Thursday, November 17, 2011

THE MEN CAN STOP RAPE MASCULINITY CONVERSATIONS: An interview with Lena Slachmuijlder about her work in the Congo

We at Men Can Stop Rape believe that stereotypical masculinity (or any other term you might choose: traditional masculinity, hypermasculinity, hegemonic masculinity, dominant masculinity) is still too much the air that we breathe. It’s something we often take in automatically, unaware. As one of the significant sources of violence against women across the globe, as well as other forms of violence, and as an unconscious source of conflict for many men, stereotypical masculinity causes great harm when it goes unrecognized. We all benefit from consciously developing healthier, non-violent masculinities. The Masculinity Conversations is intended to raise our critical consciousness by talking about masculinity. Sometimes it will follow an interview format, sometimes it will be a dialogue. Some of the people interviewed will be experts, some won’t. Some will be people who are part of MCSR’s work, some not. Let’s get the conversation started.

Patrick McGann, MCSR’s Director of Strategy and Planning oversees the Men Can Stop Rape Masculinity Conversations. If you would like to take part, send him an email.

The first conversation is with Lena Slachmuijlder, who has lived and worked in Africa for 21 years as a journalist, editor, human rights defender, director, producer, performing artist, cultural facilitator, trainer, and project manager. I first heard her talk about work she did in the Congo at a panel organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on “Youth Violence: The Role of Masculinity and Mitigating Factors.” Although she is now the Chief Programming Officer for Search for Common Ground (SFCG), we talked about work she did in her previous role for SFCG as Country Director in DR Congo. In the DRC, she pioneered tools such as participatory theatre, a reality TV show, and innovative approaches to army and police reform. We specifically focused on her efforts to engage Congolese men in the prevention of sexual violence.

The conversation is divided into two parts. Part 1 focuses more on masculine cultures in the Congo; part 2 will be more specifically about the campaign she played a role in launching to engage Congolese men in prevention. I was struck in our conversation by how similar and yet how different masculine cultures are in the Congo and the United States.


PATRICK MCGANN: One of the things that I think is an issue for us related to our Men of Strength Club is whether in a country in conflict or post-conflict – somewhere like the Congo – something like the Club would be particularly useful. One of the things we do in MOST Club is work with dominant stories and counter stories, so we're looking at what it means to be a man, how the messages men receive affect them and others, especially women and girls, and what are the alternatives. We look at what in dominant stories is harmful and what’s beneficial about counter stories. We've always wondered whether that 22-session format we usually use in schools would make sense in somewhere like the Congo. Who was your audience in the work you did? Why did you settle on that audience? How did you decide the best way to reach them?

LENA SLACHMUIJLDER: I think what was important for us was what we learned from doing a couple years of trying to prevent sexual violence and reaching out to a mass population – through radio programs, through taking a film out and showing it in village after village, by doing comic books, by doing participatory theater. We felt as though we were raising awareness around certain things – that rape is illegal, what constitutes rape, you know, the basics, because some of those definitions have been mixed up with cultures and traditions. But we often found that these sensitizations were creating another reaction on behalf of the men in the audiences. They felt as though they were not getting attention; they invariably stood up and said that they, men, had been raped. But that was coming largely from feeling disempowered. They would often use this phrase, “Women are raping us” referring to the way that women dress or the fact that they have money, giving the impression that the men are unable to resist, and the women are able do whatever they want.

PM: In the states when you hear men talk about dress it's about women dressing seductively. Is that the meaning behind it or is it a different kind of meaning?

LS: That's the meaning, and yet if you go into the majority of these villages you will see women in full length African dress and covered up, and women are being raped in their beds at night by people breaking in. But Congo is like 16 countries because it's so different from east to west. It's the size of one-third of the United States; the US east of the Mississippi is the size of the Congo. So what you have in more urban environments is effectively much more modern dress and men feeling uncomfortable with women who choose to dress that way and taking it to the point where they extrapolate – well, then if the women are victims, it's their fault. They say that very, very openly.

PM: How do they perceive those women? Here there's certain language like “slut” used. Is there similar sort of language?

