In March 2015 I went to Sierra Leone in West Africa.
It was my sixth visit to the country since 2010. In the earlier years I was there with an international team of colleagues and experts in our NGO “Commit and Act“ to train local social workers, counselors, teachers, nurses, religious leaders, and policemen. We were teaching a modern behavioral and transformational therapy method known as Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT) that is meant to help people relate to each other in a more supportive way. Initially we aimed for helping people in the country deal with the impact of a 10-year long civil war that occurred during the 90s.
Even though the armed conflict eased, the violence against women and girls did not. Gender-based violence is one of the major problems in the country — it is culturally ingrained in many African nations. In Sierra Leone, women are traditionally considered men’s possessions, and they have to obey them. In certain tribes, men are still brought up with the message that they should beat their women when they love them. The rate of violence against women, and even small girls, is very high.
The recent Ebola crisis made the violence even worse. Communities were stressed in terms of health and financial resources, and that spilled over into family violence. Women reported that men were „bewitched“ since then, causing them to become more violent toward their wife and kids.
We planned to run workshops for both genders, intended to shift their behavior. This focus on both genders was unusual. Numerous programs try to strengthen women, which is important, but we observed that this can tend to exacerbate the problem by threatening men, and leading to more anger and violence. So we decided that the most efficient way to transform the relationship between men and women would be to include and empower both genders in workshops.
In preparation for the trip, my colleague Hannah Bockarie and I decided to focus on facilitating PROSOCIAL workshops, since they had turned out to be very efficient in shifting people´s behavior to stop the spread of the Ebola virus. We wondered if they would also help to decrease violent behavior in families.
Hannah invited 10 women and 10 men from her community, who were willing to look at their relationship in a PROSOCIAL workshop.
For a few of the couples, only the husband or only the wife participated. They all had experienced violence in their families, primarily men beating their wives. It was a sensitive subject and our intention was to create a safe space, where men and women could be open about their challenges, connect with each other, and create a new way of interacting. It was not our intention to blame men for their behavior, or to convince couples to do something different. The goal of the workshop was to allow participants to become more aware of their behavior, understand better why they behave the way they do, and to see if a new behavior would lead to a more satisfying relationship.
Our training method looks at situations that lead to certain behaviors. We look at cultural traditions, at the legacy of war, at poverty and the hopelessness that often accompanies it, at the amount of stress in daily life, and the cultural norms that prevent men from showing emotions. We also look at the practical reality that gender-based violence is rarely pursued in lawsuits, and other factors that promote violent behavior.
This background helped us to approach the topic with some objectivity. Even if violent behavior is unacceptable for us, we can accept humans who are violent. Together we can explore if they still want to do this when they see a different pathway and get a choice.
We asked the group to share their everyday challenges. Men talked about their incapacity to provide a living for their families, and of having no perspective for the future — even if they worked many hours a week. Some said they work so hard, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, that they cannot express their love for their wives and children. They also felt that women and kids expected a lot, and that it was hard for them to meet these expectations. One man was troubled that his wife and kids did not obey.
Women shared that it was too much to take care of their kids every day, to feed and buy them clothes, and that men did not provide enough for all that; that men also did not tell them how much money they earned, but were spending funds for drinking and having other women while the family was starving. One woman had been abandoned by her husband and was left with seven kids.
Our participants became much more open during these conversations, as they experienced appreciation and validation for sharing the challenges they faced.
The next step was to find out about the common purpose of the group by looking at their values. Participants wanted:
There were multiple barriers that were getting in the way of our participants heading towards those values. They had feelings around this that included discouragement, anger, sadness, disappointment, a sense of inferiority, frustration, and greed.
The most common coping mechanisms for men were drinking, smoking, having other women, beating their wives, isolating themselves, abandoning home, even committing suicide. Women reported that they were nagging, provoking and putting their husband down. They also would not open the door when men came home late at night, maybe drunk or coming from other women.
Steps people saw they could take towards their valued life direction were to be willing to accept the difficulties as part of their life, to be polite with each other, to look for better jobs, to study hard, and to take better care of their health.
Hannah asked the men to role play, demonstrating how they would normally interact with women in an angry and threatening way, and how they would do it in a friendly way. The group was energized by this role playing and had fun being open. Then the women admitted that they also had their ways to dominate their husbands — by not talking or listening to them and not empowering them. They also hid their little bit of income from them, using it for their own purposes.
