The negative psychological consequences of trauma can translate into fractured relationships, and can lead to increased violence
“It’s hard to forget the past,” says Kyalu, a 39-year-old woman in Goma, DR Congo, “when violence still surrounds you.” Kyalu has been married to Abby for 13 years. But, what happened in 2008 almost tore them apart.

During the conflict, Abby and Kyalu went to the village of Walikale to work in the coltan mines. En route, they crossed paths with rebel groups that were active in the area. What happened then changed their lives forever. Abby was kidnapped to do hard labour for the rebels, and his wife Kyalu was held and raped. Three months after the kidnapping, Abby and Kyalu finally reunited at home.

What Abby and Kyalu experienced has affected the lives of many in DR Congo.  Millions of lives have been lost in the past two decades and the population continues to undergo atrocities from recurrent conflicts. Research conducted by Promundo found that about 22 percent of women reported experiencing conflict-related sexual violence, and almost everyone – men and women – experienced some type of trauma (death, displacement, or otherwise).

From the genocide in Rwanda, which brought thousands of refugees and subsequent armed groups into Congolese territory in 1994, to Laurent Kabila, who under the banner of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL), led a war against the Mobutu regime in to become President of DR Congo in 1997, and the ‘Second Congolese War’ in 1998, DR Congo has seen sustained, devastating conflict for years. Although a peace accord was signed in 2002, highly structured movements and several armed groups in the region have inflicted ongoing trauma on the population of North and South Kivu, which Benoit Ruratotoye, Director of the Institut Supérieur du Lac in DR Congo, notes, has destroyed the social fabric of Congolese society.

This trauma not only impacts livelihoods, physical safety, security and well-being, but also has serious psychological consequences. The deeply negative psychological impact of conflict includes shame, fear and the loss of the capacity to trust and care for others. Many men and women, after conflict, report 'having a bad heart' or being a 'bad person', approximately half of those surveyed by Promundo reported feeling guilty for having survived. These negative feelings can translate into fractured relationships, and can also lead to increased violence. "Finding out what they did to my wife was unbearable", says Abby. "I felt powerless to do anything...The trauma I felt made me crazy."

Repercussions of conflict

There is a need to address not only how conflict exacerbates, but also the roots of sexual and gender-based violence
Many men experience frustration and helplessness and a perceived loss of manhood in the aftermath of conflict, as they lack opportunities to produce, provide and protect in a period of extreme economic and psychological insecurity. Experiences of violence, witnessing violence, as well as displacement and poverty due to conflict are widespread and contribute to an additive sense of loss (of social connection and sense of self). In this context, many men seek to avoid and reduce feelings of vulnerability or dishonor — and often turn to alcohol and substance abuse. Women – more likely to seek help or turn to religion – report anticipating men’s frustrations,  attempt to avoid further violence by cooking, taking care of the children, or staying silent.

Violence against women in DR Congo, which is most prominently associated with armed groups, is experienced by many at home. Indeed, nearly two-thirds of women (65 percent) reported experiencing violence from a male partner. This violence – notably – is associated with a myriad of factors. Some, if not many, of these factors exist not only during and post-conflict, but also in non-conflict settings.

High rates of men and women in eastern DR Congo experienced violence in their own childhood at home and at school (a factor that leads to men’s increased perpetration of violence in adulthood); additionally, many men and women reveal a general resistance to gender equality; a lack of communication around consent and/or sexual and reproductive health and rights; and economic stress, highlighting the need for programming to address not only how conflict exacerbates violence, but also the roots of sexual and gender-based violence (deeply rooted power inequalities between men and women) in non-conflict circumstances as well.

Living Peace: the journey to recovery

Living Peace addresses the root causes of violence, and promotes nonviolent paths to healing for individuals, families, and communities
Living Peace groups were originally developed as a pilot program in Burundi and DR Congo to end gender-based violence by assisting participants in healing from their experiences of trauma, restoring social and partner relationships, and strengthening positive coping strategies. In addition to essential, direct health and support services for those who suffer from violence, “group therapy,” notes Ruratotye, “is a very effective strategy in a country where there are no psychologists, counselors or psychiatrists. The population must find a way to cure itself.” The groups use a combination of psychosocial support and group education to help men and their partners in post-conflict settings address the personal effects of trauma, while also bringing the community together in a process of social restoration. The group therapy process has been used with survivors of sexual violence, husbands of conflict-related rape survivors, and with witnesses of genocide and other forms of violence.

“Changing the way I lived was difficult at first,” says Abby, who found comfort in listening to the stories of men who had undergone similar experiences as he did. Kyalu noted that after Abby began participating in the groups, “He started talking to me differently” and caring for their children. Abby adds, “We found the love we had lost.”

Abby and Kyalu are not the only ones who have undergone this type of transformation. Promundo’s Living Peace groups and campaigns in eastern DR Congo, implemented with Institut Supérieur du Lac (ISL), Benenfance, and HEAL Africa, are set to reach thousands in 2015, and hundreds of thousands over the next 3 years. Using a community-driven approach, and working with police and military in addition to civilians, Living Peace addresses the root causes of violence, and promotes equitable, nonviolent paths to healing for individuals, families, and communities. “We’re fighting culture, and culture is powerful,” says Ruratotoye, “but I think we’re moving in the right direction.”