Empowering men to strengthen women

DIFFERENT APPROACH

An issue is best resolved when you tackle the crux of it. Rimjhim Jain explains how the work of certain organisations to sensitise men about gender problems is yielding results in many parts of the country.

Men across 50 villages in Maharashtra’s Beed, Solapur and Pune districts have made their wives joint-owners of the family property. Another four hamlets in the state have been declared ‘Honda-free’ because young men there have pledged not to take dowry – the Honda motorcycle, which is the region’s most in-demand wedding ‘gift’.

In Uttar Pradesh, where highly patriarchal mindsets prevail, groups of men are happy to chip in household activities, including taking care of children. And three lakh auto rickshaw drivers in Delhi now have a dedicated men’s helpline to help them shed their chauvinistic assumptions.

In a radical twist to the feminist movement, where empowerment of women was the longstanding mantra and women were mobilised to break the bonds of gender dominance, a new ideology has emerged from the ground. It calls for men to break the chains of masculinity that endows them with a sense of false power and
encourages them to challenge their ‘privileges’ to bring about personal change. It impresses on them that they don’t necessarily have to uphold the image of being the harsh husband or the tyrannical father. In a way, the movement is a process of empowering men.

Dr Abhijit Das of the Centre for Health and Social Justice (CHSJ), along with Satish Singh, came up with the idea of a movement to motivate men while they were colleagues at Sahyog, a women’s rights NGO. Abhjit says, “While addressing issues of domestic violence in the community, we were convinced that it was necessary to expand gender-related work and include men in it.” Departing from the core strategy of targeting women, they set up Men’s Action for Stopping Violence Against Women (MASVAW), which undertakes the task of bringing about behaviour change among men in 40 districts across Uttar Pradesh.

As part of their work at the Delhi-based CHSJ, which seeks to strengthen accountability of public health systems and health governance through research, resource support and advocacy, they are applying their minutely developed model of change through their men-centric programmes in four states.

In Madhya Pradesh, for
instance, a role model or animator supports a group of men in the community to experiment with new gender-related behaviours at home. “Evaluations show that men who have changed feel that the most significant benefit from this exercise is getting to be closer to their wife and children. After a period of initial ridicule, they become privy to social prestige,” observes Satish.

 During the course of gender sensitisation training sessions called Building Bonds, which Manas Foundation, an NGO that works on gender, women and mental health issues, has been conducting with autorickshaw drivers in Delhi, activists
discovered that there is much confusion about male roles in society and negotiating gender relations. This pushed them to launch a helpline, Auto Saahara, earlier this year, where drivers can call in, ask questions and receive responses about gender-sensitive behaviour.

The idea of roping in men to bring about significant positive changes to women’s lives has been gaining ground for some years now. Groups similar to Manas and CHSJ gradually found each other, which resulted in the formation of a national
network, Forum to Engage Men (FEM) in 2007. Around the same time, Indian activists also began interacting with their counterparts around the globe, such as Promundo in Brazil and EngenderHealth in Africa. A worldwide alliance of over 400 organisations was created under the banner of MenEngage. Its first global conference was held in Rio de Janeiro in 2009.

Root cause

The groundswell of change began in India after the gangrape in Delhi in December 2012, when, for the first time ever, men, along with women, took to the streets in support of a ‘women’s issue’. This year alone has seen several prominent men and women stand in support of the movement. In Chandigarh, on October 7, Bharatnatyam exponent and yoga practitioner Navtej Johar preceded his dance performance with a moving talk, that described the path towards a new masculinity.

Earlier, he had participated along with feminist Kamla Bhasin at a college fest in Delhi, on re-examining masculinities and femininities that is currently underway across 30 different colleges in five universities.

Additionally, celebrity endorsements are giving it that extra push. Encouraging male involvement, actor and activist Rahul Bose asserts, “There can be no gender
justice without the active, intensive and persistent effort of men to recognise their privileges and consciously turn away from them. Men need to practise a new masculinity if you will – that, which rejects the notion of power and patriarchy.”

In an emotional appeal to men to join the new movement, Onler Kom, husband of the Olympian boxer Mary Kom, says, “It is time we stop reducing a woman to being a wife or mother and show support and do our duty in assisting our life partners to realise their full potential, encouraging them to be a person of their own ability with dignity. I urge every man to reach out to his life partner in ways that can enrich them both. Mary Kom’s achievements have done all of us proud; brought glory not just to her, but to her family and her nation as well.”

It seems like the nation has woken up to some long-dormant issues. Gender
inequality is real and for us to eradicate it, it is imperative that men be a part of the system and solution.

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