“Even if I beat her, she was mine. There was nothing she could do about it.”
That’s a man in Kitchanga, the Democratic Republic of Congo, reflecting on the way he used to treat his wife. He’s speaking to a classroom filled with other men, all of whom are enrolled in the Fatherhood Program, an organization run by a Congolese man who hopes to change the country’s conception of masculinity. Its motto: “Peace in the world begins at home.”
“The DRC is a country that has been going through war and ethnic conflict since the dawn of time,” Jackson Mbakulirahi, the program’s founder, explains in Arild Kumar’s remarkable short documentary, Baba Bora. “This ethnic conflict has destroyed the people. It has created distrust and hate. It has had a real impact on their way of thinking—their masculinity.”
The prevalence and intensity of sexual violence against women in Congo is considered among the worst in the world. “According to the DRC Minister for Gender, Family, and Children, more than 1 million of the country’s women and girls are victims of sexual violence,” one 2011 study reported. That study, conducted by the American Journal of Public Health, also found that more than 3 million women reported experiencing intimate partner sexual violence. The study’s conclusion underscores the fact that the violence is widespread—rather than limited to armed conflict—and recommends that “future policies and programs should focus on abuse within families and eliminate the acceptance of and impunity surrounding sexual violence nationwide.”
But few prevention-strategy policies and programs exist. Kumar was aware of this when he contacted Dr. Morten Bøås, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs who co-authored a report on masculinity and prevention of gender-based violence. Bøås pointed the filmmaker to the Fatherhood Program, because the researcher had collaborated with Mbakulirahi on fieldwork for his study.
Before embarking on the film project, Kumar says he was concerned about “perpetuating negative stereotypes about African men and fathers.” But Mbakulirahi was “the perfect frame of reference for these issues—a great father, leader, and a loving husband,” he says. “His wisdom and passion is the driving force behind the Fatherhood Program, and a major source of inspiration for me personally.”
Baba Bora shows how Mbakulirahi’s wisdom is contagious. “Toxic masculinity … has deformed and destroyed the men,” he says in the film. Evidently, not beyond repair. According to Mbakulirahi, many of the men who enter his program do so with masculine pride and a commitment to traditional customs and values—“Here the men would say, ‘If you eat with your wife, you are sharing with a witch,’” Mbakulirahi explains in the film—but the Fatherhood Program encourages them to reconsider what it means to be a man. Toward the end of the film, one of the program’s participants says that of those who received training in his class, “only a few are still putting their wives in terrible situations.”
“In the end, they say, ‘I understand; I was not yet a man,’” Mbakulirahi says.
Making the documentary caused Kumar to evaluate his own notions of manhood. He was also compelled to consider what more traditional masculine ideals would look like in Congo. The filmmaker asked himself questions about the sociopolitical context: How can you be a provider in one of the poorest countries in the world? How can you protect your family in a perpetual conflict zone? How does this affect expressions of masculinity?
On Monday, the Congolese physician Dr. Denis Mukwege was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work combatting sexual violence in his country. Kumar believes that this was highly deserved, as well as a rightful “recognition of the plight of the victims who have suffered in silence. But as with all disease, treatment and prevention should go hand in hand,” he says.
That’s why he believes the Fatherhood Program’s approach has applications beyond conflict zones such as eastern Congo. “If we are to curb the global problems of gender-based violence,” he says, “we need to look at the perpetrators of the violence and understand their motivations.”
You can learn more about the program here.
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