New Program Engages Coaches in Fostering Gender Equality

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Are coaches only for improving the sporting abilities of the men and boys they train? Not really, if you are to go by an interesting intervention anchored by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). In fact, these maestros of sporting action can play a significant role in sensitising their wards on issues of gender equality, according to a pioneering programme that ICRW conducted jointly with Futures Without Violence.

Entitled ‘Engaging Coaches and Athletes in Fostering Gender Equity: Findings from the Parivartan Program in Mumbai, India’ – modelled on an innovative US-based Futures Without Violence programme, ‘Coaching Boys into Men’ – got cricket coaches and community mentors to convey key messages to young school boys and community athletes in the 10-16 age group, on the core principle of treating women with respect.

Twenty-six coaches and their teams from 26 schools associated with the Mumbai School Sports Association (MSSA) participated in the programme. While Breakthrough, an organisation that focuses on violence against women played a supporting role, Apnalaya – an organisation working with slum communities in Mumbai’s Shivaji Nagar – got local players to build their own cricket team of 15-20 boys each. In all 16 community mentors, or 16 teams, from the Shivaji Nagar area were selected.

Before the coaches could begin their mentoring, they themselves needed to be trained. So the first stage of the programme involved intensive orientation sessions with coaches through workshops, discussions, games and films. Once the coaches were brought on board, they in turn began to conduct weekly sessions with the young sportspersons on subjects as diverse as ethics, respect, gender norms and gender-based violence. Learning aids, such as interactive cards, posters, brochures, pamphlets and postcards were extensively used during this sensitisation process. In a similar way, community mentors were also brought in to conduct sessions with those participating in the community teams.

These sessions apparently did make a difference, especially in terms of the young sportspersons’ perception of masculinity and women’s role in society. For instance, a baseline survey conducted before the Parivartan programme began had revealed that the dominant view was that “real” men were tough, unemotional and unfaithful. Gender stereotypes also marked the responses. Participants felt that girls cannot do well in maths and science; that if a girl says “no”, she really means “yes”; that it is a wife’s duty to “obey” her husband. Most also felt that a girl deserves to be beaten if she stays out late, if she doesn’t help with the household chores, or if she doesn’t listen to her elders. Among the other attitudes that were probed was how participants would intervene in a hypothetical scenario where girls were being abused.

Many of these attitudes underwent a sea change after three years of the programme, although there was a decided difference between the change observed among the school participants and community participants. For instance, there was a marked shift among school and community programme participants in terms of how they would intervene in a hypothetical scenario where girls were being abused. For instance, if they saw a girl being harassed whether they would directly intervene or take support from someone who they think will help them in putting an end to the harassment.

Advait Avalaskar, who is now a graduate student at Mithibai College, Mumbai, is a clear votary of the programme in which he had participated while at school, along with some other students. “We used to have discussions on topics like ‘eve teasing’, domestic harassment, molestation of women in public places like parks, or in offices. It deepened our understanding of the world and also helped us realise how difficult life could be for women,” he says.

Coaches, too, found the programme an eye-opener. Nagesh Thakur has been a cricket coach for the last 40 years. As a Mumbai coach for the under-14 age group, he had coached ace cricketers like Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane. He has also shaped the lives of youngsters like Avalaskar.

Thakur believes the Parivartan programme had wrought a great change in his own coaching style. “Until that point, I was only a cricket coach. After joining the Parivartan programme, I became convinced that the knowledge of cricketing techniques was not the only input my boys needed to become champions,” he elaborates.

According to Thakur, using cards – advocating messages of discipline, using the right language, respect, understanding relationships, fighting violence – was an extremely useful way to bring about behavioural change. “Earlier, these boys had no real understanding of the word ‘gender’. Through these cards, and the general training, they began to understand the importance of respecting women, whether it was their mothers or faculty members. Parents, in fact, reported that they perceived a difference in their sons’ behaviour at home. Boys who were abusive toward their sisters, for instance, changed their tone and attitude. In the process, they also learned the meaning of discipline.”

These positive changes even translated into gains on the playing field, according to Thakur. His team from the VPM Vidya Mandir, Dahisar, went on to win an award for being the most disciplined team and it also claimed the Inter School Giles Shield Cricket Tournament title.

Thakur also reports a personal change, “Frankly, I found myself changing my behaviour, not just towards the team but to my family members. I began to lend a helping hand to my wife and daughter, something I had never done before.” In fact, many wives of coaches reported being happily surprised by their husbands’ responses at home.

Zaheed Khan, an informal cricket coach or mentor, lives in a sprawling shanty town in Shivaji Nagar. Until he joined the Parivartan programme, he would regularly skip school, enjoy using foul language and never hesitated to participate in an occasional session of “eve teasing” – a euphemism for sexual harassment. Two years into the Parivartan programme and there was a dramatic turnaround in his behaviour. “My mindset changed totally. I learned the basics of being respectful towards women, and encouraged my friends also to be more gender sensitive,” says Khan, who now goes to night college and works for the non-profit, Community of Resource Organisations. He also makes time to undertake cricket coaching.

Not everything about the programme, however, went according to plan. School athletes, in comparison to community athletes, showed some resistance to change. One explanation for this that was cited in the report was that the mentors in the community were able to make more of a difference because they shared the same socio-economic backgrounds as their wards and were closer in age to them.

But despite the lags, ICRW insiders are pleased with the outcome of the Parivartan programme. Observes Madhumita Das, senior technical specialist of ICRW, “The coaches we spoke to believe that the programme has to be of a longer duration if it is to impact behavioural change in the long term. But there can be no doubting that the concept of working on gender sensitivity issues with coaches has proved to be successful.”

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