Let’s talk about men as agents of change

A Google search for campaigns promoting girls’ rights launched in 2014 throws up plenty that were launched from around the world – Girls Unlimited, Kishori Abhiyaan, Too Young to Wed, Girls not Brides, Bring Back Our Girls, to name just a few. A similar exercise for adolescent boys yields barely a handful.

Which raises the question – when it comes to investing in the 1.8 billion youth alive today, are the concerns of boys and young men getting overlooked?

A look close at home seems to confirm that impression. Down the decades, government campaigns in India – be it on family planning, nutrition, gender violence, early marriage and safe pregnancy – have targeted girls. Boys have not been reached out to on the same scale.

Given the enormous challenges girls in India face, the interventions are necessary.

India ranks 127 out of 152 countries in gender inequality

India ranks 127 out of 152 countries in gender inequality

The UNDP’s Human Development Report ranks India 127 out of 152 countries on gender inequality. A 2012 World Bank study says that nearly 2.5 lakh girls were killed in India every single year over the last two decades because of their gender. 40% of married women are subjected to violence from their husbands, while 54% believe that spousal violence is justified according to NFHS-3 figures.

The same data also makes a compelling case for interventions among boys. Over 50% of boys between 15-24 years are in the labour force as per NFHS-3 data, while over 80% are married. One out of every 5 boys between 10-19 years is illiterate,

However, apart from including men in a specific aspect like violence prevention or improved family planning, there is no evidence of a larger reaching out says Dr Aparajita Gogoi, Director, Centre for Catalyzing Change, India, a non-profit that aims to empower women to become full partners in development.

One out of 5 boys between 15-19 years is illiterate

One out of 5 boys between 15-19 years is illiterate

“A few years after we started our program for girls in Bihar, we realized that for our core mission to succeed, we needed to change existing gender norms and attitudes among boys and young men as well”, she says.

A perspective shared by many organizations working in health and gender programmes worldwide.

“About a dozen years ago, working on male engagement was seen as a zero sum game”, says Charlotte Feldman-Jacobs, Program Director, Gender, at the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that informs people about population, health and the environment for research and academic purposes.

“But the more we heard from women in developing countries it became clear that they themselves needed and wanted us to work with their male partners. They needed the men to understand the change that was needed for lives to get better for them, the families, and men themselves”, she adds.

Do Kadam Barabari Ki Ore (Steps towards Equality), a partnership initiative launched by the Centre for Catalyzing Change in Bihar’s Nawada district is a step in that direction. Launched at Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathans across 28 villages, it has so far reached out to about 600 boys between 13-21 years.

An impact study carried out a year after the launch showed a better understanding of the differences in how girls and boys are raised and the myths and facts about masculinity.

“Initially, very few boys would turn up and we realized that was because every time they attended a session they were losing a day’s wages”, says Gogoi. “So we tweaked the approach by adding sports and vocational skills development and the numbers grew”.

An earlier program, Better Life Options for Boys launched by C3 has been adopted by many organizations and is currently in operation in 11 states.

Reaching out to boys, however, comes with many challenges.

Perhaps the toughest is dealing with strongly entrenched notions of masculinity and patriarchy, says Rujuta Teredesai, Director, Equal Community Foundation.

ECF’s Action for Equality programme reaches out to 40,000 people in 20 communities in Pune, targeting boys between 14-17 years from low-income communities.

ECF reaches out to 20 communities in Pune

ECF reaches out to 20 communities in Pune

“A young man in our programme typically spends 3- 6 hours a week learning how to manage his behaviour”, says Teredesai. “When he tries to change by participating in domestic chores he gets challenged from different angles. His father will say ‘It’s your sister’s job, don’t do it’. And then there are advertisements, which continue to show only women doing domestic work. Teachers too share examples that reinforce what the father or ads say.”

Pressures that Baba Shaikh, 14, who joined the programme two months ago, is struggling to cope with.

“My 18-year-old sister does all the housework while I get to play and watch TV. I have come to realize that is unfair and I want to lend a hand. But my parents say its a girl’s job and stop me”.

To facilitate a larger change in mindset in the community are peer educators like Pravin Katke. “We meet with the parents every two weeks and address such issues. We tell them that if the boys help out, it will benefit the family. And that if their sons misbehave with women, it will give them a bad name”.

Volunteers from the community lend a hand as well. Like Mehboob Mulla, 17, who joined the ECF programme two years ago.

“I used to believe that girls and boys are unequal. At home when something special to eat was made or bought like sweets, my sisters would get to eat it after everyone else had eaten their fill. Often nothing would be left for them. When I realized how wrong this was and I started speaking out my parents said I was mad”, says Mulla.

They eventually changed their views because Mulla would regularly share what he was learning at these sessions. “I have an older brother who is 20 and refuses to enroll, but my parents are now determined to get him into the program!”

To keep the boys engaged, ECF has developed several interesting modules. Games play an integral part.

“We focus on human rights”, says Katke. “We ask them to imagine what kind of rights they would have in place for citizens if they had to establish a country. We draw examples from their lives and ask them to decide what is right and wrong”.

Like women, men too are victims of inequality believe experts, and they need the opportunity to learn and understand how it destroys them as well as the women around them.

An ECF volunteer at work

An ECF volunteer at work

“We are often asked questions like ‘Why would men attend’, ‘Do they really change?’ I think it is time to change the conversation and talk about men as agents of change rather than potential perpetrators of violence”, says Teredesai. “And this can happen only when we create an enabling environment. One that will encourage, support and allow men to sustain that change”.

This article was published in the Indian Express

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