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Transforming Masculinities: Reshaping gender norms in DRC

Happy 100th blog post! This article summarizes the findings from a report that I co-authored on the ethnographic arm of a faith-based intervention to transform harmful gender norms in Kinshasa, DRC.

Happy 100th blog post!


Rarely does my jaw drop when I am reading descriptions of public health studies, but when I opened my inbox to a job description from the Masculinité, Famille et Foi (MFF) study, my chin nearly fell to the wooden surface of my coffee shop table. I quickly composed myself and gave the “Ethnography Research Consultant Terms of Reference” page another read through to make sure I had correctly understood the details.

MFF is a pilot scale-up initiative funded by USAID that is based on the Transforming Masculinities Intervention. The aim of MFF is to improve family planning and reproductive health among youth by reshaping underlying gender norms that serve as barriers to health and wellbeing. This normative and behavior change intervention uses Protestant faith communities in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as a platform for first-time parents, newly-married couples, and other youth to move toward greater gender equality and positive masculine identity.

Prior to this study, I had heard of plenty of global health interventions aimed at reducing gender-based violence, but few that focused primarily on restructuring toxic masculinity. Moreover, I had heard of a plethora of studies that used community spaces as arenas to reach individuals, but none that used interpretations of religious scripture within faith communities as an avenue to improving health. The study seemed creative and innovative, and it was taking place in DRC, of all places.

I was fully aware from previous global health work with USAID that DRC is a land of destitute poverty. Extreme economic insecurity, political instability, violence, food scarcity, and a long-lasting legacy of colonialism makes DRC a challenging country for anyone to live in, regardless of gender. Yet I didn’t realize that intimate partner-violence by men against their female partners in DRC is reported to be among the highest in the world. Additionally, gender inequality is associated with high child marriage rate, high maternal mortality rate, and low contraceptive prevalence rate, each of which are evident in DRC.

Christianity’s dominance in DRC makes faith-based institutions an effective way of communicating public health messaging. The vast majority – some statistics say up to 97% - of the country – is Christian, although Christianity did not spread to DRC until the era of colonialism. Belgian rulers banned indigenous religions from DRC during their reign because they saw them as a threat to their colonial prowess. Today, traditional belief systems are often seen as witchcraft, although faith-based traditional medicine is used frequently alongside “white man’s medicine” in some parts of the country, as I saw in my previous work with USAID.

MFF Theory of Change. Source: IRH's Midline Ethnography Report


In MFF, faith leaders were mobilized to communicate gender-transformative and self-reflective messaging to their communities. Additionally, study leaders selected “gender champions” as leaders among youth to act as peer mentors and agents of change. Finally, the study implemented a series of community dialogues for young couples to discuss gender norms, family planning, and sexual/gender-based violence, among other topics. This intervention took place in an enabling service environment, in which linkages to youth-friendly health services were available for referral.

The ethnography arm of this study was but one small piece of the puzzle to evaluate the impact of this intervention, including longitudinal couples’ surveys, cross-sectional diffusion surveys, qualitative interviews, and a costing analysis. Within the ethnography arm, my role was to quickly and thoroughly read through and analyze the French-language memos and notes of six ethnographers and create a draft of results for a midline ethnography report. I was instructed to specifically key into certain topics, including gender equality, perceptions of masculinity, gender-based violence/intimate partner-based violence, family planning, and varying perceptions of these subjects among various actors.


If my jaw fell to the coffee shop’s table reading the TOR, then it dropped straight down to the floor during my analysis of the ethnography memos. The intervention was incredibly innovative, but there were unintended consequences to the work. Although the intervention seemed to place gender roles on a more even playing field, it may have done little to alter its upstream cause – patriarchy. This intervention may have been an important first step, but it is clear that transforming deep-rooted attitudes toward masculinity will be a long journey.

For example, despite seeming to embrace the idea of gender equality, women’s roles were reported by men and faith leaders to be “complementary” rather than equal. There remained actions and behaviors that were decidedly unmanly, including admitting to be wrong in financial matters, performing certain domestic tasks, being disobeyed by their wives or children, and taking responsibility for the behavior of their children. Women continued to embrace the majority of domestic tasks, despite feeling overworked. As one ethnographer recounted:

"The woman [community dialogue participant] stated: ‘I am overworked and I carry almost alone the burden of our household. I get up early in the morning at 4:30 to go to bed after almost 23h. Every day I have to work without rest to get the money for my family's survival. I sell spices, and next door, I have a small makeshift restaurant. After the market, on the way back, I go to the bakery to get the bread that my 12-year-old daughter sells in the morning in front of the plot. When I get home, I have to start preparing food for my family.’"

Moreover, women in the congregations were frequently blamed if children acted out during church services or if infertility of failure to birth a son occurred. The latter seemed to be socially acceptable grounds for men to divorce their wives, while infidelity and intimate partner violence seemed to be socially accepted behavior for men. Several members of the congregation candidly and vividly described instances of gender-based/intimate partner violence, including beating women, inducing abortion in pregnant women, selling women for prostitution, neglecting wives and children, providing insufficient money for families to eat, bringing home concubines, lying about extramarital affairs and money, and publicly shaming wives.

Additionally, although men in the congregation seemed to be open to the use of family planning – especially if economic children prevented them from being able to support more children, it seemed that men were generally uninvolved in family planning or involved in counterproductive ways, such as restricting contraceptive use, forcing their partners to have abortions, and engaging in violence when their partners disobeyed their wishes for contraceptive use. On the other hand, men seemed to attempt to have the ultimate decision-making power among couples over the number, gender, and spacing of their children.

As a band-aid fix to address gender-based/intimate partner violence and gender inequalities, there was evidence that faith leaders and gender champions emphasized forgiveness as a virtuous quality, stating that wives should pardon their husbands’ violent actions to preserve family unity. As one ethnographer stated:

"A gender champion stated that ‘one can draw from the Pastor’s message the call to live in harmony in the home to await the return of Christ. He emphasized that men should not act violently toward their wives because of badly cooked food, and the woman should not insult her husband for being slapped.’”

Encouragement of tolerating gender-based/intimate partner violence is perhaps the most surprising – and chilling – finding within the data. Although forgiveness may have been seen as a short-term fix to promoting harmonious relationships, saying sorry does little to erase scars and prevent further damage.


It was clear from the ethnographic data that MFF was an important first step in reshaping gender norms, but it is one of an extremely long journey to gender equality. Although engaging men in these transformative workshops is laudable, nearly all ethnographers stated that women far outnumbered men both in intervention activities and in the congregations. Thus, finding avenues to encourage men’s participation is an important next step in this work. Perhaps more importantly, further work should focus more closely on patriarchy and toxic masculinity as root causes of gender-based violence.


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