Public debate around women's rights has taken an interesting turn. Last year, it was East India Comedy's penitent "I'm Not a Woman" video and now, there's PRI and Buzzfeed India's new collaboration with another group of comedians to send a message to Indian men. Is it a mere coincidence that this video went viral around International Men's Day (which falls on 19 November)? I wonder.
Slowly and cautiously, a lot of people seem to be making an effort to question the root cause of violence against women. In fact, when Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi kicked up a storm in September saying "all violence is male generated," Twitter users in India barraged her with questions.
But think about this - Maneka Gandhi's controversial statement shone a spotlight on our own personal misconceptions about the relationship between men and violence. Gender equality is not a zero sum game, where one has to lose for another to win. In linking sexual violence to men, without delving deeper into societal issues, are we collectively accepting an incomplete understanding of the negative impact of the patriarchy?
"In linking sexual violence to men, without delving deeper into societal issues, are we collectively accepting an incomplete understanding of the negative impact of the patriarchy?"
Let's get this straight; despite its evolving definition, a patriarchal society places men in a position of power and privilege above women. It is an irrefutable fact that women across the world -- both in rich and developing countries -- are severely affected by this.
Harmful practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM), acid attacks, rape and sexual assault continue to hinder women from participating in the democratic process and exact a huge toll on societies. In fact, a study by the Copenhagen Consensus Center points out that domestic violence alone costs the global economy around $4.4 trillion. Justice for women, clearly, is intrinsically tied to the involvement of men. But to ensure that this involvement is positive and systemic, we need to address the problem of discrimination as a whole. Unless we also take into account the dangerous impact that patriarchal societies have on our young men, we will remain many steps behind in tackling gender-based violence, particularly violence against women.
Boys, like girls, observe and adopt social behaviours early -- but are often not closely monitored. This starts at home, when they observe how parents interact with each other. In India, there is a widespread social acceptance of violence passed off as "typical male behaviour." The worst excuse for this, which often goes unchecked, is the belief that "boys will be boys". Psychologists warn that this allows our unconscious biases to perpetuate harmful stereotypes about gender with our own children. The dangerous impact of this is that these boys grow up into adults who believe that men can be excused for certain behaviours, primarily because they are men.
What if we helped our boys?
Promundo, an organisation that works internationally to promote caring, non-violent and equitable masculinities, found interesting correlations between young men's exposure to violence as children and their perpetration of violence as adults.
In Mumbai, two-thirds of the boys surveyed in 45 low-income schools had experienced some form of violence. Compared to girls, a higher number of boys face physical violence and abuse on school grounds. But to be clear, this isn't restricted to low-income schools alone. Within our schools, a locus for socialisation for young people, a biased education ignores the impact that bullying, ostracisation and harassment has on boys. As a result, many boys tend to internalise emotions and act out violence in their adulthood. They are unwilling to appear "weak" or "unmanly" in front of their peers, friends or family members.
"[W]e can start by challenging patriarchal norms in our everyday lives. This will not only help children -- especially boys -- observe the rewards of equality, but shape their behaviour positively."
What does this have to do with women? Everything. There is growing evidence that gender-inclusive approaches can help in shaping minds early. It can alter the way we look at the problem and help both young men and women.
The Gender Equity Movement in Schools (GEMS) initiative led by ICRW (International Centre for Research on Women), Promundo, TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) and CORO (Committee of Resource Organizations for Literacy) was piloted in 45 schools across three Indian states and found that as a result of the programme more boys and girls between 12-14 years of age strongly challenged sexism. Now, the Maharashtra State Government has adopted the program and has implemented it in 20,000 schools across the state.
The refreshing, unconventional approach that the GEMS programme introduced also helped break long-upheld barriers in schools. Students were encouraged to discuss and reflect on their own attitudes and behaviours and talk about their experiences in facing discrimination and violence openly. Earlier this year, ICRW also partnered with Plan International to understand how gender stereotypes leads to school violence. Their survey, conducted in other Asian countries -- Pakistan, Vietnam, Nepal, Indonesia and Cambodia -- found a pattern in societies where violence was normalised in school. In all the study countries, a higher number of boys reported facing physical violence in school than girls.
Is there a solution?
In India, Equal Community Foundation in Pune and MAVA (Men Against Violence and Abuse) are two examples of the growing number of organisations that are working to involve men to effectively end sexual violence. They have been successful despite the serious paucity of information and data about working with men.
Experts and researchers have routinely pointed out that while we often talk about gender sensitisation, data that is available in India is largely skewed. For instance, in India, there is hardly any data available to explore harmful masculinities in greater depth. There is also little or no evidence about what is the cause of violent behaviour. Others argue that our policies are gendered; therefore men are unable to access basic rights when they, too, face sexual violence. This reflects a lot of our own failures in tackling the issue of gender inequality and violence at its roots. We can change this.
To effectively address sexual violence, we must dig deeper and tackle the issue-- not sweep the surface of what is clearly a systemic problem. We must involve men as allies and as beneficiaries of gender equality to achieve this goal. For this, we can start by challenging patriarchal norms in our everyday lives. This will not only help children -- especially boys -- observe the rewards of equality, but shape their behaviour positively. And that's already a first step forward.
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