An Interview With Lena Slachmuijlder on 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 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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.

Watch the videos from the campaign and check out the posters. 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.

PM: Given the diversity within the Congo, I'm curious about how you settled on who you were going to reach and how you were going to reach them.

LS: We had been doing a lot of work in the east, where sexual violence in often linked to weapons, armed groups and the general insecurity. With this campaign we had the opportunity to reach out more widely, to parts of Congo that are not ‘at war’ as in the east. So we decided to work with a musical celebrity. Although Congolese superstar musicians are vastly popular across the continent and in Europe, their music is often about love and romance, and not very socially engaged. I was part of the team that reached out to some of the top five musical superstars. They didn’t refuse the idea of doing it, but their interest was financial, and they were not necessarily ready to commit the time needed to make the campaign work. But Celeo Scram, who was part of Werrasson’s band for 10 years and is hugely well-known, was different. He’s known for his love songs, and he’s considered cool, and sexy. He was ready to collaborate with us. We produced five spots, and in each spot, he’s playing a different male role: the soldier, the father, the husband, the boss, and the boyfriend. And before and after each spot he’s asking the audience “Are you a Vrai Djo’? It is a popular lingala (Congolese language) was of saying the “cool guy.” It’s never been used in the sense of someone who respects women. So we branded a popular expression with new meaning.

PM: I just want to make sure I understand the expression.

LS: “Vrai” means true in French, and “djo” means sort of like the guy, so it means “true guy,” “cool guy.” Like if you imagine a girlfriend saying, “Is he the real one? Is he the right one?” And already in some of the areas where we've shown it – even in our work with the Congolese Police – we’ve heard people using the expression Vrai Djo as a nickname when a guy does the ‘right thing’. And that's what we want.

We did radio spots as well on the same storylines. For the size of our project it was relatively small and targeted. We put it on TV and radio, and we did screenings with small groups and a few nighttime screenings, and now it continues to be used in the east where we have a lot of ongoing work. It’s possible that some TV stations still broadcast it if they like it.

What I also liked was the reactions of Celeo’s fans via his fan base in Congo and in the diaspora. The spots got on line, and people thought that it was solely his initiative, and he was getting congratulations left and right, from women and men, saying, “Wow! That's great! I wish we had more Congolese musicians who took a stand like you did. You should make a whole film like this.” That was really surprising, because I thought maybe they'd wonder “whose little nonprofit thing are you doing?” They didn't see it like that. It was sufficiently cool; he didn't have to step too much out of his persona, and thus it resonated with his audience, and that for me was one of the indicators of success. I knew people watching it out in the villages would like it because of his celebrity, but I didn't know if his fans would think it was a cool thing for him to do. It was very reassuring that we got the tone right.

PM: It sounds like it's a lot about identity, trying to create this masculine identity that's open to a certain kind of interaction with women that's different than the traditional identity.

LS: Right, there's a scenario where the guy has a girlfriend, they go out, they eat together, he buys her stuff, they visit the park, and then they go back to his room, and she doesn't want to have sex. In many people’s mind, at that point, if the man didn't insist, he would be considered ‘weak’. In focus groups people commented, “Well, at that point she's mine, so if I don't do it, my friends are going to laugh at me.” And so it was quite sensitive redefining that you could still be cool and not force the girl to have sex, even after she is in your room!

PM: And so there was this pretty significant social marketing component. Was there any way for men to become part of the campaign?

LS: The project was small and didn’t really enable us to spark a larger campaign at this point. We did consult with experts working on combating sexual violence, and we pre tested it with different age and educational groups of men. Then in addition to broadcasting it we did public screenings in one northeastern Congolese region as well as integrating it into our work with the army and police. We didn’t link it in with any emerging men’s groups because of the short time frame and size of the project. But it’s available for anyone’s use.

PM: What kind of support is there to address masculinity?

