In most African societies, sexually assaulted people are often accused of complicity in acts perpetrated against them. Consequently, they keep silent to avoid social rejection, forced marriage with their abuser, incarceration, further abuse, or even murder. The general attitude of the community is likely to affect the victim’s approach to seek care as well as their relationship with health services.
This is why it’s important to understand the perception of the general community about gender-based violence, in order to provide culturally-specific education that will allow for communities to promote empathy-based and appropriate approaches to support victims of sexual violence.
My aim is to describe the perspectives of men in my Congolese community on gender-based violence, both before and during the war which started in 1996.
Traditional Marriage Practices
During the time of our forefathers, people in the village were living in families and groups according to genealogy descendance, and family could construct their houses in a line according to number of male children in the family, starting by first born. In this arrangement, women were not given much attention or consideration, as community practices mandated that any girl in a family would get married and start her own family elsewhere. By this reasoning, it was expected that if a family to be respected, the wife would be responsible for giving birth to more than one boy. In some cases, a woman might struggle to conceive or will not give birth to as many boys as is socially demanded. In these circumstances, it would be considered advisable for the husband to take another wife so that he try again to have more male children.
In instances when the second wife gives birth to a male child, the first wife will be marginalized by the larger community and deemed a failure in her domestic duties. Fear of such shunning can lead women to undertake dangerous traditional practices where Village Elders are supposed to look for the following items to pursue their ritual: a tree that sheds leaves once a year on Mountain Mkubwe, two meters of pure white fabric cloth, white stones found inside Lake Tanganyika in the Bulumba Isle. The leaf and stones are made into medicine for a ritual enema, thereafter the woman is given the white fabric to sleep on for a period of one week. Later, the fabric is to be taken to a local village priest. After the ritual, the woman was supposed to conceive a baby boy after three months.
This practice is considered fool-proof, which means that there is an enormous pressure on the woman to be successful in falling pregnant with a male child. Behind closed doors, it is no great leap to assume that a “failed” woman might be subject to degradation, humiliation, or even outright abuse.
In Africa, many believe that a traditional doctor has the power to enable women to give birth to male children. The community belief is that if a woman gives birth to more female children, there must be a causal reason for that. Accordingly, her family can report the matter to the elders in their community, who can then consult with the ancestors - that is, if the family doesn’t believe in Christianity.
During those times, cases of violence were less obvious when they took place, because people followed a predetermined formula of living: a nuclear family-based model in which a young boy’s bride was decided for him by their parents. After some time, the style changed. This could be attributed to many factors – globalization, Christianity, and the opportunity to divorce for reasons not linked to procreation, to name a few.
A Changing Congo
With the evolution of century, community elders, together with the local administration, decided that young men or women could have wives or husbands of their choice, with the specification that if a lady happened to become pregnant, she would automatically become the wife to the man involved. Men, however took advantage of this loophole to sexually assault and then wed the women of their choice.
Soon, one could find a man associating with other young men to assist him in raping the woman he desired. For a time, the majority of young women in these communities found themselves violated and then married in such circumstance. Thereafter, the elders determined that men found to have committed sexual assault would be punished, as a means of counteracting this epidemic of violence.
The process was arduous and complex; an attempt to correct an outdated or dehumanizing practice created new difficulties. Throughout 1994 and 1995, the elders realised that there had become a large number of young women in the community who were not married. This was due, in part, to the high price of dowry, which many men struggled to afford. A decision was again made by the elders: Reduce the price of dowry to $150. This was considered a good thing, because the money was not intended for selling the girl so much as to show appreciation to the parents for bringing up the girl well, and it also helped in reducing the number of unmarried girls in the village.
In 1996, war in the Democratic Republic of Congo had a, unbearable consequences upon the population that are still felt to this day. Up to 8 million people have died since 1996 and approximately 5 million people have been internally displaced, especially in the eastern province of Kivu. With the war came, as tragically predictable, widespread sexual violence against women and girls.
This war saw shone a global spotlight on the weaponization of sex, as it was brutal, inescapable, and indifferent to identity, social class, or age of the women and girls affected. Such violence was implemented strategically, and is directly linked to the destruction of larger population and entire communities. In some settings, soldiers raped everywoman in an entire village. In others, they forced male members of the family especially young men to rape their own sisters or mothers. The trauma of such abuse affects every family, and is unshakeable even to this day. A significant proportional of survivors of sexual violence were so traumatized by their experiences that they could not disclose their awful experience to anyone, which limited their ability to adopt elementary preventative measures against transmitted infection (STIs) such as HIV/AIDS, nor to receive closure for their abuse.
It is hard to know how far progress has come towards recognizing women and girls as autonomous individuals worthy of respect and consensual interactions over the years. Violent crime remains prevalent across the country, and within said violence – ever the major victim of war - are the girls and women.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, people and families are in need of an increased level of information and education to understand that there is no situation that excuses sexual violence, particularly with regard to the prevailing trends of generalization of sexual violence in the community. Beyond the requirement concerning proper clinical management of sexual health, health facilities need to build on this social reality by adopting more family-centred approaches in their community education effort and support for victims. But most of all, we need a change in culture that sees men condemned and shunned for dehumanizing women, for weaponizing sex, for prioritizing the value of male anatomy over female autonomy. There is much to do, but it can be done. It must be.