Boys in India learn to question gender biases

Inside a dimly-lit community centre in Ghatkopar, Mumbai, a group of young boys are swapping notes on, among other things, what makes a man. Many of them aren’t even old enough to shave. Their voices, though, ring loud with conviction.
“A man takes decisions at home as he is the head of the family,” pipes up a 14-year-old. “Men work outside and earn, so they don’t work at home,” says his companion. As they get comfortable, the conversation turns towards girls.
“If a boy teases a girl and she does not respond, it shows that she is a good girl. If she retorts, she is acting smart,” says a Class VII student. Another boy joins in. “If after marriage, the husband lives at the wife’s place, she becomes powerful. And if the woman moves to the man’s place after marriage, he becomes powerful. He can beat her, insult her in front of others, use her.”
The boys, residents of Amrut Nagar, a slum colony of low-income migrants, are participating in a session on gender equality, part of a youth empowerment programme started by the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action (SNEHA) in 2009. Since early last year, the programme, “Adolescents Gaining Ground”, has also started reaching out to young boys. “The original avatar of the initiative, called ‘Girls Gaining Ground’, was started in these areas in 2009. Initially we focused solely on adolescent girls. Over time, we realized that to empower girls, we had to involve boys as well because they are future partners,” says Garima Deveshwar Bahl, programme director, sexual and reproductive health, SNEHA. “These girls were telling us about issues like eve-teasing and we were not talking to the boys at all.”
At around 243 million, India is home to the largest number of adolescents in the world, says Unicef’sProgress for Children: A Report Card On Adolescents, released in 2012. A group that, according to a 2008 study Youth in India: Situations and Needs Study by non-profit organization Population Council, makes up 30% of India’s population. The Unicef report highlights the critical need to invest in adolescents. In India, however, government programmes have usually targeted girls. Not enough, say experts, who add there is an urgent need for large-scale interventions among adolescent boys. They point to the recent incidents of rape that have generated huge outrage. In both cases, that of the assault on a young student in Delhi in December and the more recent one on a Mumbai journalist, some of the accused are between 16-24 years; coming from a milieu much like Amrut Nagar.
“In India, the whole focus of adolescent programmes has been on early marriage and early pregnancy, which targeted girls,” says Neha Madiwala, founder trustee of Sahyog Chetak, a non-governmental organization (NGO), which works for the empowerment of adolescent girls. “We haven’t found a good methodology to address boys. The usual approach to hold talks tends to work better with girls because they are looking for opportunities to get out of the house. Boys have more social freedom.”
SNEHA uses a mix of interventions, like group meetings, vocational training and life-skills education. Communicating these messages are facilitators drawn from the community. Although boys and girls are placed in separate groups, reaching out is a challenge.
“Parents never speak to girls or boys about puberty or sexuality,” says Sanjeevani Borude, 39, peer coordinator in Amrut Nagar. “One mother stopped sending her daughter when we held a session on puberty. We explained to the mother that her daughter has questions and she may get the answers the wrong way or from the wrong source. It is the same with boys. Parents don’t have a problem if their sons watch porn at a video parlour but when we explain it in the context of health, they get upset. It takes a while but eventually they listen.”
“Earlier I would never listen to anything my mother said,” says Rishikesh Shankar Karale, 15, who enrolled in the programme last year. He was reluctant at first because many of his friends would mock him. Now he regularly attends with his younger brother. “I have come to understand how hard my mother works at home. I help her now.”
An impact report, done six months after the intervention started, is showing encouraging results, especially when it comes to health matters like puberty and HIV; not so much when it comes to changing gender attitudes and perceptions. Clearly that will take longer. Over 70% of boys and girls agreed that both girls and boys are entitled to equal freedom; nearly a 20% improvement. When it comes to educating girls and sexual harassment, however, the improvement reported is not as significant. “What this shows is that we need to focus on gender very strongly,” says Bahl.
Pranita Acharya, gender, poverty and HIV/AIDS specialist, International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), agrees. In 2008, ICRW, along with CORO (Committee of Resource Organizations) for Literacy and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, initiated the Gender Equity Movement in Schools (GEMS) programme in Mumbai, which, specifically addresses gender-related issues. The initiative is in place in 45 municipal schools and reaches out to over 8,000 children between 12-14 years from low-income groups.
Through role playing, comic strips and interactive activities, students are encouraged to rethink social norms and question gender biases. Led by facilitators, children discuss what makes for healthy relationships. “Classroom discussions help students think about and question social norms. Facilitators encourage them to challenge stereotypical ideas about men and women,” says Acharya.
At the start of the GEMS programme in 2008, little over 20% of boys and girls supported gender equality. A year later, this grew to 53% of girls and 39% of the boys. There was greater support for girls pursuing higher education and marrying later and of boys helping in household work. The initiative is now being scaled up by the Maharashtra government.
“Evidence shows that reaching out to boys, even as early as of 8-10 years, is critical,” says Rema Nanda, founder, NGO Jagruti Trust, which conducts youth leadership programmes in rural Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan. “This is what we are seeing in different parts of the world. And you have to reiterate the message over and over again to get men to change their behaviour.”
The big picture, Nanda goes on to add, will not change unless violence against women ceases to be an individual problem. “In most of the successful interventions in South Africa and Latin America, men and women have agreed violence against women is a community’s problem. Unless that happens here, we cannot progress”.
This article was published in the Mint