LS: It’s at the early stages. There's not enough recognition of masculinity as an issue within the organizations working to combat sexual and gender-based violence. The organizations trying to fight rape are largely convinced that the best way to have an impact on men is through fear, to make them afraid of getting caught. We're living with a weak state and with high levels of impunity; even if they get arrested, they frequently escape from prison through breakouts or corruption. For me, I think there are limits to the belief that people change because of fear alone. I think that if we don’t understand why they're raping, even if they're caught, they'll still rape because they are doing it to respond to many other needs. They’re saying ‘I'm pissed off because I'm a soldier and I haven't been paid. Or - This girl, she thinks I can't have her because she's so pretty. I'm going to show her’. It's other needs they’re reacting to when they’re committing these acts, even if they know they’re going to go to prison.

PM: The way we would understand that is if your masculinity is lessened in one place how do you bolster it up in another? I think that’s what you’re suggesting. It’s not unusual in the construct of masculinity that we’re familiar with that you’re ashamed as a man, for instance, or you feel like you’re less of a man, and okay, this is a way if not to restore my masculinity, at least feel more like a man.

LS: This sort of thing comes up in our work with the Congolese army. Soldiers are among the most named perpetrators of rape in the Congo. We’ve identified a whole range of dimensions that can influence the soldiers to want to be a man who protects, not harms. Part of getting there is empathy, through viewing testimonies of rape survivors, and talking about it afterwards, “How would you feel if that’s your daughter,” that kind of thing. Part of it is talking through the reasons that they use to ‘justify’ rape: that they are abused and poorly paid and sent out into the jungle with nothing, far from their wives for months or even years. And we talk about those. We also talk about what happens if they do get caught, and sent to jail, and what their lives and that of their families will become. We talk about the consequences for them as people – not only going to jail – but that they could have nightmares, they could be filled with regret for the rest of their lives, and they could be looked down upon by others. We get into the psychological and traumatic aspects. There are discussions at each of those moments, so you have a three-hour session with maybe 50 soldiers led by an officer who is himself a transformed person who is himself ready to open up. And we find they need to talk about this.

PM: That sounds similar to our Men of Strength Clubs where this is this hunger and desire to talk about it but there’s no space, and when you provide the space and construct it in a certain way, they will take advantage of it.

Just one more question. Any moments in the work that you did with men that stand out in your memory?

LS: I think that what stood out for me was when I would follow around our mobile cinema team projecting films at nightfall from village to village. By 8:30 the film was over, and the discussion is drawing to a close by 9pm. It’s dark, we’ve got a little spotlight and microphone there, and some of the women who did come and watch the films have dwindled away, along with some of the older people. Some of the kids are all still there, but there’s this group of young men between 14 and 25, who are really adamant about talking and saying it’s the women’s fault. They stay late, and we’re not playing music to keep them there. They’re talking in a way that is more extreme than I would expect. They’re saying things that I feel they should be a little embarrassed to say in the Congolese culture. I lived there for a long time, and I found that what they said was hitting a chord of what needed to be addressed – that extreme feeling of “this is against me,” “empowering women is an assault on me, telling me that women are the only victims is an assault on me.” “Don’t you realize all the problems that I have?” “Don’t you realize that I have needs?” I felt that that was really powerful.

The other thing that I felt really moved by was our work with the army and the way in which the team of soldiers and officers that we worked with to empower and go out and facilitate these discussions with other soldiers really believed in what they we’re saying and we’re living it. I remember one colonel when I was sitting with him, he said, “Of course I get girls who come into my office and they’re offering themselves to me. I can give them money, or I cannot give them money and still just have them. But that’s not who I am. And he was able to say that, even though that’s another excuse that men use – “she just wanted me.” But she’s 14 or 15. He said, “That’s not the kind of man I am. I don’t want a little girl. That’s the age of my daughter. That’s not what defines who I am.” I found that that was really powerful because that’s what other men need to hear from someone like him. He’s saying that this is diminishing my pride and my self-esteem, and I’m not going to do that.

PM: That’s really powerful for me, too, because it is so much about identity, and I’m convinced that we can talk about behavioral change all we want, but unless you have an identity that somehow fits that behavior and appeals to men in some sense, then you’re wasting your time. So it’s really powerful to hear him say, “That’s not who I am.”

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.