Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was a Belgium colony for more than fifty years, acquiring independency in 1960, amidst a conflicting situation, which partially explains the civil war the country has emerged itself into in the last twenty years. What emerged in mid 1990s as inter-ethnic confrontations, turned into a civil war in 1996, which has had lasting effects in the country, resulting in more than 20 years of internally displaced persons and refugees.
Our intention is this text is to debate the focus group approach to working with refugees, drawing from a particular experience, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but hopefully providing lessons with wider implications. And for that, we will consider some failures both of the process as of the research hereby presented. Therefore, this text draws on a discussion on gender relations and adaptations in DCR refugees in Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) partner agency, Caritas Arquidiocesana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Methodologically, this study was built on two focus groups, one with nine women and another with twelve men from DRC at Caritas, the agency responsible for refugee’s logistic reception in Brazil.
Moreover, non-Portuguese speaking, with little time to establish themselves in the job market and in a high cost living city, the difficulties for Congolese refugees are enormous. None of that is more stressful, as I heard their complaints, than the indefinition of their legal status as refugees, since they seem to know little on the process, including if they will be accepted in the country “ Maybe Caritas accept you, maybe they wont. If Caritas does not, what are you doing? Here in Brazil you need documents to work”. Congolese man complain more about this indefinition, since they would like to know which country needs their workforce to start a new life, enlisting countries that would benefit from this exchange.
The Cartagena Declaration on Refugees of 1941, a non-binding document, had as effect the expansion of refugee protection in Latin America, recommending the inclusion of those who “have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.” Brazil included in this declaration, severe and widespread violations of human rights as one of the legitimate reasons for granting asylum. Also, the country has become the main recipient of asylum claims in the Southern Cone region, with a 2,020% increase in the number of new claims submitted in the country in recent years.
Still, what the Brazilian case serves to illustrate is that, even in cases where a broad national and regional definition of the refugee condition exists, it remains of little visibility. Brazil is currently home to over 8,800 refugees from 79 different nationalities, of which the five largest communities originate, in descending order, from Syria, Angola, Colombia, the DRC and Palestine. As far as conflict goes, research has shown that both armed conflict and high urban violence can bring about strong pressures and changes related to gender norms. Conflict in the DRC has been marked by high rates of gender-based violence, particularly sexual and gender-based violence. In Brazil, gender norms alter again as men and women refugees are exposed to vulnerabilities such as to exposure to urban violence in the low-income neighbourhoods in which they live. Transitioning gender roles between intimate partners and family members can create tensions, but may also generate new possibilities for coexistence.
First impressions on assessing gender norms
War trauma is frequent in their speeches, since they report just searching for a new home after leaving DRC, somewhere to “hide, because in our country things weren’t working anymore”. The political instability of all African countries, overall, is a source for concern, with other wars that concern DCR refugees. Accordingly, the use of rape in military operations unveils some perverse dynamics of gender relations in DRC, where most of sexual violence is directed against women.
That said, we came to notice a conflict of identity in Brazil, towards what Congolese women state searching for the peace they did not have in DCR. The country that receives these women, in their words, is known for its gentle people. Nonetheless, urban violence is an important feature in Brazilian identity. Still, regarding the violence they escaped and the violence they observe, specially in Rio de Janeiro, war serves as no comparison, mainly because the former happens independently from people’s will, other than its political reasons. Having said that, they experience fear from urban violence in their new home, as they mention lying in the floor of their houses, not to be hit by a “bala perdida” [stray bullets], when there’s gun firing in the favelas they live.
Something worthwhile noticing is the indefinition of the juridical standards faced by these refugees, that translates, for women, into doubts about their future. The way they express that is also gendered, since they portray themselves as babies, like a Congolese woman tells, “we’re like babies, waiting for our moms, because we don’t know what to do”. The metaphor of children is an important analytical tool, when they mention that they’ve been considered fragile, and for that, they had the priority of being considered refugees.
Nevertheless, gender relations remain very distinct in Brazil and in DCR, since Congolese women often report how men, in their country, are regarded as being the boss, whose sole attribution is to go to work. That leaves other tasks to women, since they claim there’s no division, even if they work outside their houses. Accordingly, the fact these women are foreigners provides difficulties when looking for care services in hospitals and other health spaces, since they mention not being able to buy medicine, schedule consultations and not receiving free birth control. Gender roles also matter when they mention not having a family network that could help them, relatives that could offer a hand with their children. There is a constant complaint on the lack of quality of State day-care, and for that reason they remain attached to a normative gender role for women, with household work and not being able to get in the job market.
Also, sex is an important issue for the adaptations they need to perform. Whilst in DCR women could “save themselves”, their body and intimacy, exclusively for their husbands, in Brazil women seem, according to the Congolese women, more sexually liberated. For men, as I’m told, who are allowed to have two wives – but not the other way around – sex is more important, since children carry men’s name, different in Brazil. Reconfiguring gender in Brazil includes the necessity of man doing things by themselves in their new homes. Besides that, Congolese women see in Brazil a country where women are more respected, whilst in DCR no one would do anything if they see a man committing GBV, less despicable socially.
In a more theoretical perspective, the multiplicity of actors that can be incorporated into an understanding of South-South humanitarianism includes post-colonial middle-income states like Brazil to ongoing war states such as DCR. Therefore further explaining needs to be done in what are its actual possibilities to help and assume positions formerly occupies by states from the Global North. Brazil, for that matter, in a context of economic crisis, needs to provide refugees actual adaptation possibilities.
Finally, the intention of focusing on questioning harmful attitudes with regard to masculinities, and exploring gender norms in DCR refugees must be thought carefully, since culture is promptly called to protect gender inequities, and for that one must work closely with refugee population to rethink and question GBV, for instance.
Sobre a autora
Simone da Silva Ribeiro Gomes é Doutora em Sociologia pelo Instituto de Estudos Sociais e Políticos – IESP (firstname.lastname@example.org).