How Young Boys Bear The Burden Of Patriarchy In India

Inside a community centre at Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, Umair Khan teaches a group of young boys the difference between good and bad touch.

The 20-year-old is a community organiser with Sneha – Society for Nutrition Education and Health Action. He works with the NGO’s youth programme Ehsaas which, since 2013, has reached out to over 6,000 adolescents and youth between the ages of 15-24 in Mumbai’s slums.

“Like girls, boys too are victims of sexual abuse,” says Mr Khan. “But boys rarely speak about it as they feel ashamed,” he adds.

As a young boy, Mr Khan experienced abuse. “The abusers were older boys in the neighbourhood. I was scared that I would be targeted again and it took me years before I spoke up. I don’t want anyone to suffer the way I did,” he tells NDTV.

At over 243 million, India has the largest adolescent population in the world, as per UNICEF’s 2011 report. However, down the decades, the focus of government programmes has been early marriage and early pregnancy, which is centered on young girls. Boys have been largely left out.

The National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-3 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 five boys between 10-19 years is illiterate.

Over the years, there has been a growing realisation that there is an urgent need for specific interventions among young boys and men who too are victims of rigid gender norms. They struggle with notions of what constitutes a real man.

Being sexually active with various women is seen as a cultural sign of virility and the fallout is a lack of understanding of women’s rights.

Research has shown that men are also victims of many forms of violence, primarily at the hands of other men, and stand to gain from moving towards gender equality.

“Adolescent boys commit sexual crimes because there is a lack of appropriate orientation on sexuality and about matters like consent,” says Neeta Karaindikar, Associate Director, Ehsaas.

“Our films and advertisements show women in a very poor light and boys look at them as item numbers. We have to change this by working with the next generation, to make them see women as equal partners,” she adds.

Ehsaas does this through a mix of street plays and community meetings with adolescents and their families.

“Before I joined Ehsaas, I expected my sisters to do the household work,” says Shahid Shaikh, a community organiser.

“Now I know differently. We teach young boys to question stereotypes that allow boys to play outdoors but force girls into doing household chores. Gradually we are seeing a change,” he adds.

An impact report done six months after Ehsaas was launched in Dharavi has shown positive signs. Over 70% of boys and girls said that both genders should have equal freedom; nearly a 20% improvement.

Reaching out to boys comes with many challenges, as Pravin Katke, a coordinator with Equal Community Foundation points out. The foundation reaches out to boys between 14-17 years from low-income communities in the slums of Pune.

“In the areas that we work in, there is a high rate of school dropouts. There is also a tendency towards risky behaviour and addictions,” adds Mr Katke.

Through interactive sessions and games, the foundation tries to find out what is going on in the boys’ lives and the gender dynamics in the families.

“We have a curriculum where we talk about gender equality, violence, relationships, sexuality and adolescence,” says Mr Katke.

“We raise different situations and discuss their responses,” he adds.

To facilitate a larger change in the mindset, peer educators also meet with the parents every few weeks.

To prevent violence against women and build gender equality, one has to go back to the homes and communities where boys are raised, believes William Muir, co-founder, Equal Community Foundation.

“Boys across all environments are learning that successful men earn money and command respect through aggression and violence,” says Mr Muir.

“When you help them reflect on whether those messages are right or fair, they will start taking their own steps. The goal ultimately is to ensure that every boy is growing up in an environment where they are learning gender equality and in Pune, we are building that model,” adds Mr Muir.

This article was published on NDTV on Nov 4, 2016.

EHSAAS at SNEHA: How this NGO is enabling youth to become change-makers

Umar Khan, a peer educator with SNEHA at Dharavi

Umar Khan, a peer educator with SNEHA at Dharavi

At the end of his weekly sessions with a group of adolescents from Dharavi, Umar Khan noticed that Faisal* had taken to hanging around long after the others had left.

“I felt he had something on his mind, so I would find reasons to stay back,” says Khan, 21.

After three weeks, the 10-year-old blurted out that a neighbourhood “uncle” was giving him the bad touch — a concept that had been discussed at the sessions.

It turned out that the “uncle” abusing Faisal was a neighbour. Faisal would be left in his care at night, while his mother worked as a security guard. A widow, she struggled to make ends meet. Faisal didn’t know how to talk about his plight.

