- equitable identities as valued community members, as fathers, and as supportive partners. During this process, mental health services should be offered to men, addressing and unpacking their roles as perpetrators, victims, and witnesses of violence and introducing positive coping mechanisms and treatment for alcohol and substance abuse where necessary.
Men and women both benefit from inclusive approaches to rebuilding peace after conflict. In the eastern DRC, Promundo-US is working with its partners, Heal Africa and Women for Women International, to address the root causes of men’s violence—including power and the effects of exposure to multiple forms of violence—through group therapy. These Living Peace Groups are a part of sexual and gender-based violence prevention programming; they aim to provide psycho- social support to men coping with stress, loss, and trauma, with the goal of reducing violence and sexual violence in the community. Recent interviews from Heal Africa with participants’ partners provide hope for the way forward. As one woman reported, “When my husband was in trouble, he could not talk to anyone. He would just come back home and go straight to bed. It was difficult to know if he had a problem until he reacted violently. However, ever since he joined the male group therapy he comes back home and tells me what is going on with kindness. He advises me and together we look for solutions.”
Promundo-US continues to see the power in approaching men from a positive perspective, seeing their potential for nonviolence and for choosing peace. It is launching a new campaign, Living Peace (www.menbeyondwar.org), to redefine how individuals, communities, and governments view and work with men. The campaign will share and elevate stories of individual men who choose to live peacefully after conflict, advocate for inclusive and equitable peace policies, present programming that shapes nonviolent masculine identities, and engage men as women’s allies in peacebuilding. This initiative will help create opportunities for men and women, as well as communities and governments, to reenvision what it means to be a man as a pathway to sustainable, and living, peace.