Gender can shape people’s expectations or motivations to engage in violence, their experiences when reintegrating into society, the types of traumas they confront and their ability to process these. For example, a society’s expectation that men should be brave and endure hardship often means they are expected to protect their communities at times of threat, learn to internalise their emotions from a young age and are stigmatised when seeking out Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS). Gender norms and power hierarchies often dictate how women are expected to respond to and deal with trauma, limiting their agency in the healing process. If left unaddressed, the gendered causes and legacies of conflict eventually resurface over time, so are a critical part of MHPSS and peacebuilding interventions.
Conciliation Resources’ has conducted research in Kaga-Bandoro and Sibut, with the dual purpose of identifying gender barriers which may prevent young people from expressing their MHPSS needs and accessing specialised support, and ensuring MHPSS and peacebuilding interventions are more responsive to local gender dynamics and can work towards transforming some of the underlying issues impeding healing and reconciliation.
Previous research by Conciliation Resources found that community experiences of violence and wellbeing in Kaga-Bandoro and Sibut are deeply shaped by the spiritual world. Harmonious relationships with good ancestor spirits can bring positive feelings and the influence of evil spirits can bring negative emotions. The belief that violence and associated distress has spiritual roots can prevent individuals from accessing medical support, with most people seeking help through traditional healing, religious support networks and alternative medicine.
This new report, Gender, mental health and reconciliation in the Central African Republic, builds on those findings, highlighting the role that gender plays in shaping young men and women’s roles in violence, their definitions of wellbeing, how mental health conditions are interpreted and the mechanisms used to manage and respond to them. It surfaces the close links between mental wellbeing and the gendered expectations instilled in young people during initiation rituals, as well as young people’s increasing struggle to relate to a conflict which has continued for over three decades - prolonging cycles of trauma, fear and revenge-seeking behaviours.
Despite playing a significant role in impeding access to MHPSS and preventing healing and reconciliation, gender norms, roles and relations are considered to be fundamental in reproducing and maintaining social harmony in Kaga-Bandoro and Sibut, and are central to the spiritual framework governing communities’ lives.
The report makes five recommendations:
1. MHPSS services should be tailored to the specific gender barriers faced by men and women, and give greater ownership to young people.
2. MHPSS services need to complement existing community values and healing practices, which are intimately linked to gender identity.
3. Peacebuilding interventions need to create safe spaces for young men and women to vocalise their trauma while envisaging new, alternative futures away from violence.
4. Peacebuilders should design and facilitate convening processes to challenge prevailing power dynamics.
5. Communities, MHPSS and peacebuilding practitioners should work together to reclaim gender norms which are more conducive to mental wellbeing and non-violence.
This report was produced through generous financial support from the UN Peacebuilding Fund’s Gender and Youth Peace Initiative. The contents of the publication are the sole responsibility of Conciliation Resources and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the position of the Peacebuilding Fund.
Image: Young male ex-combatants in Kaga-Bandoro. © Jack Losh