With Khan’s support, Faisal did eventually tell his mother. She got the abuser arrested.

“I know what it’s like to feel alone and vulnerable,” says Khan who was 11 when three older boys from the slums he grew up in started abusing him sexually. Raised by a single mother, he was mostly left to his own devices while she worked multiple jobs to make ends meet.

“The abusers were people I considered friends, so I was very confused and ashamed. I suffered for three years before I worked up the nerve to tell my mother,” recalls Khan.

It is this empathy that Khan brings to his role as peer educator for the Society for Nutrition, Education & Health Action (SNEHA), an NGO. Since 2013, SNEHA’s youth programme EHSAAS has reached out to 6,000 adolescents and youth between the ages of 15-24, in Mumbai’s slums.

Through theatre, sports and workshops, SNEHA focuses on rights-based education to help explain the importance of physical, sexual and reproductive health.

At 243 million, India has the largest number of adolescents in the world, comprising a third of its population. But they do not receive the due attention of government health programmes.

That needs to change. A 2012 Population Council report says that 85 per cent of young people in India lack access to sexuality education, which exposes them to risky or forced sexual activity, multiple partners, early pregnancies, even HIV.

“Unless you show youngsters how to negotiate their sexuality, you are not empowering them with skills to prevent early marriage and violence,” says Programme Director Dr Nayreen Daruwala.

Awkward topics like masturbation are discussed at the sessions, using terms youngsters employ.

“There is a lot of shame and guilt about natural bodily functions,” says Shahid Shaikh, a 19-year-old peer educator. “They don’t know whom to ask, and believe that watching porn regularly helps build a good physique”.

Shahid Shaikh, Peer Educator, SNEHA

Shahid Shaikh, Peer Educator, SNEHA

Sessions on body image are especially popular. “All the girls want to look like Katrina and the boys like Salman,” he says. To dispel popular notions of beauty, pictures of stars sans make up are shown. “We encourage them to look at their strengths and build on that, instead of worrying about skin tone or height,” says Shaikh.

A preliminary impact assessment shows encouraging signs. A 2013 survey in the slums showed that only 64 per cent of boys believed that when a girl said ‘no’ she meant it. By 2014, this had grown to 84 per cent. Knowledge of reproductive health among adolescents had risen from 44 per cent to 82 per cent, while 88 per cent showed improved gender attitudes, as against 69 per cent.

Since late 2014, SNEHA has tweaked its approach. “Given how gender inequality plays out in many subtle ways, we decided to involve the parents for a substantial attitudinal change,” says Daruwala.

She points to the case of two siblings. The girl, a TB patient, needs good nutrition, but it is the brother who gets the eggs and meat, while she is fed dal-roti. There are many such instances, says Daruwala. “With school-going children, only sons get tuitions and pocket money”.

Parents are asked to fill out forms with questions about their children, to gauge their awareness of their children’s lives. “We talk to them about communication,” says Gouri Ambekar, a programme coordinator. “What to tell children when they are going through difficult situations, and the importance of staying engaged with their kids.”

Ambekar cites the instance of a 14-year-old, whose uncle raped and impregnated her. Although her condition was visible, the girl’s mother wouldn’t take her to a doctor because she didn’t want to acknowledge what was happening. “The mother felt powerless and had no idea how to cope because it would have meant confronting the elders in the household.”

Findings apart, there are others signs of hope. Like Faisal, many children are coming forward to report instances of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

“An 11-year-old approached us recently, saying her father beat her mother,” says Sanna Meherally another programme coordinator. “The mother was reluctant to seek help, but the child insisted and brought her to the centre”. In another instance, three children sought help for a girl who was being sexually abused by an older boy.

Like Khan, many peer educators see the initiative as an opportunity to pay it forward.

“When I was 14, I was confused and helpless and felt I was worth nothing,” says Shaikh. “So I am happy that I am making a difference. Even at home I have been able to bring about a change. I convinced my father to let my sister study and wear what she likes to. It may not sound like much, but it makes a world of a difference to me.”

* Names have been changed to protect identity

This article was published in the Indian Express on 25 August 2015