In a break from tradition on the discourse on violence against women, a group of men goes around offering alternative views on masculinity.
The most crucial of these is: Start with the men.
So, these men — social workers, students, academics and journalists — get together and organise meetings, hold rallies and use the street media to spread the word.
The Men’s Action for Stopping Violence Against Women (MASVAW), an initiative to promote gender justice in rural Uttar Pradesh, parts of Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh, espouses equality between men and women and denounces violence against women.
They work to change mindsets which stress that a woman’s role at home is limited to domesticity, that her sartorial choices justify harassment, that her right to free movement needs to be vetted by her family and that masculinity finds assertion in the “tough guy” image.
“In the first meeting, most men tell me that I don’t make sense. But sometimes, one meeting is all it takes for a man to go home and apologise to his wife for years of violence and change forever,” says Dr Sanjay Singh, one of the conveners of MASVAW. “About a decade ago, we realised that sensitising men was key to preventing violence against women. But neither the government nor NGOs were doing enough in this regard,” adds Singh, a Professor at the Department of Social Work, Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth, Varanasi.
In a typical meeting, MASVAW members take to a real life game of snakes and ladders, in which every act of violence against a woman is counted as a snake bite and every household chore accomplished is a step up the ladder.
MASVAW member Shishir Chandra says, “Eve-teasing is seen as a rite of passage to ‘becoming a man’ by many students.”
Traditional masculinity, where boys are brought up to believe that they have the right to control women, that they should be aggressive and dominant, lies at the heart of them becoming violent towards women. “In rural India, the worlds inhabited by the two genders are poles apart,” says Dr Abhijit Das, one of the founders of MASVAW. “In the early 2000s, I realised that men were playing a passive role in the movement against violence towards women. Through MASVAW, we motivate men who disagree with violence and make their disagreement stronger and better organised,” he adds.
Das points to the policy gap in addressing the root of the problem — sensitising men to curb violence against women. “In India, gender parity is routinely replaced by women’s empowerment, undermining the need for men to be held accountable. Whether it is Aanganwaadi workers or Social Health Workers, involved in improving education, nutrition and health care, these are mostly women interacting with women,” he added.
Preeti Sudan, additional secretary at the Ministry of Women and Child Development, agrees: “There is a need for a schematic approach in the government’s engagement with men on gender equity, involving a continuous dialogue. There is a tendency in the government to focus gender equality policies entirely on women. The government has been shy of talking to men,” she says.
According to surveys conducted by the International Center for Research on Women across India in 2014, nearly two-thirds of men said that they had acted violently against their wife/partner at some point in their lives and nearly a quarter reported perpetrating sexual violence at some point against their wife/partner.
Apart from physical and sexual violence, emotional violence remains one of the most prevalent but also the most accepted form of violence. Emotional violence involves limiting a woman’s movement, restricting her to home, and forcing household and childcare work upon her.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported in a survey that an average Indian man spends only 19 minutes a day on unpaid routine housework — among the lowest in the world. Women, on the other hand, are forced to spend 298 minutes or nearly 5 hours a day on unpaid housework such as cooking, laundry and childcare — the highest globally. This results in limiting their movement and restricting their chances of participating in paid work.
According to Jashodhara Das Gupta, coordinator of Lucknow-based non-profit Sahayog and formerly part of a High-Level Expert Group on Universal Health Coverage (2010-11) set up by the Planning Commission, the government’s contribution in involving men to promote gender equity has been limited to paternity leave for central government employees and the recently-approved Saksham scheme to inculcate gender-sensitive behaviour in adolescent boys.
Although the National Population Policy 2000 makes a specific reference to appointing male health workers to promote contraceptive use and helping with childcare work, no male health worker has been appointed yet.
A study on Indian masculinity by the International Center for Research on Women concluded that gender-based violence in India is rampant since Indian men have been socialised to believe that their dominance is ‘normal’ and violence against women is justified.
It recommends that for violence-prevention efforts to be effective, a direct engagement is needed to alter men’s violent attitudes and sense of sexual entitlement.
Kamla Bhasin, founder of Jagori, a women’s resource and training centre, says that women’s movements had realised that to influence men to not be violent is the key strategy in preventing violence against women. However, she adds, “The focus, at the policy level, has primarily been on punishing violent crimes against women. The government’s failure to address men’s attitudes facilitates violence.”