29/06/2015 8:24 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

How Empathy Can Empower Men To Reduce Gender-Based Violence

Beth Winsor


Image courtesy: Beth Winsor

Goureesh, a 17-year old boy from Prem Nagar, is proud of his achievement. One of the active volunteer leaders representing Action for Equality (AFE), a program introduced by the Equal Community Foundation in Pune, he intervened and protested against the dowry that was being demanded for his uncle's marriage. With his mother's help, he convinced the family that the bride-to-be would only pay for half of the expenses for the wedding. At a time that gender equality in India is furiously debated, Goureesh's victory is a positive sign that with enough support, young men can be a part of the solution.

Goureesh's success doesn't come without support. Equal Community Foundation, an organization that seeks to raise men to take personal and collective action to prevent sexual violence against women, is a unique one. Co-founded by Will Muir and Rujuta Teredesai, the social enterprise aims to break the negative impact that India's patriarchal system has on young boys by providing them with the knowledge and skills they need to understand gender discrimination and the confidence to take action through mentorship.

"When we started 6 years ago, everyone dismissed the idea of tackling gender discrimination by working with men, we now realise that's quite normal for a disruptive approach," he says, "So we decided to build our model and demonstrate that our argument was valid."

Since 2011, the organization has proactively worked with communities in Pune to mobilise young men between the ages of 14-17 into the programme. Indeed, there were challenges but ECF overcame these using effective outreach methods.

"We have specific enrollment events such as street cricket, street theatre; events which will attract boys. When they attend these events, we ask them if they want to enroll in our program. But we don't tell them we're embarking on an 18 month life-changing journey as that would be overwhelming. Instead we make sure that they enjoy the first event, by making it relevant and participatory, and at the end we ask them to come back next week. It's practical," Will goes on, "It's entirely their choice to attend. It doesn't matter how good the curriculum is, if boys are not engaged, change does not take place. It's really important to have a very good relationship with the boys in the program. Behaviour change doesn't happen over night or in a few sessions, it takes time."


Image courtesy: Alex Sunshine

Mehboob, a 16-year old who enrolled for the program in 2012, is now a confident young volunteer leader for the AFE program. "The sessions we have had on gender equality and its importance really got me thinking. They made me realize that our society has got it all wrong." he says, "We do not give girls and women what they have a right to have - education, good health and opportunities to wear what they want, go where they want to and do what they want, without imposing restrictions on them based on the fact that they are girls or women." Today, he is involved in encouraging and motivating more boys in his community to attend the program.

But how is the heavy topic of discrimination introduced to these young men? The answer seems to lie in the program's empathetic approach. "The best way to introduce discrimination to boys is to make it personal. We ask them if they faced bullying, or if they faced discrimination because of their caste or religion. Then we ask boys to reflect how they had felt when they were discriminated against. It's that feeling that allows boys to understand how others would feel when they are treated this way," Will suggests.

Gender equality is a wonderful idea. I say 'idea', because despite all the debate, discussion and outrage about the topic of sexual violence in India, we have accomplished little in terms of identifying solutions to fighting sexual violence. Earlier this year, the Yuva Nagarik Meter released some unsettling (but unsurprising) results. The study found that not only did a majority of Indian youth have fascist leanings, they were far from progressive when it came to the issue of equality. Around 55% of the students interviewed were of the view that the way women dressed and behaved invited violence from men. That's not all, 39% of the girls and 43% of the boys interviewed felt that women had no choice but to accept a certain degree of violence.

"The dearth of measures taken to counsel, educate or empower Indian men with knowledge about the role they play in curbing violence is appalling."

What's worrying is that more young men are facing the negative impact of India's rigid patriarchy. With sweeping generalisations of manhood, lack of clarity about reform and the absence of scholarship in the area, the media has steered the conversation away from solutions. Certainly, this isn't to lessen the importance of the serious impact of violence that women in India face. Rather, it is a reality check. The dearth of measures taken to counsel, educate or empower Indian men with knowledge about the role they play in curbing violence is appalling. The Equal Community Foundation estimates there are 280 million men under the age of 18 in India and 114 million of these young men are likely to grow up and hit women. Despite this, fewer than 5% of the organisations that exist today focus on engaging men. Will points out that community-based organisations (CBOs) that are dealing with women have great potential to work with men as they already have the infrastructure, knowledge and skills.

Today, having reached over 40,000 people across 20 different communities, 4000 men have participated and 1683 have graduated the AFE program. Furthermore, the organisation is launching its efforts in West Bengal with local partners to scale operations. In the coming years, it hopes to develop and grow nationally. If anything, it's high time we bring back the focus on the real issues that lead to sexual violence and take accountability for our actions. I'd say let's look forward, and let's start working on the issue together. There's a lot to learn from citizen efforts on the ground.

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