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In a country where almost 40 percent of women will experience some form of emotional, physical, or sexual violence at the hands of men, this may seem a counterintuitive notion.
However, a small but growing number of organizations and individuals are proposing that to tackle gender-based violence at its root, it is vital to make men a central part of the solution.
“Over the last 25 years, billions of dollars from across the public, private, and social sectors have been spent on efforts to close the gender gap. But it hasn’t closed significantly. If we don’t start to work with men, we might still be here in another 25 years,” said Will Muir, co-founder and CEO of the Pune, India-based nonprofit organization Equal Community Foundation (ECF).
ECF is one of a handful of organizations in India that have made it their mission to work with men to combat gender violence and achieve parity between the sexes.
ECF’s approach is based on the belief that men’s attitudes and behavior sit at the heart of the problem, and that any efforts to change these attitudes must treat men not as perpetrators of violence, but as agents of change.
“Even though not all men are a part of the problem, all men can and need to be a part of the solution,” Muir said.
Sadani and his team have spent the last 20 years mobilizing young men in the western state of Maharashtra to promote gender equality within their communities. He believes that gender issues have been seen as "women’s issues" for too long, and that an expansion of focus is essential.
“Transforming the powerful and empowering the exploited cannot be mutually exclusive agendas,” he said. “[We need to] start looking at gender issues equally as a men’s and women's issues, otherwise men become isolated … and the gender divide widens.”
India is home to some of the most inequitable attitudes toward women today. A recent study by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) found that 81 percent of men surveyed believed that the man should have the final word on decisions in the home, 68 percent were of the opinion that a woman should tolerate violence to keep her family together, and 65 percent said that there are times when a woman deserves to be beaten.
It is upon these attitudes that ECF, alongside others, has begun to focus its efforts in recent years, working to mobilize and support those who are open to thinking differently.
“In every community there are men who respect women and care about gender equality, but [they] lack the confidence, skills, and knowledge to take action. We need to find these men and provide them the … support to take voluntary action … and spread this vision in their community,” said Rujuta Teredesai, ECF’s co-founder and executive director.
To do so, the organization has developed a series of community-based trainings, under their flagship program Action for Equality. One evening a week for 15 weeks, their young trainees take part in a series of games and activities that have been designed to get them thinking about the roles of women in their lives.
“While we cover heavy topics, including discrimination, gender, violence, and sexuality, we try to make them as simple and engaging as possible," says Anjana Goswami, ECF’s Action for Equality program manager.
“They teach us about women, and help us understand how to interact with girls as friends. It’s something I can’t talk to my parents about but I really appreciate," said Vikas, one of ECF’s latest graduates.
ICRW, which also runs a growing number of programs aimed at engaging men in the debate on gender equality, emphasizes the importance of challenging social norms as well.
“Social norms are engrained into our everyday lives, [and] this is where one really needs to work," said Madhumita Das, a gender specialist with ICRW.
To date, ECF has enrolled 2,791 young men in its gender awareness program. With 1,216 graduates and over 100 active volunteers who participate in community engagement once a week, the project is growing increasingly popular.
Sixty-one percent of women living with these graduates have reported a significant reduction in violence and discrimination from their sons as a result of the program.
“Both of my sons have been part of the program. They often come home and share what they discuss in the class with his sister and me, which we find really useful,” said Savita Kasbe, a mother from the Super Indira Nagar community. “They’ve also started helping out with the chores, which is a big help for me.”
However, while violence against women is rising rapidly on the national and international agenda as a serious public health concern, the number of organizations working with men to address it in India remains small.
“There is a woeful dearth of minds who have so far come to address this aspect of the crisis. Not even 1 or 2 percent [of organizations working on gender-based violence] are focusing on men”, Sadani said.
As momentum for this kind of approach grows, however, Das believes it will be important to expand and capitalize upon it.
“It took a very long time to bring men into this discourse of addressing violence against women, but recently, there has been a shift. People are talking about it a lot more. Now it is the responsibility of those working with men and boys to push this," she said.
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