Addressing the peripheral status of men and boys in discussions on ‘gender’, Rohini Nilekani challenges us to be inclusive in our efforts towards ‘gender’ empowerment.
00:03 Rohini Nilekani: Namaste everyone. Thank you Anant. Thanks to Caravan. Thanks to The Bridge for inviting me here. I was resisting Anant quite strongly actually because I said I’m not an expert on this, but eventually I agreed because I’m sure y’all have heard a lot about women empowerment today and women’s issues, and we all know how big they are, especially in India. But I thought I would use my time and I agreed to do this to air out something that’s been bothering me for the last few years, in my work and through my reading. Now, I’ve never spoken about this in a public platform before, so all of you have to be rather kind when I’m talking and later as well.
00:44 RN: So let me give you some background. Anant has said something but very quickly about my work, I was a journalist. But when I gave up journalism, though I continue to write occasionally, I have worked in the non-profit sector for the past 20 years. And through my philanthropy, I’ve been active in issues of education, microfinance, ecology, arts and culture, governance, and especially water through my foundation Arghyam, and we support work in 23 states to help communities have better water. And that has given me a window into grassroots organisations all around the country, and working in especially hard geographies and social conditions. I’ve also had as some of you may know a ring-side seat in the last 35 years, thanks to my husband, Nandan Nilekani, into the amphitheatre of the corporate world, and a little bit into the innards of government when he was in government. So in that sense, that’s the perspective I’m bringing to my talk today, coming from both samaaj and bazaar and sarkar.
01:46 RN: I want to talk and help us all to look at the question of boys and young men, both in their own right and also with respect to women. I’m gonna share with you some images that have stayed stark in my mind over the last few years. One is the huge yellowing eyes of a 12-year-old Musahari boy. I don’t like to use the term ‘Musahari’, but that’s what they’re called in North Bihar, in an small island in the Koshi river where no government services were available. He was suffering from azar-azar, and was barely literate, had barely left that island and was waiting to be transported to a hospital. Just his face stays in my mind.
02:28 RN: I remember the copious tears of a young boy I met on a roadside who with his sister, actually on a field trip that I was on, he had done very well in his board exams, but his father had said, “There’s no way you can study further, I’ve got you a job in a government organization, and that’s what you’re going to do.” I’m sure this must be familiar to all of you, but the body language of both hope and despair of dozens of young men in an employment queue, armed with their 10th or 12th standard degrees, and in much of India, 10th fail is also considered quite a respectable thing, almost like a degree to have. And waiting and praying for a job that will barely hold their body and soul together as a security guard or as a sales person.
03:10 RN: And another thing was the resigned look on the face of a very raw and very freshly scrubbed pani-puri vendor in Bangalore, who right in front of me had to hand over a bribe to a sub-inspector, not even to a constable. And then I remember the macho threatening behavior of a group of rather angry young men who had stopped cars on a highway because there had been an accident and one of their people had been injured. To me, these are snapshots that assemble a sort of portrait, a gallery of the reality faced by 200 million boys and young men in this country, probably the largest such cohort in the world, between the ages of say 13 to 25.
03:56 RN: And as we all know, I won’t dwell on this, but India has made great strides to reduce the inequality between men and women in terms of legal rights, economic opportunities, personal empowerment and more. We have several laws as you all know to protect women and help them advance. One of the greatest institutions that we have supported over the last 30 years has been the development of self-help groups. There are 70 million women in self-help groups around the country, and that enables them to have acc… To platforms to share, they are able to access credit, to get state support and much more. We’ve included women by quota in local government, and India has a unique pride of having more than one million elected representatives as women representatives across governments in the country. We also have several policies to support the education of the girl child and special drive for maternal and child health and I could just go on and on.
04:52 RN: But what is beginning to worry me greatly is that have we swung the pendulum too far? Where is the similar support for these 200 million young men? We all would agree that they too have their rights, their needs, their burdens, especially coming from the strong patriarchal structure that India has been living with for centuries. We know that they are restricted by gender stereotypes. We all know also that by not conforming, they can be subject to merciless bullying. And of course the concept of masculinity is very conditional, you cannot be masculine if you’re emotional or sensitive or compassionate. And we all know how hard it is to escape these social beliefs, even though masculinity is being redefined in the 21st century. And I’m not even including all the extra challenges of being a young male of a lower caste or a lower economic class or of a different sexual orientation. I’m simply talking about the burden of being young male with hormones no doubt raging, with no kind of stable relationships perhaps, and locked into predetermined notions of how to be a boy and then a man.
