Lessons from a Program with Survivors of Gender-Based Violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
This post is by Renee Bullock of the International Livestock Research Institute.
In 2017, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) launched a pilot project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with 30 women who were survivors of sexual assault. This blog post shares the program’s key takeaways and lessons learned and provides useful guides to working on gender-based violence (GBV) issues in conflict areas.
Our stories, our lives
“According to me, empowerment is the ability to own and manage what you own, by yourself.” – Woman program participant in Mushinga, DRC.
The prevalence of sexual violence in the eastern region of the DRC is so high that region earned the infamous title of “rape capital of the world.” In this setting, the IITA, in partnership with Mamas for Africa, launched a pilot project in 2017 to increase women’s economic empowerment, improve women’s confidence in their own financial capabilities, and transform the behavior of men, particularly that of husbands. The project sought to use evidence-based approaches and research to inform and improve project design and activities that were tailored to the participants' needs. At the onset of the project, IITA used qualitative and quantitative approaches to gather information about the women, local gender norms, and practices. It also sought to learn what empowerment meant to them.
Project context and what empowerment means
Gender-based violence refers to physical and emotional abuse, but also to economic abuse, which hinders women’s potential to secure livelihoods. Women participating in the project had low literacy rates, which stemmed from gender-based education gaps common in this area of the DRC. Women participants also had very low levels of capital and some had never participated in a savings group, let alone formal banking. There were limited economic opportunities, and local norms restricted women’s independence in financial management in the household. When asked what empowerment meant, women most commonly responded with mentions of earning an income: “Empowerment is when one doesn’t depend on any other person to have one’s farm or do small business.” - Woman program participant in DRC
Dealing with local norms
Local norms often identify men as the head of the household who control and manage all household finances. Every household was different. Some husbands were supportive of their wives' earning, spending and saving; others presented obstacles to women’s economic empowerment by taking cash transfers intended for women’s businesses or by discouraging women from engaging in market activities. At worst, men even resorted to physical violence when their wives enrolled in the project on their own.
In addition to economic and physical violence, women participants also experienced physical trauma, often perpetrated by soldiers or rebels. In the DRC, women who are raped are not always accepted in their communities and face stigmatization. In some cases, they are abandoned by their husbands and family members. During the life of the project, women shared their stories about these traumatic experiences and the support they received. For many women, nongovernmental organizations and hospitals provided both medical and psychosocial support that was essential in recovery. “I got psychosocial and emotional support, and this is what boosted my morale. It was also helpful for my full reintegration in the community,” said one of the women.
Under these circumstances, the project set out to support women to increase their economic empowerment. The project incorporated training that worked with women and men separately and together. While some training sessions focused solely on building technical capacities, such as breeding livestock, financial planning, and business development; others engaged husbands and wives together and included topics such as negotiating household budgets, supporting savings activities, and setting goals. In addition to offering training, a local facilitator joined the project to engage with households and mediate occasional disagreements when husbands pocketed cash transfers from the project, for example.
Key takeaways and lessons learned
A few elements of this pilot project were deemed critical to the design of women’s economic empowerment programs:
1. Considering the relationships of project participants
Taking into account project participants’ relationships or thinking beyond the project boundaries is not an approach commonly taken in agricultural programming. Women wanted to start or expand their existing businesses, yet it was clear that, for some, husbands could thwart project efforts.
Nearly half of the participants were widows, while the other half were married. Married women nearly always mentioned the role and influence of a husband in reference to feeling empowered.
A few women reported high levels of empowerment because of the support of their husbands. One woman said, “My husband is so kind and collaborates with me in everything.” Unfortunately, more women reported that their husbands and other male family members hindered their freedom: “Here a woman will always seek permission for whatever she wants to do.” “Nothing can empower me as long as I have to refer to my husband in all that I do,” said another.
Another important relationship that should not be underestimated was that of the local facilitator. The facilitator often shared information with the project staff and was a respected supporter of women’s empowerment in her community. The trust relationship that she had with the project participants allowed her to successfully negotiate households’ disputes and prevent further GBV.
2. Strategic partnerships
Partnerships and the strategic selection of partners with relevant expertise in dealing with the medical and emotional effects of GBV were essential. IITA, as a research institution, did not have the capacity or the necessary skills to work with survivors of rape, but other organizations did. IITA did have relevant research expertise to conduct gender analysis and generate evidence to inform the project’s design. Research into understanding local norms and relationships improved project outcomes. Additionally, allowing time for iteration between project staff and participant feedback enabled the project team to respond to needs as they arose.
3. Collective action to support peer-to-peer networks
In this project, women voluntarily formed groups to support savings activities, support one another’s economic goals and business plan development, and build confidence as both individuals and as a group. They created a much-needed safety net to see each other through difficult times, such as when thieves took their belongings or family members were sick.
4. Working with women and men
One project participant said: “Training is very important for women since it helps them claim their rights. We should involve men in such trainings.” While agricultural and health training may often work with one household member, it is important to remember that individuals are often part of wider networks ― families and communities. Project participants’ relationships can significantly affect project outcomes, for better or worse. In those cases where projects introduce activities that are at odds with local norms and practices, special attention to how to change these relationships was needed. Paying extra attention to mitigate potential harmful effects and coming up with strategies to address these effects was also needed.
Where are they now?
In 2021, the groups are still operating. While COVID-19 restrictions have severely affected their families, businesses, and ability to earn and save, women participants have continued to provide support to each other in the hopes that economic recovery might offer some new opportunities. Most of the women are engaging in livestock breeding activities. They have also trained new members on running a business and the importance of saving. In addition to their economic activities, the training has affected women’s relationships with their spouses.
“Thanks to the training on money management that we had with our spouses, men’s engagement in money management has decreased. Women now manage their money freely and there is no pressure put on them. Money decision-making is only done with both the mom and her spouse and not any other family member” — Beatrice
“Money management and decision-making on money is no longer a problem in our household. We are now living peacefully with our spouses.” — Evaline
Projects need to recognize the economic aspects of GBV and their impact on household dynamics. As our experience shows, understanding the project participants’ relationships and working with both men and women in the community can lead to positive and lasting change in households beyond the project.