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Men Play Vital Roles in Gender Equality Battle

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The global edition of the 'New York Times' termed it a 'lad magazine' minus the scantily clad women and gadgets. For Harish Sadani of Men against Violence and Abuse (MAVA), 'Purush Spandan' continues to be a great vehicle for pushing the cause of gender equality. Now in its 17th year, the Marathi periodical, with its thought-provoking collection of articles, short stories and poems "aims to create a safe, non-threatening space to address issues of masculinity in a contemporary context," according to Sadani. If you think about it, India had pioneers like Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule who tried to fight orthodoxy by starting a school for girls as early as 1848, he points out.

The United Nations puts the number of women affected by violence at over a billion worldwide. While violence against women is perceived as a crime, most organisations working on the issue tend to focus on helping the victim deal with it. But what if you could change the behaviour of the perpetrators of such violence? Explains William Muir, the man behind Equal Community Foundation (ECF), "It is about the 'Factor of 4', as we like to call it. If you halve the discrimination and double the empowerment, women's lives improve dramatically. You have to view men as a positive resource in the cause of women's empowerment. The approach has to be non-confrontational and non-accusative. It's not about blame allocation but about behaviour change - actually empowering men to empower women in their lives and communities."

Muir, who set up ECF almost four years ago, believes that focused research on developing a solution to violence against women that can be scaled to groups that are already in the field, is the need of the hour. "Gender equality is not achievable unless men are a part of the solution - which needs to be easy, efficient and replicable," he says.

Yet, of all the work being carried out by different organisations in the field of women's empowerment less than five per cent involves men. Some like Akshara, which has been working with college students for the last 14 years, have evolved to engage youth of both sexes on issues like gender consciousness and equality. Nandita Gandhi, the founder of Akshara, points out that the United Nations too realised the value of involving men in such work a couple of years ago. In its most recent initiative Akshara has joined hands with the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) to use the powerful medium of cinema for the One Billion Rising (OBR) campaign in India, which is all about fighting violence against women. A film festival, screening around 90 films, 'Our lives...to live', was also conceptualised for the campaign.

MAVA's Sadani is convinced that patriarchy oppresses men equally. "We need to provide men a vocabulary to talk about issues like gender roles and sexuality," he says. Organisations like MAVA work with individuals as well as other groups to do this, those like ECF focus on individuals to bring about behavioural change.

ECF calls it 'Action for Equality' - programmes that train local men, boys and women to be positive agents of change. "By delivering the programmes themselves in their own communities they are providing change that's both more permanent and more deeply rooted in the community," says Aditi Tembe, who works with ECF. This is an approach much appreciated by girls like Gauri Shendge, a resident of Pune's Khadki Bazaar area - one of the 20 locations where ECF is active. "Why do we always have to ignore the harassment that men dole out to us when we walk down the street? Why do we have to ignore them or take a different route? Instead we have to ask them to change and behave themselves," she states indignantly.

The ECF 'Graduate Programme' trains and places qualified mentors in low-income urban communities. These mentors, in turn, run programmes engaging men aged from 14 to 17. These mentors, young men like Pune-based Ramesh Kokate, who are qualified in Social Work, gradually build a relationship of trust with the youngsters and address the issues that are of concern to them - including that of sexuality and reproduction - with the help of small rhymes and simple drawings. The young men are free to ask any questions they may have.

Usually they do have many: 'Can you ever run out of sperm? Do twins come from two-headed sperm? What is mental abuse?' and so on. As Tembe observes, "Often with no one to pose these questions to, ignorance sometimes leads them to negative behaviour. Armed with matter-of-fact explanations, they do much better."

ECF also monitors and measures the changes that take place in areas like helping with domestic chores, taking action against violence, being a source of emotional support, resisting violent or aggressive behaviour. According to recent data it has collected, over 47 per cent of women reported a reduction in negative behaviour and a consequent increase in positive behaviour within the communities with which ECF has been working.

There are cases like that of Abhishek Misal, 17, who was once an extremely disruptive young man. "From having to drag him awake from bed in the morning and handing him his toothbrush, toothpaste and a mug of water, I had to hand him each and every item of clothing from his underclothes to his pants, to get him ready every day. He would fight with his sister, eating was a battle, studies were a nightmare. Today, he keeps the morning tea ready even before he wakes me up. He helps around the home when I come back from work in order to ease my burden," beams his mother.

The ECF programme includes personal development activities that cover gender equality issues. Participants in the 15-week, 45-hour programme discover the pivotal role women play in their own success - within the home and in the wider community. Currently working towards a diploma in Mechanical Engineering, Abhishek interns with ECF's 'Alumni Programme', a follow-up to its Graduate Programme, where it provides young people with an opportunity to work on gender issues in their communities through a structured sequence of voluntary activities with their peers. "This helps prevent lapses into destructive behaviour. Building on the knowledge attained during the 15 weeks, it gives graduates the framework to develop and deliver interactive community events on gender inequality issues. Not only do our volunteers broaden their horizons, in the process, they actually become advocates for behavioural change for gender equality in their communities," says Tembe.

Young Gauri affirms the need to include men and their families in the cause of empowering women in her community where a man who helps in domestic chores is seen to be demeaning himself and where he will be asked to concentrate on his studies while his sister is left with piles of housework.

"We want to take on patriarchy in the new world order of 'nuclear families' 'DINKs' (double income, no kids), 'live-in relationships', which also leaves men grappling with issues that they have never been confronted with before. Men don't have the vocabulary to discuss this without sounding unmanly and weak," says Sadani. He believes organisations like his are working with men to create a space where everyone can seek solutions as equals. In other words, until men become a part of the battle for gender equality, both sides stand to lose.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.

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