06:06 RN: Now, this conversation has opened up around the world over the last few decades but not so much in India. And I believe that, unless we are prepared to see this, that men too are trapped… I don’t believe we can make that much progress towards peace or harmony or the kind of empowerment that the previous panel was talking about. And I’m sure y’all have been hearing all day. And yet often, people talk of men as people who need to change so that women can be better off, not what they need in their own right. So can we go beyond that thinking to root causes? Can we look into the faces of those millions of men, and we see them all over the place in Delhi as well, with their fears, their insecurities, their lack of access to good education, skilling, to jobs, to secure relationships, and can we creatively confront the challenge to make a positive change? Where are the safe platforms for men, like the SHGs, where they can share their questions about sexuality, about patriarchy, about masculinity, and the burden of being male? Do we have structured activities anywhere in the country that are secular, not necessarily political party-based or religion-based that get young men together to play sports, to learn music, to do theater, or bird watching or anything at all. Are there enough state-sponsored programs for adolescent, low income, urban boys for example. The answer to all is mostly no, no, and only very little.
07:43 RN: Look at our legal frameworks, for example. Law making in India mostly can be pretty shoddy at times, and some laws might have gone too far to protect women, leaving men in a fairly precarious state. The Anti-Dowry Act is a rather vexed case, that has engaged both men and women activists alike. For one, I don’t think it has achieved its social goal of eliminating dowry, far from it. And on the other hand, there has been some abuse of the law to the point where staunchly feminist organizations that I work with and know, have been thinking of re-looking at some of its provisions. The Supreme Court in one case even said, and I quote, “As noted above, the object is to strike at the roots of dowry menace, but by misuse of the provision, a new legal terrorism can be unleashed. The provision is intended to be used as a shield and not an assassin’s weapon.” Very tough tough words. But the point is that when non-bailable offences are created, the police need to be extra careful to screen complaints, and to make sure that the accused can be justifiably arrested for the alleged crime.
08:49 RN: Not enough of us are agitated about these issues, I believe, because we think that these things will not happen to the men we know, and I think we are living in fools paradise. Take the case of one Naseema Begum who in 1995, filed a case against a young man who forcibly kissed her, causing some injury to her lip and no doubt a lot of injury to her soul. The criminal case was settled in 2012, awarding the accused a sentence of six months imprisonment. An appeal to Sessions Court was denied, the appellant had argued that the accused was a juvenile at the time of the incident and should have been protected under the law, then in force, which should have sent him actually to a Juvenile Justice Board and not a criminal court. But the court sent him to prison for six months, 18 years after the crime was committed, when both the woman and the man had settled into different marriages, and also had children. And it had this to say, “In the instant case, as the appellant has committed a heinous crime and with the social condition prevailing in the society, the modesty of a woman has to be strongly guarded, and as the appellant behaved like a roadside Romeo, we do not think it is a fit case, where the benefit of the 1958 Act, leniency in sentencing for juvenile offenders should be given to the appellant.”
10:10 RN: I’m going to leave it to you all to decide whether this seems fair, and when it is said that the modesty of a woman has to be strongly guarded, does it serve men? Does it serve women? Or does it serve any gender at all? And whether it doesn’t come from the same strong patriarchal framework that we all need to confront and possibly reject or absolutely reject. Suffice it to say that I’ve been feeling that if I were a man and if I’d really read all the laws that applied to me in India, I would be pretty nervous indeed.
10:43 RN: The state of course lags behind but so does civil society. The research I did for this revealed that there is hardly any kind of work at any scale, no programs working with young men or boys. Two exceptions are MAVA, which is based in Pune, which has done some stellar work to sensitize men, gets them together, allows them to talk. But even they say that they are empowering women by humanizing men, the poor un-humanized 50% of the population. Then there’s the Equal Community Foundation, based in Mumbai. They’ve done some pretty serious structured work with young people and has tried to create safe spaces for boys to discuss things that bother them, and to help with skilling and so on. Then there’s an organization called NOVO, there’s something called Shadhika, Oxfam does some work. But these are just tiny little specks in the ocean.