In the end, women and men agreed on the following common goals:
1. Peace and love between men and women - measured by the number of quarrels, intended to go down from the current frequency of every day, to something like once a month; measured by observations, if a woman prepares breakfast for her husband, which she does when she is satisfied; also by the social time the two spend together, and, in the end, by the number of years their marriage lasts.
2. Having equal relationships - measured by the number of decisions made together as a couple; does a husband tell his wife how much money he earns, and if they decide together how to spend it; if the woman also lets the husband know if she has her own income.
3. Meeting as a group of women and men once a month, for at least 3 months.
The group also looked at Design Principles numbers 2 through 8, which should help them to keep up these good intentions. Both men and women saw that there would be a cost to establishing the new behavior — for instance, to dare to be more open, or to make tea even when they don’t want to — but they also saw the benefits. For women, of course, it was to no longer feel threatened by men´s violence, and for men it was the relief to share the burden of providing a daily living with their wife: “Two heads think better than one head.“
Everyone was included in the process of decision-making, and the group agreed that the new behavior would be monitored in the monthly meetings. It would be a shameful sanction if a man had to tell others that he had been violent again. In case of repetitive misbehavior the worst consequence would be exclusion from the group. Any conflicts would be brought to the group and discussed and resolved there, and the group also wanted to keep up good relationships with the church, both Christian and Muslim, with other couples, to serve as a role model and invite others to follow.
I met one of our participants and his wife a few days later. She had not been in the workshop and I asked her how it was for her, when her husband came back. She was delighted and said that he had changed his behavior. He was telling her now what he earned, and they discussed their budget together. They looked both proud and happy about this shift.
I received similar feedback a few weeks, and then one year later. Men and women stated that their relationships had improved significantly: „Our lives are no longer the same.“
Men share that their women are more caring and are opening up more.
Women share that men now care for the home and women, that they show love, are open about their salaries, and deciding as a couple how to spend it. And most importantly, they are happy about having a nurturing physical relationship again, whereas before women were often refusing to have sex because they say „sex, this is my power“.
Women reported things like, „I am married to this husband, he has never bought me anything before. Today he came and bought me this very beautiful dish, I was very much in need of it.“, „He also talked to the 14 -year old stepson, who was not respectful with me, the new mother. Now he understands that he needs to respect both his mothers.“
The same men have beaten their wives and used abusive language, when women asked for money for food for the kids, or when they delayed opening the door when their husband came home late, after spending time with another woman.
We then returned after a year and asked participants in the meeting about the benefits of the new behaviors. They said things like: „I am relieved, that I am not the one who is always expected to bring the solution” or “I see that I made some mistakes. I wanted my wife to do all the work in the house on her own. Now we are doing it together with the kids and I like it better, it is more relaxed.”
Facilitators gave us the following summary of changes participants had reported in the monthly meetings following the PROSOCIAL training:
The group had moved the meetings to the mornings, in order to enable more people to participate. Food and transport compensation was provided by Commit and Act.
Participants decided that in addition to the already agreed upon goals, they would put some of their money aside for saving. This is extraordinary in Sierra Leone. Incomes are small and any amount saved at home would soon be used for one of the emergencies that frequently come up in the extended family. While that’s the reality, it prevents building in some safety, and providing for better futures.
The group members bought a box, a ledger and a booklet and put an executive in place. The group was able to collect some money – the equivalent of 10 USD-- to procure materials for the savings. Most people gave about 18 USD per month. The money was locked away, and only accessible when the group met, so people could not spend it even if there was an emergency. The full amount was disbursed to families at the end of the year. It allowed them to start small businesses, pay for school fees or buy a little land. So, families started to create a better economic future. Also, members agreed to pay about 0.4 USD (40 Cents) each every month as a social fund for the members in case of illness or loss.
Facilitators appreciated the positive changes, emphasized their importance, and encouraged the participants to extend these changes to their communities at large.
Sometimes it seems hard to believe, that people get so much out of a few hours’ of workshop. Hannah explains: “People in Sierra Leone are very flexible, willing, accepting. It is in them. Because they are open to have life changed. People try things and if it is working, they accept.”