LS: They wouldn't necessarily call them prostitutes right off, but if they hear that a girl was assaulted, firstly, even without knowing the facts, they would say she was probably wearing a short skirt or something, or if it was a situation where she was nicely dressed because she was with her boyfriend, who then abused her, they’d say it's really not a crime. It's kind of like, “Well, what was she thinking? Of course if she goes with that man, that's what's going to happen.”

PM: I'm trying to wrap my head around this to understand whether there are any differences from what happens here. It sounds similar. Do you perceive any kind of cultural differences between here and there?

LS: I felt that educating people about what rape is and encouraging women to denounce it were perceived as provocative and uncomfortable for the men. So it was more than just using the ‘dress code’ argument. When we were encouraging women to speak up, and denounce men who were raping, the men responded with ‘“Hey, wait a minute, we're actually victims.” In smaller group activities, usually just with men, we would hear men justifying and admitting to rape and sexual abuse and sleeping with minors, saying, “What do you want? I'm a man, she's a girl, she's a woman. I gave her some money, so isn't that okay? She asked me for some money, so isn't that okay?” And thus it's different from here in the sense that it echoed and resonated with how men see themselves in the society and as well the traditions and customs that they feel justify that power relationship.

PM: Can you talk a little bit about what those traditions and customs are and how they connect with masculinity. I'm particularly curious too whether in your perceptions because you talk about the differences within the Congo –

LS: 450 tribes, 70 million people –

PM: There must be differences among men, then, and how masculinity gets played out. So there are really masculinities it sounds like. How would you describe some of those differences?

LS: So much has written about sexual violence in the Congo and some have gone to the point of saying, “Apparently in the past rape was culturally acceptable.” People lashed out against this and said, “What are you talking about? How can you say that? We've got 450 tribes!” So, for example, there are some tribes where – and I'm really not generalizing about all Congolese – but there are some traditions whereby if a man would manage to kidnap a girl, take her, carry her home, and sleep with her, the the tribe would accept that she is now his wife. That's rape. And people are now talking about this tradition as rape. There's not been an analysis of every single tradition and tribe and their ways of courting, but some ways of courting have raised questions about the role of the woman in choosing whether or not she has a relationship with a man. Secondly, there are many different traditional ways of actually going about that marriage, and thirdly, there are many different tribal conditions related to what is the reaction of the family if the woman is violated. And in many – and here I can confidently say “many” - there is basically a fine, meaning reparations are paid. There's no other ‘punishment’. In many cases, the most acceptable thing was for that man to pay the fine and then take the girl as his wife. One of the big obstacles to fighting impunity and rape is still that people feel that that traditional arrangement is the most acceptable justice. The family, the father, of the girl who is violated demands that money be paid – in rural areas it may be goats or cows but in cities it’s money - and then he can also decide to have her marry the rapist.

PM: So it sounds like it's about how power is bestowed upon the male. This is the kind of power a man has, the kind of power the family has, and this is the kind of power the woman doesn't have.

LS: Exactly, we were running into a wall telling men what they shouldn't do. And so we said there aren't enough efforts to give them a model, an ideal. We wanted them to feel attracted to being confident and powerful and cool and good looking, while they were respecting women. It is challenging. In this comic book (Mopila on the Avenue of Love), for example, the girl rejects her boyfriend because he behaves badly. And then we see him sad, angry, but deciding that it’s worth it to say he’s sorry, because he wants her back. The Vrai Djo video spots were also not about showing a man doing something wrong. Instead, we showed a man in a series of situations resembling common interactions with women, and doing the right thing, doing it naturally, doing it confidently, doing it strongly. That was what was inventive in our approach.

PM: One of the things that we've done and always done is appeal to men's best selves, and it sounds like that's what you're doing.

LS: What does that mean to you?

PM: We believe that the majority of men that we work with have a desire to do the right thing and that they have the capacity. They have some sense of what the right thing to do is but they may not get enough support to do it, they may not exactly know what it is they can do, but when they're presented with other men who are doing it, it empowers them to feel like, okay, I'm not the only one who feels this way, so I can do what I think is right. Or now that I've seen somebody else do it, I feel like I can do that too. That was inventive for us as well.

Part 2 will be posted after Thanksgiving break. Share

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