Working with couples to address intimate partner violence: Lessons from Rwanda


Jean Felix Havumiragira and Kristina Uwamahoro, who participated in the couples curriculum in Rwanda

Research shows that addressing intimate partner violence (IPV) requires working at society, community, household and individual levels to promote relationships built on respect, equality and peace. This blog shares the emerging learnings of working specifically with couples to address IPV in the context of Rwanda and speaks to the findings of the qualitative research conducted by Dr Erin Stern from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (read more in this article by Dr Erin Stern and Ritha Nyiratunga).

The Indashykirwa programme, which is funded by UK aid and implemented by CARE, the Rwanda Women’s Network and Rwanda Men’s Resource Centre (RWAMREC) in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has been an innovative partnership bringing together practitioners and researchers to better understand what works to address IPV. Indashyikirwa consists of a package of interventions designed to work at individual, family and community levels to shift attitudes, practices and social norms that perpetuate gender inequality and GBV. So what have we learned so far about working with couples to address intimate partner violence?

What couples valued in the curriculum

The qualitative research undertaken with couples before, after the curriculum and one year later showed that the majority of couples immensely valued the Indashyikirwa couples curriculum. The retention and participation rate has been consistently high with strong commitment from both partners in a couple to attend three-hour sessions on a weekly basis for five months.

Couples appreciated being able to go through the curriculum with their respective partners. For some of the couples, the programme offered a rare opportunity to freely express themselves and share what they intimately felt about certain issues. The different notions of power (power over, with, to and within) and specifically the link between ‘power over’ and different forms of violence was an important step in couples understanding IPV. Some couples were unaware that they were living in violent relationships. As one woman said: “I thought that the way my husband talked to me was the way all husbands talked. When I started attending the couples’ training through the Indashyikirwa project, I realised I was experiencing gender-based violence.”

Awareness-raising was supported by skills-building sessions where couples learned and practised certain areas to support non-violent relationships, such as how to provide constructive communication and criticism or resolve conflicts within their relationship.

What couples resisted

Where the curriculum challenged privileges of men as sole decision-makers and breadwinners, resistance especially from men was noticeable during the sessions. As one field officer noted: “Men were asking negatively, ‘What is this? They want women to be above us.’ But after every single session, you see men start to be open and realise how they were using power over, they thought it was their right as men to give directions to their families, go out and drink, do whatever they want, and come home late.”

Consideration of men’s sexual entitlement in relationships/marriage was also initially resisted by many participants. The idea that women could initiate sex was for many taboo and uncomfortable. Those discussions were however essential to challenging entrenched ideas and norms about couples’ dynamics that ultimately were underpinning unequal power relations. Couples were encouraged to adopt different behaviours at home using some of the newly acquired skills.

What the process of change looked like

After some time, changes were noticeable with couples embracing new roles within the household. Couples reported through the qualitative interviews, including a year after the curriculum, changes around household and property decisions, chores at home, sex or quality time spent together. The solidarity and closeness created among couples within each session and with the RWAMREC facilitators was also an important factor to encourage and support this process of change. The reflective and participatory approach of the curriculum and the take-home activities encouraged couples to try new ways of interacting and engaging with each other.

An unexpected change has been the number of couples trained who had been living together and decided to legally marry. Legal marriage in Rwanda provides greater status to women and gives women legal rights that they are not otherwise guaranteed to access, such as to property. This finding is very important in better understanding risk and protective factors for IPV.

Initial recommendations                

  1. This research, conducted as part of the What Works to Prevent Violence against Women and Girls programme, indicates that it is possible to conduct research with couples on IPV in an ethical manner. It also demonstrates the added value of interviewing couples over time to get their insights into what works well for transforming relationships and reducing IPV. Research under this intervention has provided invaluable findings that have contributed to better understanding and refining the intervention in a way that wouldn’t have been possible with only an impact evaluation.


  1. The Indashyikirwa couples approach speaks to the effectiveness of engaging both partners in a heterosexual couple at the same time. Research suggests that working with heterosexual couples is more effective to change relationships and reduce IPV than engaging men and women separately.


  1. Deconstructing the concept of power was essential in couples’ understanding of violence, especially the link between negative use of power (power over) and different forms of IPV (economic, emotional, physical, sexual). The concept of positive power (power within, to and with) was also inspiring for couples to address IPV in their communities, and to strengthen especially women’s self-confidence.


  1. Legal marriage was identified as a factor influencing women’s access to rights and as a potential protective factor for IPV. Informal marriage could increase the risk of IPV while limiting institutional responses to violence experienced by women. This reinforces the importance of taking an intersectional lens when working with women to reduce IPV. Further evidence on this critical issue is available in this paper Intersectionalities of marital status and women’s risk and protective factors for IPIV.


Read more: A critical aspect of the Indashyikirwa programme is safe spaces for women, which were established to help women feel comfortable discussing IPV and gender inequality, help educate women about their rights, and refer or accompany women for health, social or criminal justice services. Read Eugenia’s story on the What Works website to find out more about the impact of the women’s safe spaces.





