**JWW’s Director of Advocacy and Programs, Mike Brand, is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) visiting JWW’s partner programs, speaking with civil society leaders on the forefront of the pro-democracy movement, and meeting with officials from MONUSCO (the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC). Follow his updates on our blog and social media.**
There are some programs that you are skeptical about, because they seem too good to be true. ‘Sons of Congo’ is one of those programs. Africa New Day, a Jewish World Watch partner in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), created the program to address one of the root causes of sexual and gender-based violence in their country, men. All skepticism disappears when you sit with men who have gone through the program and/or speak with their wives. It quickly becomes clear that what Sons of Congo is doing is nothing short of extraordinary.
In traditional Congolese culture, men are seen as superior to women. This power imbalance affects day-to-day life for women in Congo—in relationships, marriage, inheritance, employment, and their physical safety. The way women are perceived creates an ongoing threat to their wellbeing. Sons of Congo seeks to break these traditional views by teaching and encouraging men to think differently about what it means to be a man, husband and father, and the program addresses trauma that men have been suffering in silence with.
While visiting Africa New Day in Goma, DRC, I sat down with Sons of Congo participants and their wives.
Bitondo, a woman in her 60s, told me, “I am happy with the training, but I wish it existed when I was younger, when my husband was younger.” A mother of nine children, she felt her husband and their family missed out on the positive impact the program could have had in their lives for many years, but was still grateful for the change she saw in her husband Jean Paul.
Jean Paul, her husband, agreed. Through Sons of Congo he learned, for example, that it wasn’t good to, “torture a woman when she is carrying your child.” Jean Paul said, “I wish I had learned some of these lessons before my first child was born.”
I asked him to clarify, what he meant by “torture.” Jean Paul explained, “We are taught that women can’t talk. You, as a man, have to be the authority and show women where they belong, under men. There are some parts of this country where a man and a woman cannot eat together. The woman has to eat by herself away from the man. Even when they are pregnant, you sometimes force her to do physical labor, beat her, yell at her.”
I asked the group, whether it was very common for men to beat their wives, for them to “torture their wives?” Everyone laughed and responded with a resounding, “yes, very very common.” Jean Paul explained, “men beat their wives to show their power, to show the difference between men and women and to show their women that they are inferior.”
When I asked the group whether men stopped beating their wives after going through the Sons of Congo program, they all responded “yes.” Jean Paul said he also used to beat his children, even when they were fully grown. “I used to think that I had to beat my kids to teach them lessons when they did something wrong, and to show my power over them. But through the Sons of Congo program, I now realize it is better to show your children kindness, love, and support.”
Bitondo described how as a result of the program, Jean Paul, “began to bring their family together to promote discussion, share ideas, and promote unity.” She was very proud of her husband for now setting a strong positive example for their children.
One of the most powerful components of the Sons of Congo program is that, after participating, the men are required to go on to recruit new men to join the program, and many men recruit their own sons to participate. The program also encourages men to support their community, which many do by creating village savings and loan programs and through community service.
Corinth, one of Bitondo’s and Jean Paul’s nine children, was present; he also had gone through the Sons of Congo program. He agreed that he had witnessed a big change in his father, and in their family. He also told me, “I love that I learned I hold the key to change in Congo.” Then he spoke about what his group is doing for the community. He explained that he had formed a group of men to raise money to help send impoverished children to school. “We are now sending 1,500 children to school,” he said. Many of the men are donating their time, or donating some of their profits to help build or repair schools in the area as well. He said, “We don’t need donors to come and help, we can do it on our own, and we are! The local ministers didn’t believe we could do it on our own without donors. They said, ‘no, no, no you need donors,’ but we said ‘no, we can do it.’”
Natalie, a wife of a Sons of Congo program participant, told me, “We as women are the biggest beneficiaries of the Sons of Congo program. It’s like day and night when you look at our husbands before and after the program. Before the program, my husband never could imagine that we could sit down as equals and talk about our family issues, money, our children, or our future. He used to manage all of our finances on his own, but things weren’t managed well. Now that we talk about our funds together, and I’m able to help manage our money, things have improved.”
Natalie told me that while their income had not increased, it was almost as if they had doubled the money they had before, because they were managing their funds better. Natalie told me she and her husband were even able to buy a plot of land and build a house for their family, “something that was impossible before.”
While Sons of Congo is primarily a program for men, indirectly, it also acts as a women’s empowerment program. By teaching men to respect women as equals, it assists women to become empowered and respected in their households.
Sons of Congo’s focus on recruitment of new men into the program, and the trend of men getting their sons to join, as well, ensures that over time this program could lead to a generational culture shift in Congo, empowering men and women, and, hopefully, helping to break down the culture of inequity and gender-based violence.