In a small village in the Eastern Congo, a group of teenagers sit with a facilitator, discussing what it means to be a girl.
“Girls are underestimated,” says one.
“We aren’t considered in the same way as boys,” adds another. “Boys don’t really work. They think of us as their donkeys.”
A third girl says, “One night my dad beat my mom. Men say that they have the right to hit their wives. If a wife makes a mistake, a husband can beat her. She wouldn’t get beaten without having made a mistake.”
When the facilitator gently asks whether this is fair, the girls offer a resounding “no.”
For anyone who has spent time in the Congo (or indeed, in many other parts of the world), stories like these are all too familiar. The downstream effects of adolescent girls’ inequality can be serious or even fatal. Less is known about the positive effects of gender equality.
In our recent study, published in the journal Global Mental Health, an unexpected new finding reveals that girl survivors of sexual violence who held more gender-equitable beliefs had more hope for the future. Those who reject the notion that women are subservient to men displayed more optimistic attitudes about life’s possibilities than those socialized to accept an inferior role. Our study, funded with UK aid from the UK government, was conducted in a conflict-affected area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as part of extensive field research into the conditions of women and girls in areas of conflict around the world.
Our study aimed to evaluate a curriculum used by the International Rescue Committee to empower girls and promote equitable gender norms. The curriculum is designed to prevent sexual violence in part by highlighting inequitable and unacceptable norms, including those that allow men to beat women and marry underage girls. Young adolescent girls are vulnerable to sexual violence in (and out of) humanitarian crises, and reducing that violence—which too often is part of prevailing social norms—is vital. It’s also vital to understand resiliency and how young girls find hope after experiencing sexual violence.
As my team from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health conducted our research, we discovered something remarkable: that the holding of equitable gender beliefs offers girl survivors of sexual violence more hope—a quality that is crucial to their own life prospects.
Previous research has found that exposure to interpersonal violence increases a victim’s likelihood of experiencing lower levels of hope and poor mental health, including depression and post-traumatic stress. These associations are greater in women and girls than in men and boys.
“Hope” includes optimism for the future and a belief in the capacity to achieve one’s goals—key indicators of resilience and well-being. Understanding the predictors of hope for adolescent girls in conflict-affected situations is thus critical to developing interventions that may improve their futures.
Our study analyzed data for 869 girls aged 10-14 in 14 villages in South Kivu, DRC. We examined attitudes towards intimate partner violence, exposure to physical, emotional, and sexual violence within the last year, and the girls’ perceptions of hope. Underscoring the vulnerability of these girls, we found that one in four girls reported sexual violence victimization in the last 12 months—a rate similar to that of sexual violence victimization among women age 15-49 in the DRC.
Our findings suggest an unexpected benefit of promoting equitable gender norms—reducing the impact of sexual violence when it cannot be prevented. While prevention of violence must remain a top priority, the role of equitable gender norms in fostering resilience is noteworthy and deserves further attention.
This material has been funded by UK aid from the UK government; however the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.