This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Raghu Karnad at We the Women in Bangalore. She talks about why we must engage men as stakeholders and co-beneficiaries in gender equity.
Over the past 20 years of my philanthropic work, we’ve seen a fair amount of advancement with regards to women’s empowerment. Organisations have been working towards bringing and keeping girls in schools, working in microfinance to help women gain independence, and creating spaces for support like the self-help groups that 65 million women in India are a part of. You can really see how transformative this is for women in India, especially rural women, as they’re able to find safe places to share with each other, to get loans, and improve their economic and social lives. Through Arghyam, we’ve worked in the water sector, and have realised how much access to domestic water affects women’s lives. But while I’ve been engaged with this crucial work over the last four years, I’ve started to be concerned by the adolescent boys and young men who are poised to enter the workforce.
The Trap of the Patriarchy
In India, we have 230 million men just under the age of 18, more if we include young men between the ages of 18 and 24. We all know, through reports and surveys, that 50% of men in India seem to think it’s all right to physically reprimand a woman if she angers them, and that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. These are ideas that have no place in 2019, but here we are. What’s more concerning is that 50% of this new generation, of the 230 million young men still to grow up, might also practice these beliefs. So I decided to try and get to the bottom of this, and figure out why young men might think along these lines, and how to curb this kind of behaviour.
As I was reading up on feminist literature are trying to understand this, I realised that these boys are very much trapped in the patriarchal identities that similarly trap women. In the context of India, with our developing economy, these young people are the future, with unrealised aspirations, access to mobile phones and the internet, but undereducated, unemployed, and stuck in geographies where there are no jobs that match their skills. Too often than not, they have poor male role models, broken families and constant uncertainty about the future. There are very few safe spaces for them to talk about their sexuality, their frustration, or their fears. In the last 40 years, the non-profit sector in India has made tremendous strides. We have some fantastic NGOs that work with vulnerable girls and young women, to provide these spaces to talk, to share, to bond, to feel safer. But I believe there is a lacuna, because we have failed to address the same thing when it comes to young men and boys.
When we started looking into which organisations or bodies in India are working with these vulnerable groups of adolescent boys and young men, we found the number was very low. From among the ones we identified, we asked them to conduct a national conversation with NGOs who work with women, and some of whom work with boys, to figure out if they can collaborate on some innovative programs. For example, ECF works with 13 to14-year-old boys. They give them a space to question hierarchies of power, talk about gender and sexuality, and they ask them, “How do you feel about your sister, your mother, your friend?” etc. They give them projects to work on, and opportunities to develop a sense of ethical leadership that moves them towards gender equity. Perhaps more importantly, they get time, and space, and empathy. Men Against Violence and Abuse is another organisation working towards this. We need to encourage these organisations to flourish, and more to start this work, because I really feel there is no way we can achieve the goal of women’s empowerment, unless we also work with this group to make them feel secure about themselves and their future. They need to see that they don’t have to express their masculinity only through abuse, violence, or by generally trying to repress the power of women.
Let’s Talk About Sex
When we think about sex education in this country, it’s also a space that needs work. When we asked around, there were very few places where men could talk about sex. I saw a couple of textbooks with these diagrammatic explanations and I said, “That’s not how I want to learn about sex.” We need to be able to speak about it without shame, to convey that it is natural. But how can we look at sex without the use of power over the other? Along with sex education, we need to also teach people about consent, and what that means for both young men and women. I heard about someone who has started a subscription service, where women and men can privately subscribe and educate themselves, protected by the privacy of their mobile phones, which is a good thing because apparently young men don’t talk to their parents about this. Maybe someday they will be comfortable doing that. We have to eventually be able to talk about sex in a very young country like India, and talk about it with respect, without shame, and with ideas of consent and equity right from the get-go.
Over the past 200 years, feminism has crucially brought forth the issues faced by half of humanity who, until then, did not have the means to express themselves. Now I think we need to look beyond this, to expressing more human values at a time of political polarization, tremendous aggression in the public sphere, and an inability to actually talk to each other. We’ve come to a point where it almost seems as if we’re launching sex wars between genders. The problem with this is that the divide between people grows and we are unable to get together and speak across that divide. Instead, we need to find more common ground to engage in fruitful civil discourse. Those are the next steps that feminism, or humanism, should look to, where we innovate for a better future. This is our next challenge – how do we go beyond these divides?
When I talk about working with young men and boys, and allocating resources to be put into this space, I don’t mean we should take away resources from women. There is far too long a journey to be made to get women to become equal citizens, and achieve their own human potential. It’s not a zero sum game. Working with young men and boys doesn’t mean you lose something on the other side. I’m asking for equal work and creativity on both sides and there’s so much potential to do it, especially now. Gandhi comes to mind, when we talk about these issues of justice. When we are fighting against injustice, we should be careful of the tools we use, that the tools themselves don’t become unjust in the process. If patriarchy is a social problem, then we need to uplift both men and women, to show them that these kinds of toxic masculine traits, that suppresses and oppresses women, are not the only way to be.
It’s a new journey, and from my work perspective I am very engaged and excited to see what’s happening. With the MeToo movement, I think we’re experiencing a very powerful moment, not just in India but around the world. Power itself is shifting, and when you watch power shifting, it has a domino effect on so many other societal issues, and that is what we are witnessing. There are precedents to this. In America, in the inner cities especially, black men used to mentor young black boys because they knew that that was their community’s only way out of toxic patterns of behaviour. In the Favelas in Latin America, there have been a lot of social experiments, where sports and music were used to offer young boys positive experiences of bonding and community. Other kinds of initiatives include structured classroom and non-classroom mentoring programs, one-on-one and one-to-many modules, developed for empathy creation, gender equity, understanding, experiencing, sharing, reducing fear. So there are examples of these kinds of undertakings, and I hope we can bring some of that here.
As women as well, I hope we can reach out to the young men and boys around us with empathy. At the end of the day, we don’t want women’s empowerment to look like the bad side of male power. So how can we keep the torch light on ourselves to not become that which we are currently against? If we can keep nurturing empathy in ourselves, I hope that our future generations will face a better world than the one we live in now.