Grave Inequity

Days after a controversy broke out over its decision to ban women from entering the sanctum sanctorum, Haji Ali Dargah’s website still proclaims: “People from all parts of the world without restrictions of caste, creed and religion visit to offer their prayers…”  The statement is a reminder of the inclusive, all-embracing spirit that one of Mumbai’s most famous landmarks was known for.

Built in 1431, the shining marble dargah, floating off the Mumbai coast and immortalised in many a Bollywood film, houses the tomb of 15 th century Sufi saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari. The shrine attracts thousands of visitors every day — men and women across faiths. Therefore the move has come as a shock, and many are calling it “anti-Islamic” and “unconstitutional”.

“Our fear is that if this can happen in Haji Ali, which is an iconic dargah, then it can happen anywhere,’’ says Noorjehan Safia Niaz, founder-member of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), which has openly challenged the ban. “It goes against the spirit of what Sufi saints preached. There is a larger issue of not respecting diversity, disrespecting women and moving away from the spirit of Islam,’’ says Niaz.

The Haji Ali Trust, on its part, claims it is upholding this very spirit, and that the ban is not a new one. “Women were never allowed to enter the room where the tomb is kept as the Sharia law does not permit women to touch the tomb,’’ says Haji Ali Dargah chairman and managing trustee Abdul Sattar Merchant. “One of the rooms, at a distance from the sanctum sanctorum, is reserved for women.They can do the namaz there. But the shariat does not allow them to enter the room where the tomb is,” adds Merchant.

Not true, say activists. “I visited the dargah last year in a group and we were all allowed into the mazaar ,’’ says Niaz. “But when I went again this July, there was a steel barricade and we were told we could not enter the sanctum. The president of the committee told us some woman had visited the dargah dressed inappropriately, but that does not mean you ban the entire community of women. Besides, what Sharia are they talking about? What about those dargahs that allow women? Is their Sharia different,’’ asks Niaz.

“The debate regarding entry into shrines is an old one,’’ says Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali, professor of Islamic studies at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College. “There is no clear specification regarding the matter relating to entry into shrines, for men or women. Some say that there is a tradition of the Caliph Omar, which mentions that women should not visit graves. Others hold that this was specified under certain circumstances. As gender justice is an important part of Islam, it was not considered a general rule as it would prevent women from visiting the graves of their loved ones.’’

After all, as Dr Ali points out, Muslims, both men and women, visit the Prophet’s grave. “The Prophet’s own daughters visited his grave. So many women visit the grave of the Prophet’s grandson Imam Hussain in Iran. The Taj Mahal is also a makhbara (mausoleum) like the Haji Ali Dargah. Are you now going to say women cannot visit the Taj? This attitude of women as un-equals is going to precipitate Islamophobia and convey a sense of misogyny that is totally alien to Islam,” she says.

Other religious scholars agree. “The dargah’s decision has nothing to do with the Sharia,’’ says Maulana Shoaib Koti from the Darul Uloom Deobandi University. “It is an administrative decision. The Sharia allows men and women equal access. All that it says is that women and men should be in separate enclosures.”

