Courage in Congo: A psychosocial arts based program for girls at risk or survivors of sexual and gender-based violence
In 2015, in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lucia was 17 (name and age are changed for anonymity), had a newborn child, and was a survivor of rape. Her sister’s husband was the perpetrator, and she raised her child in a shared household with him and the rest of the family, and told no one. She was mostly homebound, cooking, cleaning and helping her younger brothers get to school. She understood that this is what was expected of her. It wasn’t until she started to engage with a Colors of Connection project called Courage in Congo that things started to change for her. She began to make friends, connecting with other survivors, and she found support for her experiences. Lucia started to feel more capable and energized as she learned how to paint and draw and learn about female leadership and gender equality. Here she found a group of people, peers, mentors and teachers, who validated her experiences, and encouraged her to believe in herself. She saw that some of the hardships she endured, instead of being her own fault and failure, were part of a widespread systemic issue in society of the mistreatment and abuse of women. Within this safe space, she not only found confidence but was also able to become a leader, creating change through art alongside other girls like her. Together they showed themselves and their community what a girl is capable of achieving.
The project: Courage in Congo
Courage in Congo is a community-based arts project of Colors of Connection that worked with adolescent girls and their community leaders from November 2015 - April 2016. The mission of this project under the direction of myself, Christina Mallie (an arts educator), and Nadia Fazal (a specialist in behavioral health sciences) was to engage adolescent girls in Goma, North Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo in a psychosocial arts-based program. Specifically, our project worked with girls who were out of school and who were at a great risk of – or who were survivors of – sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), defined according to the Inter Gender Working Group of USAID. The ultimate goal of the project was to improve the community’s perceptions of girls and their role in society, and for community leaders and participants to engage in assets-focused thinking about women and girls.
This project was grounded in the understanding that the arts have a therapeutic and transformative power for individuals and communities in distress (according to Lander & Graham-Pole, and MacNaughton, White & Stacy), and in the ability of community arts projects to shift perceptions and inspire further positive actions by the community (according to Barone). As described below, the approach and method of working was community-led and rooted in an assets framework and value base.
The project consisted of a fourteen-week psychosocial arts-based program for the 35 participants, including Lucia. The activities included therapeutic arts activities, art activities that built artistic skills, and activities that built assets (defined by the Population Council, it is a form of knowledge, skill, and/or resource that is either internal or external). These activities were designed to shield the girls against the risks associated with SGBV and expand their opportunities to build economic, social and personal resources in their lives (as defined by the participants themselves). Alongside this program, community leaders, in the form of a Community Arts Council (CAC), were brought together to guide and advise the project and engage in an in-depth discussion on SGBV and a community-led response.
After the project
Following our project model, the girls took their learnings out into public spaces in the community by designing and painting two murals, based on themes that they had collaboratively created with their community leaders. The murals were themed on “Women in the Workforce” and “the Development and Promotion of Women Leadership,” and were created on two prominent walls in two neighborhoods in Goma. One of the participants reflected on the impact the murals could have for other girls in the community:
“We wrote ‘mwanamke shujaa’ meaning ‘women leaders’ on our mural painting. There are girls that discredit themselves, thinking that they can’t paint or draw. But if they pass by this painting, even though they may neglect their own talents now they can start to think differently and they can think that if they wanted, they could do this too.”
- Participant Interview, Post-Project Evaluation
Lucia’s story and the larger story of this project highlight some of the invaluable ways that a community arts approach can address the issue of SGBV. Our approach emphasizes that building relationships and connections, and a focus on positive visions and expression, is a viable path to help individuals and their communities heal and rebuild. One excerpt from a post-project qualitative interview is particularly elucidating:
“These images can allow the community to have a different understanding of women in the community. They can understand that women are capable. This can help a lot with community development and the development of the country.”
-CAC Member Interview, Post-Project Evaluation
The following results of the project are briefly noted here and are included in our full project report available for download on our website (colorsofconnection.org) :
- A therapeutic and transformational change was observable in the participants and community members who participated in the project affirming the positive impact of community arts projects for communities in distress.
- The tools and methods developed for the project contribute to the emerging field of community arts-based interventions in conflict-affected communities and will help to guide Colors of Connection’s future projects.
- A valuable outcome of the CAC meetings was that they provided a forum for community leaders to look critically at visual representation of women and girls in Goma and the region of Eastern Congo. It was determined that the majority of sensitization efforts further victimize women and girls, portraying them as powerless and without agency to address their own issues. In the CAC meetings, the leaders identified types of visual representation of women and girls that they wished to see publicly expressed. The result was a fresh approach to the campaigns for SGBV prevention and support of women and girls.