Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
India was rated one of the most dangerous places in the world to be female in a 2011 poll. However, women may have an underestimated yet crucial ally in their fight for equality: men.
In a country where almost 40 percent of women will experience some form of emotional, physical or sexual violence at the hands of men, this may seem a counterintuitive notion.
However, a small but growing number of organisations and individuals are proposing that to tackle gender-based violence at its root, it is vital to make men a central part of the solution.
“Over the last 25 years, billions of dollars from across the public, private and social sectors have been spent on efforts to close the gender gap. But it hasn’t closed significantly. If we don’t start to work with men, we might still be here in another 25 years”, said Will Muir, co-founder and CEO of Pune-based non-profit organisation, Equal Community Foundation (ECF).
ECF is one of a handful of organisations in India that have made it their mission to work with men to combat gender violence and achieve parity between the sexes.
ECF’s approach is based on the belief that men’s attitudes and behaviour sit at the heart of the problem, and that any efforts to change these attitudes must treat men not as perpetrators of violence, but as agents of change.
“Even though not all men are a part of the problem, all men can and need to be a part of the solution”, Muir said.
“Until we work with boys and men we won’t be able to address the root cause of this issue”, said Harish Sadani, founder of Maharashtra-based Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAWA).
Sadani and his team have spent the last 20 years mobilising young men in the western state of Maharashtra to promote gender equality within their communities. He believes that gender issues have been seen as ‘women’s issues’, for too long, and that an expansion of focus is essential.
“Transforming the powerful and empowering the exploited cannot be mutually exclusive agendas,” he said. “(We need to) start looking at gender issues equally as a men’s and women's issues, otherwise men become isolated… and the gender divide widens.”
India is home to some of the most inequitable attitudes towards women today. A recent study by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) found that 81 percent of men surveyed believed that the man should have the final word on decisions in the home, 68 percent were of the opinion that a woman should tolerate violence to keep her family together and 65 percent said that there are times when a woman deserves to be beaten.
It is upon these attitudes that ECF, alongside others, has begun to focus its efforts in recent years, working to mobilise and support those who are open to thinking differently.
“In every community there are men who respect women and care about gender equality, but [they] lack the confidence, skills and knowledge to take action. We need to find these men and provide them the… support to take voluntary action… and spread this vision in their community,” said Rujuta Teredesai, ECF’s co-founder and executive director.
To do so, the organisation has developed a series of community-based trainings, under their flagship program Action for Equality. One evening a week for 15 weeks, their young trainees take part in a series of games and activities that have been designed to get them thinking about the roles of women in their lives.
“While we cover heavy topics, including discrimination, gender, violence and sexuality, we try to make them as simple and engaging as possible”, says Anjana Goswami, ECF’s Action for Equality programme manager.
“They teach us about women, and help us understand how to interact with girls as friends. It’s something I can’t talk to my parents about but I really appreciate”, said Vikas, one of ECF’s latest graduates.
ICRW, which also runs a growing number of programmes aimed at engaging men in the debate on gender equality, emphasises the importance of challenging social norms as well.
“Social norms are engrained into our everyday lives, [and] this is where one really needs to work, said Madhumita Das, a gender specialist with ICRW.
To date, ECF has enrolled 2791 young men in its gender awareness programme. With 1216 graduates and over 100 active volunteers who participate in community engagement once a week, the project is growing increasingly popular.
Sixty-one percent of women living with these graduates have reported a significant reduction in violence and discrimination from their sons as a result of the program.
“Both of my sons have been part of the program. They often come home and share what they discuss in the class with his sister and me, which we find really useful,” said Savita Kasbe, a mother from the Super Indira Nagar community. “They’ve also started helping out with the chores, which is a big help for me.”
However, while violence against women is rising rapidly on the national and international agenda as a serious public health concern, the number of organisations working with men to address it in India remains small.
“There is a woeful dearth of minds who have so far come to address this aspect of the crisis. Not even 1 or 2 percent (of organisations working on gender-based violence) are focusing on men”, Sadani said.
As momentum for this kind of approach grows, however, Das believes it will be important to expand and capitalise upon it.
“It took a very long time to bring men into this discourse of addressing violence against women, but recently, there has been a shift. People are talking about it a lot more. Now it is the responsibility of those working with men and boys to push this”, she said.