Hasan Kamal, a senior journalist and editorial advisor to Rashtriya Sahara Urdu, sees the ban as an attempt by certain groups within the community to gain the upper hand. “They want to give the message that they command the community. I am connected to many dargahs and none has such rules. If Mecca and Medina, the two places most sacred to Muslims all over the world, don’t ban women, how can any other?”

But the powers that be at Haji Ali Dargah are sticking to their guns. “Eventually, this will be done in every dargah, as the Sharia law will have to be upheld,” says Suhail Khandwani, trustee of the Haji Ali Dargah and managing trustee of the Makhdoom Baba’s Dargah in Mahim, Mumbai. Incidentally, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board too has come out in support of the Haji Ali Dargah Trust.

Activists fear the ban could set a precedent. The BMMA has found that seven other dargahs in Mumbai already deny women access to the mazaar . The BMMA has also tried to get the Maharashtra government to intervene, but so far, its attempts have been futile. The government has refused to get involved in the issue on the ground that being a religious matter, it falls within the Haji Ali Trust’s purview and not the government’s. There is now talk of looking to the courts for redressal.

“Legally, it is a tricky issue’’, says human rights lawyer Mihir Desai. “On the one hand you have a personal law. On the other, there is the matter of discrimination against women. It is a fundamental rights issue but vis-a-vis a private body — not the State. But it is also a question of freedom of religion guaranteed under the fundamental rights in our constitution.”

Watching the debate play out from the sidelines are writers like Sameera Khan. “When my grandmother died several years ago they did not allow her three daughters to witness the burial or visit the site later. Even today we stand on the pavement outside the graveyard, separated by a fence and say a prayer for her.” Though Khan did not contest the stricture then, activists like Niaz are in no mood to meekly accept the ban on women entering the Haji Ali Dargah. Clearly, this is a debate one hasn’t heard the last of.

This article also appeared in The Telegraph


Holding out Hope in Dharavi

‘My son had cow’s milk from birth. He looks healthy. What is so great about mother’s milk?” Sabawn’s voice resounds in a narrow, cramped lane in the heart of Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi. A local priestess, she cuts a dramatic figure in her yellow sari and orange tikka.  Gathered around are a group of women, listening in rapt attention. Many of them are heavily pregnant, some are holding newborns.

Sabawn’s comment is an indication of the challenges that lie ahead for the Maharashtra government, corporates and NGOs who have come together in a first of its kind partnership called the AHAR project. A project that aims to change the face of Dharavi, a densely packed slum, home to over a million people, mostly migrants. A well-known Mumbai landmark, immortalized in the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, the slum is a maze of narrow lanes, shanties and overflowing gutters.

Not surprisingly it reports among the highest rates of malnutrition in the city. About 35 % children between the critical 0-3 years are malnourished.  While anganwadis or day-care centers have been set up as part of the government’s Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) to provide nutrition, education and health services, the workers here are overburdened and poorly paid, with the result that many children are left behind.

It is here that the non-profit group SNEHA or the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action plays a critical role by training sakhis or community link workers who go door to door and advice women on nutrition, breastfeeding, family planning and maternal health.

“Imagine this is your baby” says sakhi Mangal Shinde pointing to a lifeless doll hanging on one end of a scale used to weigh vegetables.  At the other end hangs an empty bag. “What you put inside this bag decides your baby’s future,” she says adding factsheets with pictures of healthy foods for children. As the bag gets heavier, the doll rises. The women smile and clap. Sabawn still looks sceptical and clearly requires several more sessions!  Convincing her is critical as she wields tremendous influence in the community.

“It’s not easy,” admits Dr Evelet Sequeira, Head of Nutrition with SNEHA. “We tell the mother her milk is for her baby and this milk will help in brain development. So when the baby weighs 3.5 kgs at birth it has already passed Class 10. If she were to breastfeed exclusively until 6 months, the baby has cleared Class 12. For every mother her child’s intelligence is very important and this helps drive home the point.”

Simplistic though the approach may sound, it is showing results. Rates of exclusive breastfeeding have gone up. So has immunization. “More and more women are delivering in institutions,” says Priya Agarwal, Senior Advisor with SNEHA. “ Earlier women would register at the local health center in the last trimester of pregnancy. Now it’s in the first trimester.”