It’s not just the women that want to stop Intimate Partner Violence in Zambia, it’s the men too

Screenshot 2017-12-04 13.08.25

Saphira Mulemba, on Violence Alcohol Treatment Zambia (VATU)

VATU means ‘ours’ in Nyanja, one of the main local languages spoken in Zambia. This programme is for our Zambian families, in fact, all families who live in similar settings, as violence against women and children is a daily reality for many in Zambia.

No single “risk factor” can explain why some individuals behave violently towards women or children or why violence against women and girls appears to be more prevalent in certain communities than in others, however, it is clear that alcohol abuse is a significant contributor. Alcohol can be both a cause and a consequence of interpersonal violence. My name is Saphira Mulemba and I am the Project Manager on the What Works project in Zambia. Our intervention programme, the Common Elements Treatment Approach (CETA), is trying to reduce and prevent the perpetration and experience of interpersonal violence in part by addressing alcohol use problems in Zambia. CETA addresses a wide range of mental and behavioural health problems that affect the family dynamics surrounding violence exposure (e.g., depression, anxiety, trauma, behavioural problems, and substance abuse).

Our CETA programme involves locally trained counsellors conducting weekly group or individual therapy sessions with their clients. Sessions are typically 1-2 hours in length and treatment lasts for 8-12 weeks. The clients in our study are families living in three peri-urban communities in Lusaka. The family group that we work with consists of three individuals: an adult woman, her husband or partner, and one identified child (boys and girls, ages 8-17). All individuals of a family received CETA if randomized to this study arm. Although we won’t know the true effectiveness of CETA until the end of the study, counsellors on our team have reported significant positive feedback from their male clients. For example, one male client reported that “This programme has helped me realize that I need not to force my wife to have sex but instead talk to her about it”. Men who have struggled with alcohol use problems have informed their counsellors about positive changes in their relationships with their wives and how their overall family dynamics have dramatically improved. They have also reported that they feel healthier, are able to go to work more consistently, and have even told their friends and neighbours who are experiencing similar alcohol problems about the benefits of our CETA programme.

Conversely, men enrolled in our study who have not yet received CETA have expressed to our team the need for services to help not only themselves but their family as well. We are encouraged by the response to our programme by men in the community and believe that engagement of the entire family unit in CETA increases the likelihood that alcohol use and interpersonal violence will decrease.

What the Stepping Stones Creating futures intervention meant to women

Casper leading group discussion

by Nolwazi Ntini

As the Stepping Stones and Creating Futures intervention data collection draws to a close for the year, I would like to reflect on the experiences of some of the women who attended the intervention workshops. The intervention, funded by the What Works to Prevent Violence against Women and Girls Global Programme via UKAID, sought to reduce intimate partner violence (IPV) and improve livelihoods amongst youth aged 18- 30 years living in urban informal settlements, in Durban, South Africa. By conducting participatory peer-led workshops, participants met twice a week and discussed different issues pertaining to their lives, under the guidance of the Stepping Stones and Creating Futures combined curriculum. Urban informal settlements are often characterized by high prevalence of violence. At baseline, 65% of women reported having experienced IPV in the past 12 months. This blog highlights reflections from conversations with women who attended the intervention and were part of the qualitative research.

When I asked women about their thoughts and feelings about participating in the intervention, they responded positively to the experience and shared their favorite and most memorable sessions. For instance, the mentioned “River of Grief” as a favourite yet, difficult session for the women, because it gave them an opportunity to share their life stories. The aim of this particular session was to assist participants to talk about past trauma and grief and the different ways to process feelings of loss. Through the narration of their experiences, participants were able to identify similarities between their own stories, and those of other women, making them feel less alone and isolated.

Another session women enjoyed was the “menstrual cycle”. Women found learning about how their bodies work, empowering, as for some they had typically learned this only in limited ways at school. For others, it was also important to learn about how to conceive children, which gave them some ability to start making decisions about their reproductive choices.

In addition to the topics discussed in the workshops, the women also always looked forward to attending sessions as it was something different from their daily routines. They described their typical days as uneventful; where they mainly did house chores, looked after family members and occasionally went out to look for work, with limited interaction with people who are not kin, close friends or partners. The chance to be somewhere where they did not have to invest a lot of personal effort or labour, and could engage with different people about topics of importance to them, was just as important as what they were ‘learning’.

The Stepping Stones and Creating Futures intervention provided an opportunity for the women to build, expand and strengthen their networks. However, the spaces convened were not always harmonious and problem free. In a context of socio-economic scarcity such as urban informal settlements, there was high competition for employment opportunities and intimate partners; such tensions and fights would often spill over into the workshops and therefore had to be resolved in them.

Despite the challenges, women claimed the only thing they would change about the intervention would be to add more sessions, as they felt the standard 21 sessions were not enough; or have more sessions but targeting different people in the communities, such as the elderly or young children. The sessions functioned in multiple ways for women, moving beyond simple learning spaces to ones where they could start to build social relationships, reduce isolation and start to think about their lives in different ways.

Nolwazi Ntini is an ethnographer and fieldwork co-ordinator within the Gender Equality and Health Programme, HEARD