Packed onto overflowing benches in a small church, high in the hills overlooking the city of Bukavu in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), rows of women, many with young children or babies in their laps, listened rapt to advice that they were hearing for the first time: “Violence perpetrated against you by any man, including your husband, is unacceptable, and should have consequences such as dismissal from employment or prison; women and girls deserve respect within families and have the same rights to inheritance and access to education; marriage under the age of 18 is illegal.”
The scene was similar to many of the sessions I have attended with International Medical Corps’ team of community mobilizers across South Kivu province, but this particular group was unique. Each of the women in the room was married to a member of the Bukavu police force. Well connected to the paved roads, railways and airports of neighboring Rwanda and Burundi, Bukavu feels like many other chaotic and increasingly confident African cities, remarkable only for the stunning views of Lake Kivu on which the city sits.
Yet Bukavu is the capital of South Kivu province and, along with its neighbor North Kivu, has seen more than 15 years of war, inter-communal violence and a devastating epidemic of gender-based violence (GBV). A June 2011 American Journal of Public Health study found that 1,152 women are raped every day in DRC – a rate equal to 48 per hour. Even today, the fighting continues, with reports of more than two million people displaced in this region as of early 2012. Bringing down rates of GBV in such a context represents a massive challenge.
In 2006, the government of DRC passed a new sexual violence law, which strengthened punishments for crimes of rape and sexual violence, and outlawed marriage under the age of 18, among other measures. However, implementation and understanding of the law remain extremely limited, particularly in the eastern region of DRC. The session I attended was part of a collaboration between the Bukavu police department and International Medical Corps to increase awareness of the law, women’s rights and GBV issues. Not only does the law lack enforcement, but police officers themselves are frequently perpetrators of GBV.
Colonel Ekofo Ndejemba Donatien of the South Kivu police department explained to me that the housing circumstances for police officers in DRC, where entire families live inside designated camps, can cause problems:
“You may be used to managing your house as you wish, but in our camps it is different. We live all together– officers, lower ranks and all of our families– under the rules decided by our Commander. This causes a lot of conflict, misunderstanding, abuses of power and both superiority and inferiority complexes. Frankly, it’s an environment that predisposes men to commit violence of one type or another. Unfortunately, that is usually gender-based violence.”
He explained that the decision to extend the sessions to wives and families of his men was taken by a committee to prevent GBV that the police force had set up, with the promise to manage and implement the program themselves. Colonel Donatien was keen to emphasize the commitment of everybody involved to bring about long-lasting and sustainable change, hence the idea of providing sensitization sessions to both police and their wives:
“Education for my officers is very important, but our evaluations have found that the program was most effective when we also educated their dependents, that is to say, our wives and children. These will be the first to benefit from any change in behavior.”
By working with police officers as well as soldiers, teachers, lawyers, judges and religious leaders, the project, known as ‘Bienvenue aux Changements dans la Communauté’ or Behavior Change Communication, seeks to turn those in positions of power within the community from potential abusers of authority into the loudest advocates and catalysts for change.
Two of the women involved in the session I attended told me afterwards that they had already discussed some of the issues after their husbands came home from the meeting for men. Somina, 56, made it clear they had much more to discuss after her own meeting:
“He didn’t tell me about everything I heard today. I’ll be going home now to speak with him and my children about the bits he forgot to mention.”