Another critical service SNEHA provides is crèches where working mothers can leave their babies. Now mothers no longer leave their infants with neighbors or older siblings when they go back to work. Instead they drop them off at the crèche where their health is closely monitored and they are given supplementary meals.

SNEHA believes the Dharavi experiment will lead to a sustainable model which can be replicated in urban slums across the country. “We have the government and ICDS on board and we are looking at global protocols that have been tried worldwide to see how we can adapt it to our settings”, says Dr Sequeira.

Words that hold out possibilities to thousands of children like Mehboobi, who at 2 years weighed 8 kilos, the healthy weight of a 6-month-old. When she came to the crèche last year, she would not lie down. Tests showed she had spinal TB and suffered from severe back pain. Today she is nearly 3 and weighs 10 kgs.  She has a long way to go.  Watching her perky, shining face shout out alphabets, there is hope she will get there.

For a vdeo link to the Dharavi project visit

Fighting Gender Stereotype : The GEMS Way

“There are times when a woman deserves to be beaten.”

“Girls cannot do well at math and science.”

 “Since girls have to get married, they should not be sent for higher education.”

These are views that hold huge currency in India even today. Look at our sex ratio. It speaks volumes. In 2011, 914 girls were born to every 1,000 boys. We may pride ourselves on electing a woman Prime Minister way before many developed countries and bask in the achievements of our women corporate leaders. But the fact is boys are preferred to girls. Girls don’t carry on the family name, entail huge dowries and are less than equal at the workplace.

Worldwide, there is growing recognition that it is critical to reduce gender inequality for a country’s overall development. The best way to do this is to reach out to the youth. In India, however, there has been a limited attempt in this regard. Schools, where youth spend a large part of their time, more often than not, end up reinforcing gender stereotypes.

An important initiative showing the way forward is the Gender Equity Movement in Schools started in 2008 by the Committee of Resource Organization for Literacy (CORO), Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS) and the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW). GEMS works in 45 public schools in Mumbai reaching out to 8000 girls and boys between the ages of 12 to 14.

Through campaigns, role-playing games, discussion based lessons, comic strips and interactive activities, students are encouraged to rethink social norms and question gender biases. Led by facilitators, the children talk about puberty and what makes for healthy relationships.  Initially girls and boys were placed in separate groups to help them open up. From the second year, they were mixed, in response to requests from the students themselves.

The GEMS approach is recognized worldwide as an effective way means to reach out to the youth. At the recent International Conference on Family Planning at Dakar, Senegal, I had the opportunity to listen to Pranita Acharya, ICRW Gender, Poverty and HIV/AIDS specialist who administers the GEMS program. To an audience packed with adolescent sexuality experts and activists from across Africa and Asia, she explained why a school-based approach could work.

 “Classroom discussions help students think about and question social norms”, says Acharya. “Facilitators encouraged them to challenge stereotypical ideas about men and women. Those interactions clearly moved students to look at their world differently.” 

A facilitator describes a group session on “Labeling” held with 40 boys. At the beginning, they were noisy and restless. They were told to write a label they used or knew of on the blackboard. There were many responses, based on physical descriptions such as “sukdi” (malnourished), and “takli” (bald) and some with sexual innuendoes like “raand” (girl who has sex with many men), pataka (fire cracker) and bayalya (a feminine boy).

The boys were then asked to close their eyes and imagine that these terms were being used on them. They said they felt “angry “, “hurt”, “like hitting someone” and wanting to ask “what did I do wrong.” The facilitator then asked if these terms were used often against girls. The boys agreed that girls were often on the receiving end. The facilitator then went on to say that if a word could hurt so much, perhaps it was time to think about why we use them. The last question asked was, “Is labeling a form of violence?” The class fell silent and after a while the hands started rising slowly. The class agreed that labeling was indeed violence.

At the start of the program, little over 20% of boys and girls supported gender equality. A year later, this grew to 53% of girls and 39% of the boys. There was greater support for girls pursuing a higher education and marrying later, and of boys helping in the household work.

At her presentation, Acharya recounted the words of a 13-year-old. “I used to think that only boys should do outdoor chores. Now I think they should help women at home.”

The program also teaches the children how to fight back when faced with violence, be it physical or verbal. A 14-year-old girl said, “I could not stop harassment in the past. Because of the sessions we got to know that harassment of girls should be stopped. Boys should understand the feelings of girls. And girls should oppose violence.”

