International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Domestic drama: Women in Congo using theater to end violence

As day broke, 35-year-old Bernadette* ardently started preparing for the big celebration—International Women’s Day—an event held every March 8 to raise awareness about violence against women. She donned a new pagne, a dress made from traditional waxed-cotton fabric, mounted her young baby on her back, and hurried to meet several dozen other women at the village center, walking with a light step and a smile on her face. 

As in many neighboring communities, women and girls in Bunagana, a village in North Kivu Province, have little to smile about. From early morning to late night they tend to their households and their fields, carrying water on their heads for miles and scrambling to set food before their families. On most days, meals consist only of fufu, a nutrient-poor white porridge made of manioc flour. Yet the women hardly complain—except about the dangers they face just because they are female.
 
Bunagana is situated on the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, making it an open, busy thoroughfare. It is also a route used by various armed groups engaged in ongoing conflicts. Women and girls are constantly under threat of abuse, and sexual violence is common, a cruel fact of life in this region of East Africa. 

“Almost every day we hear of someone being attacked in the fields,” says Bernadette. “And then so many of our friends and neighbors suffer at home, beaten by their husbands.”

While there is not much they can do about  unknown assailants, the women in Bunagana decided it was time to push back against domestic violence. Bernadette and about 70 other women in her village had become active in a community-based organization supported by the International Rescue Committee. Apart from gathering every week to learn to read and write, sew and knit, and save money to invest in small businesses, they began to raise awareness about pressing issues like domestic violence. This year, the women marked March 8 on their calendars, convinced that International Women’s Day would be the best opportunity to have their voices heard.
A woman from Bunagana acts the role of a husband angry at his wife when presented with fufu for dinner.
A woman from Bunagana acts the role of a husband angry at his wife when presented with fufu for dinner. (Photo: Sinziana Demian/IRC)
Following a parade where hundreds of women and girls danced and sang and showcased their new pagnes, the village gathered at the local stadium for an afternoon of entertainment. First on the bill: the Bunagana women’s group, who had prepared a play.
 
Bernadette in the role of an angry man coming home at the end of the day, appeared on stage. Wearing pants and a cap covering her long braids, she scowled and stomped, bellowed left and right, demanding better food than the fufu his wife had prepared for supper. When nothing better appeared on his plate, the angry husband smashed the pot, then started beating his wife and children, eventually kicking them out of the house. 
 
“It is a kind of situation that happens so often in our community,” says Bernadette, explaining how the group chose this theme for the afternoon performance. “So many women are abused and have no say in their own homes. We think this is so wrong, and we have to make men understand it as well.”
 
To emphasize this message, the women set the second act of their play in a model home, where a loving husband consulted with his wife on matters such as money management, education of their children, and saving for the future. 
A woman acts the role of a wife coming home from the fields, carrying her baby and firewood on her back -- only to be met by an angry husband who starts beating her up.
A woman acts the role of a wife coming home from the fields, carrying her baby and firewood on her back -- only to be met by an angry husband who starts beating her up. (Photo: Sinziana Demian/IRC)

“We wanted to show that it does not take much to have a good family atmosphere,” says Christine, another member of the Bunagana women’s group. “Women just want to be respected and treated properly. Luckily, we are beginning to see a positive development. More and more men come to see our plays and they realize that a change in attitude does not cost them anything.”
 
Community theater is widely used by all 42 IRC-supported community-based organizations in eastern Congo. Women choose the themes, develop the scripts, and then act them out in simple yet powerful ways, always stressing that the performances are based on a painful reality.

In Bunagana, Christine’s husband, Faustin, confirms that men are slowly starting to embrace the messages promoted by the women’s group. He says that he himself has witnessed several instances where men who had beaten their wives at home were later admonished by their peers at the pub. He admits, however, that local traditions “in which only men count” will take years to change.

Faustin is proud of his wife’s work and dedication to the effort, however, and hails projects that give women a true voice.

“She is more independent now,” he says. “She also comes home with so many great ideas, and we can talk about all our family issues. We have eight children, so it’s very important that we think about their future and find solutions together.”

*Names have been changed in order to protect identities.
 

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