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The Other Half Of Women's Empowerment

02/08/2015 8:14 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Every day, 93 women report a rape in India. And given the culture of silence around sexual violence, it is a known fact that many if not most rapes go unreported. The fear of violence shapes the lives of Indian women from a young age. They may marry earlier for their safety, may have a curfew to stick to every evening, may feel the need to pick jobs and housing in "safer" localities and may find it unthinkable to travel alone. This fear of the "unfathomable" has limited the potential of millions of girls across our nation.

The 2012 Delhi gang-rape case jolted both the Central and several state governments. Many initiatives to protect women from acts of violence were implemented. However, there is no overt indication that acts of gender violence have reduced. We believe that these initiatives are failing as they seek to address the symptoms of the problem and not the core: a deeply embedded patriarchal society. The acts of patriarchy and male domination, the most horrific of which being physical violence, have become so normal and accepted, that we as individuals even fail to recognise them. Advertisements on TV show women as dutiful homemakers, sending their husbands to work. A recently spotted sign at the Delhi Metro (see image below) shows a child asking her father to pay for her ticket. These subtle (and often not so subtle) messages reinforce gender roles and male domination in Indian society.

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For decades, the women's empowerment movement in India has worked tirelessly to provide voices to the formerly voiceless. These movements have brought many women financial independence and actively promoted the importance of female literacy. However, as the female empowerment movement has evolved, it is clear that the next and required step must be to engage with the other half of the gender equation: men and boys.

"School education is an important avenue through which we can reach and shape the minds of young males to understand gender dynamics and violence."

How do we do this? We must make them conscious of the role they play in gender dynamics, and most importantly teach them the potential they have to change those dynamics. While the task is mammoth, it is necessary. In order to truly achieve gender equality, we need both genders to understand what it means to be gender equal. We need to teach men and women to recognise the barriers that hold women back. We need to teach both men and women to speak up when they see a woman being harassed or assaulted so that one day silence does not surround gender violence. Without sensitising our boys, any attempts to empower women will remain incomplete.

Recently this notion has picked up global attention. The He for She campaign launched by UN Women in 2014 aims to make boys and men agents for change. The campaign urges men around the world to commit to speak up when they witness gender discrimination around them. So far, more than 25,000 men have pledged support to the campaign in India. Sanjay Kumar Singh, Director, SEWA Bharat, spoke about the role of men in the empowerment of women. "Men will have to be taken on board to secure women's rights and dignity in society. Men have been largely left out of the development agenda for years. They must understand and accept the inequalities that they have created and perpetrated for generations. Working with men for the development and progress of a gender equal society will increase chances of them truly valuing a woman's contribution to society. This is the vital next step in the women's empowerment movement."

But where do we begin for the next generation of boys? School education is an important avenue through which we can reach and shape the minds of young males to understand gender dynamics and violence. By focusing purely on academics, we fail to holistically develop children to be equipped to handle the realities of the world they face every single day. Through different curricula and activities that directly address inequitable gender norms and violence, both boys and girls can better engage with the reality and root of the situation. When we ignore the boys, we cultivate their ignorance on important issues of sexuality and gender violence.

"There is a need to critically analyse the roles that boys and girls portray in our textbooks, the messages on gender equality that lessons propagate and the role of teachers in bringing about change."

Yet, within our proposition to engage young boys in schools lie two critical assumptions. First, without the right content and curriculum, misunderstandings about sexuality, gender inequality and violence could potentially get worse. Secondly, without well-trained teachers, who are able to navigate the nuances of this subject while building trust and patience among students, this entire program risks becoming another lecture. The sprawling Indian education system already struggles with these two aspects and cultivating both teacher capacity and curriculum towards being able to handle these issues is key.

If this content is adequately delivered in schools, boys and girls will have a platform from which to start identifying, understanding and analysing the subtle messaging of gender inequality and patriarchy that is filtered through the media and through everyday practices. Once students are able to recognise these subtle inequalities, they can work towards finding solutions. We assume that time spent in school will challenge the messaging that may be received at their homes and within their communities.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development is currently engaged in developing a New Education Policy. We urge our policymakers to use this opportunity to holistically target gender inequality and male patriarchy in Indian society through education. There is a need to critically analyse the roles that boys and girls portray in our textbooks, the messages on gender equality that lessons propagate and the role of teachers in bringing about change. The task at hand requires many levers in society to move. However, we must first and foremost bring school education into the fold.

Women in India have come a long way. However, to truly take the movement to the next level, we need to understand gender inequality as a problem of marginalisation. To address this marginalisation we must include the majority or the other half of the equation. By including men and boys in the conversation on women's empowerment, we make this an issue of Indian society as whole. Through participation of both genders in breaking age-old traditions and patriarchy, we will be able create a society that is truly gender equitable.

Applications to the 2016-18 Teach For India Fellowship program are now open. Apply now at http://apply.teachforindia.org/user/register

Written by Ghazal Gulati (Teach For India Alumnus & Research Associate at J-PAL, South Asia) and Divya Sooryakumar (Program Manager for Organisational Development and Youth Initiatives at SEWA Bharat).

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