Borderland weddings, shared beers and ‘bewitched’ men as indicators of peace and conflict in eastern DRC

In what little time I have spent so far in working on bringing in gender perspectives into project design, monitoring and evaluation (DME) with various organisations, I have been struck by how much both are often viewed negatively by those who are supposed to implement them.

Sometimes the resistance is overt; sometimes it comes in the form of rolled eyes, studied silence, inertia and hints dropped over after-work beers. Ideally, both gender analysis and DME are supposed to make both peacebuilding and development processes better for all involved, but in practice they tend to be seen as a further unnecessary imposed burden; as irrelevant; as too arcane, academic, technical and complicated. Or the opposite: as too simplistic to capture the complexities of reality.

Fortunately, within Alert the reaction has been much more positive and the willingness to develop these approaches further has been great. But the fundamental challenges remain: how does one develop indicators which are simple enough to be used by staff in the field without over-burdening or alienating them and the beneficiaries with tedious processes, while at the same time capturing changes of the complex and, in many ways, intangible processes of increasing gender equality and building more peaceful societies? This was the task that my colleagues in DRC and I set ourselves for a week in October/November this year.

Alert recently began a new four-year project in DRC funded by SIDA, called Tushiriki Wote (Let’s all participate). The project builds and expands upon the groundwork done by two previous projects, one working on the economic empowerment of female cross-border traders in the provinces of North and South Kivu in the eastern part of DRC and the other on increasing women’s participation in decision-making at all levels. In addition, it seeks to reach out to university students, border police and local leaders to change attitudes towards gender equality.

Between Bukavu, Goma and London, we spent several months discussing possible indicators for the project. Given the number and scope of activities, a range of different indicators are necessary to track our impact. Some of these are relatively straightforward and easy to quantify, such as changes in the number of women in leadership positions at different levels or the number of associations formed by cross-border traders. Other indicators are complicated by circumstances on the ground. For example, while increases in household income are relatively easy to track among Rwandan cross-border traders who have bank accounts, more nuanced household income evaluations will be necessary to assess changes among Congolese traders who for the most part do not have bank accounts.

For the trickier qualitative question of how we could measure change in terms of increased gender equality and more trust within and between communities, we decided to use the approach of ‘everyday peace indicators’. The idea of everyday indicators comes from Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Roger McGinty of Manchester University and relies on using the appearance of things, sentiments or events which may seem mundane but are indicative of deeper processes of social change and which beneficiaries can relate to easily. A simple example would be street life: a scene with women and men of all ages socialising together even though it is close to sunset. This speaks of a peaceful setting – where people feel safe to stay out when it is getting dark. It could also indicate positive gender relations. Empty streets with shuttered store-fronts at midday with only small groups of men hanging around, on the other hand, tends to imply more of a menace.

These indicators need to be based on a thorough and dynamic understanding of local dynamics. If, for example, gang or militia graffiti has been an indicator of lawlessness and threats of violence, the disappearance of such graffiti may indicate less gang or militia activity, and therefore less menace. Or it could mean that the groups have decided to take a more low-key approach to avoid retribution, or to seek a more respectable but nonetheless violent image. The reappearance of graffiti, on the other hand, may be an indication of more peacefulness, with young artists and taggers now feeling able to express themselves on walls which are no longer monopolised by entrepreneurs of violence.

What is key here is understanding the meaning of what is happening around us – context is crucial and interpretation should be made by women and men from these communities themselves. What, then, would women and men in eastern DRC and across the border in Rwanda and Burundi see as indicators of more equal relations between women and men, and of more trust between communities? We started out by closely examining the assessments of the previous projects for clues as to how beneficiaries themselves saw changes in their everyday lives as a result of our projects. We then held a series of focus group discussions with Congolese and Rwandan cross-border traders in Goma (North Kivu), political and community leaders in Bukavu (South Kivu), members of village-level dialogue groups in Kalehe (South Kivu) followed by an intensive brain-storming session among the team members.

Some of the positive everyday indicators of increased trust between cross-border traders which came up were an increase in the number of invitations extended to women from across the border to join important family celebrations such as weddings or baptisms, and of being able to leave unsold goods across the border overnight for sale the next day without having to carry them back across. Better knowledge of procedures and less harassment by border guards were indicators of more amiable relations with the customs officials. In the household, women have traditionally had to report their daily incomes to their husbands, who would often demand that these earnings be turned over to them. In order to be able to cover essential household expenses, women would therefore hide some of their earnings from their husbands, a practice known as having caisses noires, or ‘black accounts’. A reduction in the number of women who report having to do so could, for example, be an indicator of increased trust between husbands and wives.

Some of the women who reported enjoying more equal relations at home spoke of sharing beers with their husbands or walking together side-by-side in public, instead of behind each other as expected by traditional patriarchal mores. For this, the women reported, they often faced censure from community members but also from their own mothers or mothers-in-law, and their daughters might be viewed by community members as being ‘tainted’ by these ‘difficult’ attitudes and therefore ‘unmarriageable’. Men in more equitable relations also reported facing opposition, such as being excluded from decision-making processes as the other men regarded them as being ‘bewitched’ by their wives. On a more positive note, both husbands and wives in happier and more equitable relations also spoke of other community members approaching them for counsel on how to lead better lives together with their partners. Perhaps some of these changes could also be used as everyday indicators. It will be interesting to see how men and women of different ages and social backgrounds will view them and if they will consider the changes as being positive or negative developments.

The next step for us will be to conduct a thorough baseline study and put some of these qualitative and quantitative indicators to an initial test – and seeing if shared celebrations, shared beers, less ostracism and less perceived need to be mistrustful of each other could indeed be workable indicators, among more conventional ones, for more gender equitable and peaceful societies.

International Alert recently launched a series of publications on re-thinking the role of gender in peacebuilding. Find out more and join the discussion here.

Photos (top to bottom): Kalehe dialogue group members and Alert DRC staff; Alert staff discussing everyday peace indicators; lively focus group discussions with members of community-level dialogue groups.