In a country plagued by sexual violence, women and men are starting to combat the root causes by challenging gender norms. While statistics continue to show high levels of violence against women and girls in the Congo, there are positive accounts of women becoming economic actors and winning respect in their communities. Women are challenging the ‘victim’ label, and men are becoming increasingly involved in presenting a more positive side of masculinity and condemning violence.

It is hard to ignore the alarming statistics on sexual and gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2016, a total of 22 075 cases of violence were reported, in which 97 per cent of the victims were women. Rape accounted for 68 per cent of the assaults. Initiatives and activists across the country however presents optimism for the future with women and men of all ages who actively condemn violence.

Women beneficiaries of an International Alert project, financed via the Swedish Embassy and aiming to promote cross-border trade in the North and South Kivu provinces, describe how participation in the project has “opened our eyes and empowered us by teaching us about gender equality, how to stand up against gender-based violence [and] the laws that exist to protect us”. The women describe how they can now carry on their activities, earn money, and thus feel less vulnerable since they have now gained more respect from their families and the wider society around them.

The image of the violent man who exploits and assaults women is firmly etched in the minds of most people. This was also the image that led to a study on masculinity in the Congo in 2015, which was financed by the Swedish Embassy. Challenging stereotypes of masculinity opened the door to exploring ways of working with men and women of various ages to achieve a more gender equal society. One concrete result was the Embassy’s support to the organisation Promundo, which has established young men’s clubs against violence in three of Kinshasa’s municipalities impacted by violence. The project successfully reaches out to boys between the ages of 10 and 19, who would otherwise risk joining local street gangs. Young men and boys report that the project has changed their ideas, attitudes and violent behaviour towards girls and women.

“I became sexually active at 15… [sometimes] even using violence. But after learning about different forms of violence and how the law punishes perpetrators of sexual violence, I now see each woman as a person who is not to be abused,” says one young man. Another young man describes how he used to assume that girls existed only to serve men, and that as a man he was forced to have sex with them. As a result of the information he received through his participation in the young men’s club, he has now learned that “a man can also do work that society had taught us was only for girls… Even I make the food now!”

Of course, much remains to be done before we can call the Congo gender equal, but there is evidence of progress that deserves recognition – situations in which women, in spite of assault and discrimination, stand up for their rights, thus winning respect, a Congo in which men also take the lead in saying no to violence against women and girls. Sweden recognized one such woman in 2017. Gégé Katana Bukuru, active in eastern DRC’s South Kivu province, was awarded the Swedish Government’s Per Anger for over thirty years tireless work for women’s rights and for her fight to stop the sexual violence against women, including by sensitizing men from different armed groups.