‘No sex without fighting’ – tackling toxic masculinity in DR Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo has some of highest rates of sexual violence in the world. But a new approach is trying to tackle this by encouraging men to confront and question their toxic masculinity.

This article was originally written for BBC News
By By Aaron Akinyemi

Moises Bagwiza is one of the men who now reflects with regret on his past, and his recollections of how he treated and raped his wife, Jullienne, are frank, graphic and disturbing.

“Sex with her was like fighting. I didn’t care what she was wearing – I would just tear it all off,” he says.

In a modest bungalow in the quiet village of Rutshuru, eastern DR Congo, Mr Bagwiza recounts one particular assault when his wife was four months pregnant.

“I turned around and gave her a small kick on her stomach,” he says, explaining that she fell to the floor, bleeding, while concerned neighbours rushed over to take her to hospital.

Her crime? She had secretly been saving up money for household expenses through a local women’s collective.

In the lead-up to the attack, she had refused to give him money for a pair of shoes.

“It’s true, the money was hers,” Mr Bagwiza says. “But as you know, nowadays when women have money, they feel powerful and they show it.”

Traditional ideals of manhood

This resentment lies at the heart of what some are calling a crisis of modern African masculinity.

For centuries, men have been raised with very clearly defined ideas of what it means to be a man: strength, emotional stoicism, being able to protect and provide for your family.

But evolving gender roles, including greater female empowerment, combined with continued high levels of male unemployment are thwarting men’s ability to live up to these traditional ideals of manhood.

And for some men like Mr Bagwiza, a financially independent woman poses such an existential threat to their sense of entitled manhood that they are thrown into crisis.

A builder in the local village, he says he felt violence was the only way he could communicate with his wife.

“I thought she belonged to me,” he says. “I thought I could do anything I wanted to her. When I would come home and she asked me something, I would punch her.”

Compensating for masculine ‘failure’

Mr Bagwiza’s case is far from unique. DR Congo has one of the highest incidences of rape in the world, with some 48 women estimated to be raped every hour, according to one study by the American Journal of Public Health.

Many expert analyses attribute the country’s rape crisis to a longstanding conflict in the east of the country, where rival militia groups have commonly used gang rape and sexual slavery as a weapon of war.

But the root cause of rape in DR Congo runs much deeper, according to Ilot Alphonse, co-founder of the Goma-based NGO Congo Men’s Network (Comen).

“When we talk about sexual violence only in the context of an armed conflict, we are a little bit lost,” he says.

“We have inherited this way of treating girls as our subjects. Men know that they have a right to sex all the time. The cause of sexual violence is about the power and position Congolese men always wanted to hold.”

Involving women in discussions

Danielle Hoffmeester, a project officer at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in South Africa, agrees.

She believes gender-based violence is directly linked to how men are socialised as boys; and to their inability to live up to the strict rules of traditional African masculinity.

“To provide is a signifier of manhood and the inability of men to provide and support their families has led to many of them compensating for this ‘failure’ at manliness in frequently toxic and violent ways,” she says.

Mr Alphonse says he was both a perpetrator and a victim of violence.

“At school we were beaten, at home we were beaten, and in the village, we organised fighting sessions,” he says.

Mr Alphonse points out that he internalised the violence, which later became a way for him to communicate.

“Sometimes I would beat my girlfriend, and it was for her to apologise. I remember one day while we were still children, I had a fight with my sister and threw a knife at her.”

Anti-rape initiatives that have sought to combat sexual violence in affected parts of Africa have typically focused on women, the majority of rape victims, and excluded men, who make up the majority of perpetrators.

But for Mr Alphonse, these initiatives address the symptoms rather than the root causes of sexual violence.

“We are fighting violence based on gender,” he says. “For this to happen, we have to involve men and boys who are part of the problem, so they have a space to change things because of the influence they have in the community.”

And that is exactly what Mr Alphonse and his colleagues have done.

They have created the Baraza Badilika – a contemporary take on ancient meeting spaces where men would gather to resolve pressing community issues and initiate boys into manhood.

As successive conflicts razed villages and destroyed lives, these spaces were all but eradicated, leading to a lack of role male models for young men, Mr Alphonse says.

Whereas the traditional Baraza Badilika (roughly translated as Circle of Change) were attended only by men, this 21st Century iteration gives women prominent leadership roles.

“It is really time for women to invade these spaces,” Mr Alphonse maintains.

‘Husbands changing’

Every week, around 20 men meet at the Baraza for two hours to learn about positive masculinity, gender equality and fatherhood.

Workshops are overseen by one male and one female facilitator, who use films, illustrated books and psychodrama sessions to “rewire the brains” of sexual violence perpetrators.

Mr Alphonse says the majority of women tell him their husbands have changed after attending the workshops.

“They say: ‘We went to the imam, pastors, traditional chiefs, but he did not change. He has been arrested several times but did not change. Suddenly I see him being non-violent and coming home on time.'”

Mr Bagwiza too has come a long way since beating his pregnant wife.

“Of course it’s not 100% – we’re only humans – but a lot of things have improved dramatically. We now have proper conversations and our sexual relationship has improved a lot.”

Mr Alphonse is determined to reach “every single man” in DR Congo with his philosophy of positive masculinity.

“We dream to see the end of all forms of violence in this country,” he says. “So we can make it liveable for men, women, boys and girls.”