Commit and Act (CAA) was established in 2010 in Germany and consists of an international team of colleagues and experts committed to training health workers and other professionals in modern, science-based therapy methods such as Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT). ACT tools empower people to accept what they cannot change, to connect to their values, and to act in line with those values, even in difficult life circumstances.
Initially, CAA aimed to help people in Sierra Leone deal with the impact of a 10-year-long civil war that occurred during the 1990s. Even though the armed conflict eased over time, the violence against women and girls did not. Gender-based violence is culturally ingrained in Sierra Leone, where women are traditionally considered men’s possessions. Not only are women expected to obey men unequivocally, the rate of violence against women, and even small girls, is very high.
In 2014/2015, the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone made the violence even worse. Communities were highly stressed by lack of nutrition, health and financial resources, high numbers of infections and deaths, and uncertainty about how to fight this deadly virus. People were forced to stay together in little huts with a large number of family members, waiting for 21 days to see if one of them was infected. As the world has now gone through the COVID pandemic, we’ve all experienced some degree of isolation, only this time imagine having gone through that experience without running water, electricity, television, and often a lack of food. Any community interactions and entertainment–even soccer games–were forbidden for many months. Family violence became rampant.
Hannah Bockarie, who in 2013 founded Commit and Act Foundation Sierra Leone, decided to organize Prosocial workshops for couples. Both Hannah and Bette Ebert had learned about the Prosocial approach directly from David Sloan Wilson and Steven Hayes during a plenary they attended in 2011 in Parma, Italy. With WWislon and Hayes’s support, they had already pioneered groundbreaking workshops that had proven effective in shifting people's behavior to stop the spread of the Ebola virus, which inspired them to explore whether facilitating Prosocial workshops with couples would also help to decrease violent behavior in families.
Training and Engagement
Our plan to facilitate workshops that included both men and women was unusual in this context. Numerous programs try to strengthen women, which is important, but we observed that this could exacerbate the problem by threatening men and leading to more anger and violence. Commit and Act Foundation (CAA) decided that the most efficient way to transform the relationship between men and women would be to design workshops that empower both genders.
The Prosocial training method takes a holistic perspective on the context that leads to certain behaviors – such as cultural traditions, the legacy of war, poverty and the hopelessness that often accompanies it, the amount of stress in daily life, and the cultural norms that prevent men from showing emotions. This broadened perspective helped us approach the difficult topic of violence with more distance. Even if violent behavior is unacceptable for us, we can accept human beings who are showing this behavior. We can explore new perspectives and choices with them, guided by the eight Core Design Principles of the Prosocial approach.
Participants included ten women and ten men from the community who were willing to look at their relationships. 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 the 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. The intention was not to blame men for their behavior or to convince couples to do something different. Rather, 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.
Challenges and Barriers
The participants became much more open during the conversations, as they experienced appreciation and validation for sharing the everyday challenges they faced. 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. One participant said he works so hard, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, that he cannot express his love for his wife and children. Some men 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.
The most common coping mechanisms for men were drinking, smoking, entertaining other women, beating their wives, isolating themselves, and abandoning home. Women reported that they were nagging, provoking, and putting their husbands down. They also would not open the door when men came home late at night, maybe drunk or coming from being with other women.
Moving Towards What Matters
Identifying the common purpose of the group was achieved by looking at their values and moving toward what matters. Participants wanted:
- Their kids to get an education and become better people
- To love and care for their families
- To get good jobs
- To have normal lives, peace and love, good marriages, and good health
- To be obedient
- For many people to come to know Jesus
Participants explored steps they could take to move towards their valued life direction: be willing to accept the difficulties as part of life, be polite with each other, look for better jobs, study hard, and take better care of their health.
The men were invited to roleplay, demonstrating how they would normally interact with women in an angry and threatening way, and then how they would do it in a friendly way. The group was energized by this roleplaying and had fun being open. Then the women admitted that they also had their ways of dominating 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.
This is what the group came up with as their common valuable commitments:
- Peace and love between men and women - measured: 1. by number of quarrels (intended to go down from the current frequency of every day, to something like once a month), 2. by observations, if a woman prepares breakfast for her husband, which she does when she is satisfied, 3. also by the social time the two spend together, and 4. by the number of years their marriage lasts.
- 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 do they decide together how to spend it, and does the woman also let the husband know if she has her own income.
- Meeting as a group of women and men once a month, for at least 3 months.
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.“ As families unite around Prosocial Core Design Principle #1, shared identity and purpose, greater harmony becomes possible.
The group also looked at Core Design Principles number 2 through 8, which could help them to keep up their new commitments. 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 cases 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.
Positive outcomes were reported days after the workshop. A wife reported that her husband had already changed his behavior towards her. He was telling her now what he earned, and they discussed their budget together. They looked both proud and happy about this shift.
Similar feedback was received a few weeks 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, and are open about their salaries. They are 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.” or “My husband 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.”
Monthly meetings were held following the Prosocial training. Participants reported positive outcomes directly attributable to the Prosocial training that they received. For example:
- Husband now fully supports the home
- Budgets are now discussed and agreed upon
- There is more transparency and accountability in the homes
- Wives now serve food for their husbands in a friendly manner, which didn’t happen before the training
- Wives and husbands are now eating together
- A single parent among the group has maintained peace between the children at home
- The temperament of the participants has been highly controlled
- The home is well taken care of by both husband and wife
- Peace and love has been accepted in the homes
- There is more patience with children and partners
- Mutual understanding has been established in the homes
One year later, participants reconvened again and discussed 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.”
Families started to create a better economic future. 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. Every couple saved a small amount 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 and thus building a better future for the family.
Hannah Bockarie and Beate Ebert are pioneers. They understood Prosocial science early on and have great experience applying theory to practice through their groundbreaking work to reduce infections during the Ebola Crisis and then to decrease incidences of family violence. They have changed the lives of thousands of community members in Sierra Leone and have the potential to positively impact hundreds of thousands more lives. More recently, Hannah and her staff have applied the Prosocial approach to decrease and eventually eliminate the practice of Female Genital Mutilation with remarkable results. Funded by the German Doctors, they have been able to save 800 girls so far from this harmful practice. Girls receive education instead of being married underage, which serves not only their own health and development but also the future of their country.
ProSocial World Director of Research Beth Hawkins and ProSocial World Community Manager Dounia Saeme are currently co-designing a research project to measure the impact of this work and share it more broadly and with the scientific rigor it deserves. Stay tuned for more!