11:32 RN: And when the Equal Community Foundation that I’m working with, went to West Bengal to see if they could expand their work, they spoke to 100 organisations, none of them had any specific programs for boys, even though they had so many for girls. The philanthropy community, I’m sorry to say is doing very little, even the biggest European agencies working in this space, hardly gave 5% of their budgets to this cause. And one reason may be that that while funders agree with this in principle, they don’t know quite what to fund. And so we have, I believe a huge yawning gap of opportunities for young men to realize their rights, to achieve their better selves and to be gainfully employed.
12:14 RN: I’m going to use the remaining two-and-a-half minutes to talk about… To bring a spotlight on work, employment and jobs. Some progress has been made for sure in this regard. My friend Manish Sabharwal who runs India’s largest staffing company called TeamLease, he says that today, the problem is less of jobs than of wages. Ten years ago, the young people, who used to come to TeamLease used to say “Koi bhi naukri dilwao.” Five years ago, they used to say, “Acchi naukri dilwao.” And now they say “Dus hazar rupay ki naukri dilwao.” And even then, it’s not so easy for them to get jobs for that meager amount of 10,000, which is barely enough to keep these young men eating and with a roof over their bed, not even a house not… Just a bed, and let alone leaving them with money to send back home. You know India is a huge remittance economy.
13:01 RN: In Mumbai, top employers, get away with meager salaries, because most of the applicants stay in their own homes. But this means that others from all over India from specially from UP and Bihar… Almost one out of two children that are going to be born in India are going to come from these two states. And it sort of forecloses their options in cities like Mumbai and other cities in the south and west of India, where all the economic growth has been happening. There are 150 million people, who migrate within the country every year, in search of work and most of them are young men, And yet, there are 10,000 open positions every day that TeamLease cannot fill. Just think of all these things that are not matching up. Young men desperately looking for good jobs and not able to find them. They have very high aspirations today for various reasons and will not work without adequate pay and dignity. Imagine what it means then, and this is really worth imagining well, to a country and to a society, to have millions of idle, restless men, many armed with this educational degrees, and with no prospect of living the life, they really want and believe they deserve.
14:14 RN: If you look at the trajectory of Jyoti or Nirbhaya, and the trajectory of the people, who committed such violence against her, where you think their lives were headed and where you think her was? And we really need to see, what can we do? Now nobody wants to be a farmer. Go and ask anybody in the country, ‘Do you want to be a farmer?” Most of the time, the answer is “No,” and who can blame that person, because it’s not really very remunerative at all. And the jobs that are available in logistics or as security guards, there are nine million security guards in India. And you know… Imagine the life of a security guard, alone, away from his family. Standing at a post for 12 hours a day, with very little wages. Just imagine, what is going on in the minds of these people. Barely subsistence wages, food exorbitant, housing exorbitant, public transport is poor, the list goes on.
15:07 RN: So let’s face it, 200 million young men… Just a minute more. 200 million young men stuck in low level equilibrium. What we need to do? Okay. First they need much better laws and much better policy. This is a challenge for law makers. They need better policy and public financing of affordable shelter, public transport, identity-based access to finance. They need skilling, education. This is a concern for policy makers. They need plenty of platforms, where they can safely explore sensitive questions. They need good role models. They need structured activities, empathy and to build up self-esteem. This is addressed to civil society institutions. And they need all of us, to partake in the civilizational goal of nurturing better human beings. They need us to believe that everyone can change for the better, and they need those of us, who can to support the few organizations working in this space.
16:06 RN: I leave you with this belief that it is a creative challenge for all of us and an urgent one. We have created solid legal frameworks and support programs for women. That’s wonderful. But we need to recognize that we may have over-corrected for historical injustice. In their own right, young men need us to do more for them in our society and give them safe spaces to speak out and different programs that help them get a boot up. We need to do this for men in their own right, and we need to do it anyway even if we want women to be empowered. I think it’s about time to look at this very seriously, and I hope you will agree with me. Thank you and namaste.
16:47 S?: Thank you Rohini…