'They call themselves property'

Sexual violence is a topic we would all rather not discuss. Unfortunately it’s an everyday reality for people in Africa’s Great Lakes Region. At the Dutch embassy in Kigali, Prisca Ntabaza aims to provide a sustainable solution to sexual violence by getting victims and perpetrators talking. ‘We need to focus on tackling the problem at its source,’ she says.

Man met peuter op de arm

‘The hardest part is seeing a person being objectified, and them accepting it, accepting violence as a cultural standard. NGOs have traditionally concentrated their efforts on supporting victims, which is important of course. In our project, we chose to focus not only on the women, but also on the perpetrators of violence. If a society is filled with violence, people are more likely to perpetuate that violence. To break the cycle, we need to listen to the needs people have beyond food, a job and a home. That’s why we focus on tackling the problem at its source.’

Living Peace

‘In the ‘Living peace’ project we talk with both perpetrators and their families. We create support groups of thirty people who meet in thirteen sessions. Many perpetrators are ex-combatants who have been directly affected by past conflicts. Violence has become accepted, expected even. They were supposed to protect people, but now people need protection from them. The project allows them to talk about their own experiences. It gives them the necessary support to overcome their traumas and reintegrate into their communities.’

Regaining humanity

‘I’ve been involved from the very beginning. The work we do remains difficult: we listen to the stories of both the victims and the perpetrators. We try to understand them: how women become a thing, an object. Call themselves property. We see how a human being can lose – and regain – their humanity. Sometimes their stories are so harrowing, I have to ask if we can take a break.’

‘We also support One Stop Centres which offer victims psychological and medical care. There I get to talk to people at the beginning of the process, and I see the change they go through. That change is huge. It’s the best part of my work and the hardest part.’

A sense of trust

‘The Netherlands has a reputation as a trustworthy partner in the Great Lakes Region. That’s because we involve local leaders. They help us approach the perpetrators of violence in their community. This involvement creates a sense of ownership and trust in our interventions – a confidence in our project. From session to session, we see people change. They start talking to their partners and caring for their children again. This attracts new people from the community to our programme. The men taking part help each other face their traumas. So that they can once again become the ones protecting their community.’

Mannen achter lessenaars in cirkel geplaatst

Living Peace Project

The #MHPSS convention in Amsterdam on 8 October focuses on mental health in post-conflict situations. The ‘Living Peace’ initiative promotes positive masculinity by turning men and boys, who are traditionally seen as responsible for human rights violations, into human rights defenders by offering psychosocial support and therapy.

Prisca Ntabaza is a senior policy officer at the Dutch embassy in Kigali and responsible for the ‘Living Peace’ initiative.