The GEMS experiment, experts say, shows that group activities can be effective in opening up discussions on sensitive issues linked to gender inequality. Encouraged by the results, the program has been started in 1200 civic schools in Mumbai. And over 600 schools in the states of Rajasthan and Goa.

Let’s talk about it..

Let’s face it. Most Indian parents are uncomfortable talking about sexuality with their children. An attitude shared by most schools. I vividly remember my biology class on reproduction. There we were a bunch of 14-year-old boys and girls, giggly and uncomfortable, trying very hard not to look at the pictures of male and female sex organs in our textbooks. I think the teacher must have spent all of 10 minutes on the subject and we were happy just to get it over with.

Some 25 odd years later, nothing has changed. Sex education remains a taboo for most schools.  Health experts say this needs to change. They point to the countrywide National Family Health Survey 2006 figures, which show that one in six teenagers in India between 15 to 19 years had conceived or given birth.  Most of these girls knew little about contraceptive measures or the consequences of unsafe sex.

Take the recently reported case of a 15-year-old living in a colony in suburban Mumbai. The girl, who comes from a middle class family, was in a relationship with a boy in her school for over a year. They used birth control rarely. She knew nothing about it and the boy claimed it was not required. She found out she was pregnant when her mother noticed a swelling on her stomach and insisted she gets tested. She is 4 months pregnant, too late to have an abortion. Her boyfriend has been arrested and she has dropped out of school.

“Sex before marriage is definitely more prevalent today, than say 10 years ago”, says Dr Duru Shah, former president of the Federation of Gynecologists and Obstetrics Societies of India. “Earlier people got married very young so sex was within marriage. Now they marrying later and they are having premarital sex. But most of them know little about protection. “

Dr Shah further adds,” People are going to have sex. Spreading information on safe sex will not increase sexual activity. It will ensure people have safe sex.”

Lack of information from proper channels forces teenagers to turn to the Internet or friends.  “My 12 year old daughter came from school and told me babies are born when papas rape mamas”, recounts the mother of two teenagers. “I had rather they heard about sex from the school than the school bus. “

Media consultant and mother of two, Reeta Gupta believes sex education is “an important intervention that explains the consequences of reckless experimentation amongst adolescents.”

However, that’s not an attitude shared by most parents and schools. Information about sex, they believe will encourage promiscuity. “One school did not want me to even mention condom,” says social psychologist and sexuality educator, Chandni Parekh.  ‘Some schools may call a gynecologist but there is no room for Q &A.” Parekh’s module on sexuality education for school and college students encourages discussion on forbidden subjects like masturbation, menstruation and HIV AIDS.  “We tell them about pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.  It’s about forming values that are respectful towards relationships and intimacy.”

Three years ago, education authorities at the central government level proposed starting an ‘Adolescent Health education” program in schools around the country. That has since gone into cold storage.  It’s time to take a serious look at it because sexuality education is critical to save lives. Studies have shown unsafe sex is a huge health risk leading to sexually transmitted infections, including the deadly human papilloma virus or HPV, infertility and neonatal deaths.

Why I Still Love Mumbai

Driving past Worli Sea face after a late night film, I see something heart-warming and reaffirming about Mumbai.  Something that reminds me why Mumbai in some ways remains such a great city.  
There at 2 AM, out in the open, amidst the drunks and cops on patrol duty, were couples hand in hand; even small groups of women hanging about enjoying the quiet and balmy weather. Not a sight I am quite sure one would get to see in too many cities in India.
It’s been nearly thirteen years since I moved to Mumbai and this is one facet of the city which I value the most. Especially because I moved here from Delhi where I lived eleven years.  Delhi has great parks, roads and better weather.  But it’s also rather unfriendly towards women. I remember during my college years my friends and I felt lucky if we were not groped every time we used the public transport!  I believe some of that has changed after the Metro.
Having said that, life in Mumbai is tough – the overcrowding, long commutes and crumbling infrastructure grate on the nerves.  Like someone told my husband, “In Mumbai you sweat the small stuff”.  And it’s not that Mumbai is completely safe. You do have crimes against women, and they seem to rising.  But if you had to choose among the big cities, it’s the most open towards women.  And among the better places to raise two young girls.