Challenging gender norms

Last month International Alert ran a three-day training in Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as part of our four-year 'Tushiriki wote' (let's all participate) project.

The project, which was launched in August last year in North and South Kivu provinces in DRC, and in the border regions in Rwanda and Burundi, aims to promote the civic, political and economic status of women at all levels through knowledge, networking and advocacy. This is achieved through targeting different groups such as women cross-border traders and their husbands, university students, and men and women from various communities in eastern DRC.

'Tushiriki wote' is being implemented in collaboration with 11 partner organisations in DRC, Rwanda and Burundi, including the Congolese Men's Network (COMEN). As part of the project, COMEN and Alert organised a training on gender and positive masculinities for project officers from these organisations, which took place from 3–5 June and was attended by 22 participants.

The training supports the first goal of the project, which is to combat socio-cultural norms that put men in a position of domination over women. Often, unequal gender relations are caused by the way girls and boys are socialised, with particular perceptions of masculinities and femininities being more valued than others.

The aim of the training was to increase the project officers’ understanding of gender-related themes, including wider notions of gender, the socialisation of girls and boys starting from within the family, and the full spectrum of different masculinities and femininities. Other topics discussed included the engagement of men in relation to the wellbeing and health of the family, the linkages between masculinities and gender-based violence, and the transformation of gender relations in the context of unequal power relations.

As socialisation of men and boys has traditionally glorified and even normalised more aggressive and violent forms of behaviour, exploring the violent facets associated with 'being a man' and engaging them in the promotion of gender equality is vital. Working on positive masculinities means engaging men in discussions around gender equality in order to help them change their attitudes that reinforce inequalities and violence. This will also equip them with the skills to mobilise other men in their communities to advocate for and practice non-violence and equality.

Lana Khattab from Alert’s gender team delivered the module on gender notions and definitions on the first training day. Participants were very engaged and there were heated debates over the definitions and understandings of gender concepts, such as gender norms, gender roles, gender performance and feminism. They then split into four groups representing the different beneficiary target groups, namely university students, community dialogue groups, women cross-border traders and their husbands.

Participants were tasked with analysing the gender norms and roles of each of these groups, thus exploring in more depth their context-specific dynamics and power relations. As the project continues to be implemented over the course of the next three years, becoming aware of the broader gender expectations and roles that exist among relevant beneficiary groups is crucial in order to better adapt activities to tackle the core gender issues, as well as to assess the impact of interventions. Each group presented its findings and constructive criticism was offered at the end of the session.

During the break, one participant shared her thoughts on the exercise: "I found the session very useful, as it gave us space to critically engage with the deeper-rooted attitudes and norms we are trying to address and change. It is interesting to compare differences between groups. For example, gender roles and norms of the university students group are in some ways similar and in other ways quite different to the other groups. We have to be sensitive to specific contexts: the education and socio-economic level, for instance, means that different expectations are placed on male and female students compared to cross-border traders."

The rest of the training focused in more detail on the role of socialisation in shaping certain forms of masculinities and femininities, as well as approaches and techniques for actively engaging men and boys in promoting gender equality.

Alert is supporting, along with other INGOs, an alliance of more than 50 local organisations running an advocacy campaign entitled 'Rien Sans les Femmes' (nothing without women). You can find out more about it here.

Find out more about our work on gender and peacebuilding here.