By Ranjita Biswas, Womens Feature Service
Men, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region that has an inherent patriarchal social attitude, are often seen as guilty of strengthening the gender imbalance and also of contributing to the growing number of cases of HIV-infections among women.
But new ideas are positively impacting these stereotypes and bringing about a change in attitude. As young Muhammad Shahzad Khan of Pakistan pointed out, “Men have to suffer from the ‘image’ constructed and imposed by society. They have to prove they are ‘manly’; they have to behave in a certain way, a view that is often foisted on them.” He was sharing his thoughts at the recently-concluded 9th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP9) in Bali, during a session titled ‘Men Can Change – Reducing the Burden on Women and Girls and their Vulnerabilities to HIV’, facilitated by the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) and UNIFEM. The session saw the participation of over a 100 people. ICAAP is a biennial conference on AIDS which aims at increasing the understanding of the epidemic and related issues in the region.
Half of the new HIV infections in Asia and the Pacific today occur among women and girls, according to the latest report of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW, March 2009). And this trend is replicated worldwide. Of the 30 million People Living With HIV (PLHIV) today, 50 per cent are women (UNAIDS & WHO, 2007). UNAIDS also warns that an estimated 50 million women in Asia face the risk of becoming infected with HIV from their intimate partners. They can be married women or those in long-term relationships with men who indulge in high-risk behaviour. Agreed Anne F. Stenhammer, representative, UNIFEM, “Today, the largest number of infections are among the clients of sex workers in Asia.”
A secondary status in society, unequal economic position and the perpetration of violence by male partners are the factors that cause women to have little or no negotiating power. It is this reality that is reflected in the increasing numbers of HIV-infected women.
Keeping all these aspects in mind, the role of male partners in the fight against the disease cannot be underestimated. International bodies working in this field, including women’s organisations operating at the grassroots, have come to recognise this fact and, increasingly, their programmes seek to involve the male partners. “Without looking at men and their role in their relationships with women, a change of attitude and behaviour cannot be achieved. And strategists of national programme on HIV/AIDS must acknowledge this,” said Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the Washington-based International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW).
As chair of the session, Kiran Bhatia, Gender Advisor, UNFPA, Asia and Pacific Regional Office, pointed out, in any programme related to women’s empowerment and gender sensitisation, the involvement of men is an essential element. However, for a long time this segment was not given adequate focus. According to Nobuko Horibe, Regional Director, UNFPA, there is a new emphasis on men’s involvement today.
Over the years, young male innovators themselves have initiated change in many places. Like Shahzad Khan, who established the Chanan Development Association (CDA), an NGO in Lahore, inspired from his experiences of witnessing at first-hand the manner women were treated in the hinterland of Punjab in Pakistan. Archaic practices like exchange marriage, or ‘watta satta’, a custom where brides are exchanged between two families, and honour killing, or ‘karo-kari’, which actually leave women with no option but to silently bow down to patriarchal decree, are common in Sind and Punjab even today. Girls barely out of their childhood become brides.
Khan was a champion of women’s rights even as a young boy. When his 15-year-old elder sister was going to be married to a 50-year-old landlord, he rebelled despite being only 12 years old. He garnered the support of all the women in his household and along with them he went on a hunger strike in a bid to stop the nuptials.
Although his father was apprehensive about the social consequences, he nonetheless relented. But Khan’s family members had to pay a very heavy price. They were compelled to leave their home and village forever. This experience motivated Khan to begin his work – with help from other open-minded young innovators – to sensitise adolescent boys and men through various programmes. The CDA uses the medium of theatre, exhibitions and films to spread the word. Since 2006, it has staged more than 500 plays that explore issues ranging from early forced marriage to gender violence. Today, 20,000 young men are involved in the campaign of sensitisation, being trained in participatory media techniques.
Khan’s motto is: “Treat women as human beings.” He believes that, “We can choose to change the position of women in our society,” adding confidently that, “We are the future.”
A similar change can extend to male clients in redlight areas, too, as Sujit Modak, who works in Sonagachi, the largest red light area in Kolkata in eastern India, demonstrated. The Sonagachi Project is well-known for its programmes of empowerment among female sex workers (FSW), who have formed their own organisation, the Durbar Mahila Samnwaya Committee (DMSC). Their success in condom promotion through a network of peer workers is well documented. Many of the FSWs have regular customers, ‘babus’, who think of themselves as the ‘husbands’ of these women. However, many ‘babus’ do not like to use condoms or are not sensitive to their partners’ needs. Hence, a programme to involve them in the campaign for safe sex was mooted in 1997. This initiative was called Sathi Sangathan, or Friends’ Association. Today, many of the ‘babus’ willingly register themselves as participants in the project, Modak informed.
Nur Hassyim of Indonesia shared his experience of working as a media manager at the Rifka Annisa (“Women’s Friend”), a non governmental organisation that provides support to women survivors of violence. He said that introducing gender sensitisation programmes among men and adolescent boys have paid dividends.
Beginning in 1997, Rifka Annisa has expanded its activities – it has published a book, ‘Being a Gender Sensitive Husband’, and has been providing services for abusive men in a programme that was initiated in 2006. “We try to tell them about the ‘new image’ of men, which is not necessarily an aggressive one but one which is humane and caring,” said Hassyim. These programmes are run for adolescent boys in schools, or showcased at venues like football stadia during matches. Activists also visit the houses of local political leaders and collect their signatures endorsing campaign slogans like “Welcome! You men!” that appeals to them to shun violence against women. The impact can be gauged from the fact that more men are coming for counselling, said Hassyim.
These were just some of the initiatives highlighted at the Bali Congress, indicating that change is in the air. The time has come to advocate a new image of men, not only in the fight against HIV/AIDS but also against gender violence. In fact, the two are often linked. That is why international organisations like UNIFEM now highlight the need to work against patriarchy, not against men.