By Harish Sadani
When he was in college nine years ago, Sunil Chachar did masonry work and sold flowers for a living. After attending a residential camp on gender sensitization, Chachar, 28, who grew up in Mavdi village, a district in Pune, India, realized that his mother was doing all the household chores. He’d also believed housework was beneath him. Questioning the male dominance in all spheres of life—including the decision to do housework— Sunil started doing domestic chores, including cooking and cleaning. Despite the taunts of relatives and neighbors who called him a sissy, he continues doing them today. Now working with boys in shanties near the Pune railway station, and other neighborhoods, Sunil engages young males on a range of gender matters.
Five years ago, Anand Jadhav, 24, joined a similar youth initiative in his village in Satara, a district of the state of Maharashtra in western India, near Pune. Deeply troubled by how women in Indian society are deprived of decision-making and property rights, he started speaking out on behalf of his sister who was being forced to marry. He argued with his parents to allow her to have a say in who and when and if she wanted to marry. Gradually, he began working to ensure that all the women in his family had a say in family matters. Anand, who married recently himself, promotes healthy conversations with peers at work, advocating for healthy relationships between women and men.
Participating in a workshop on gender, Vivek Kumbhar, a college student in Mumbai, reflected on how the roles of men in his family dictated the roles his mother and sister played. “In my family, Papa used to scream at Mummy. She did everything for all of us, yet she was not allowed to have a job. My father used to get angry if she ever spoke about it. Default decisions were made only by my father, and the next authority figure was me,” recounted Vivek. After attending a youth camp six years ago, Vivek started to speak up for his mother. He began washing his own clothes and doing his own dishes; his father eventually followed suit. After going to school for four years, his mother got a job as a kindergarten teacher and now, her son reports, she has her own friends and a social life.
Like Sunil, Anand and Vivek, there are more than 500 young men in their twenties addressing gender issues—too long seen primarily as ‘‘women’s issues” in India (and most other countries). These young men are not only taking active stands against gender discrimination against women in their personal lives, but they are engaging and mentoring hundreds of adolescent boys and young men in many districts across Maharashtra, spreading the message about women’s right to dignity and safety.
These young men’s ideas and actions have been shaped by their involvement with Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA), which for more than two decades has been working with boys and men to address gender issues and help prevent gender-based violence and abuse of women. Established in 1993, MAVA sees young men as key stakeholders in the movement for gender equality. MAVA addresses gender issues from three directions: cultural advocacy, direct intervention and youth education programs.
The genesis of MAVA dates back nearly a quarter century. In September 1991 an advertisement ran in an English-language newspaper, and two other vernacular journals in Mumbai. “WANTED: MEN WHO BELIEVE WIVES ARE NOT FOR BATTERING. If you are a man strongly opposed to violence towards wives from their husbands, and would like to help stop it, then send us your name, address and phone number, if you have one.” The journalist C.Y. Gopinath had put out the appeal. A total of 205 men and young men answered the ad; the youngest was 14, the oldest 66. The group met periodically for a year during which a core group of members emerged. I stepped forward to lead the group. Men Against Violence and Abuse was formally launched in March 1993. Its goal? Deconstructing conventional masculinity, helping men break out of the dominant image of masculinity, and helping bring about a more equitable society where women would be regarded with respect.
In 1995, after a 19-year-old female was the mistaken target of an acid attack by a jealous husband, MAVA created a campaign asking citizens to donate money for the young woman’s facial reconstruction surgeries. The organization also spearheaded discussions about the cruelty that can arise out of jilted love. Nearly a hundred people from various walks of life responded to MAVA’s appeal. Among the most touching contribution was the gesture of prisoners from Nashik Central Jail; they raised $200, money they donated from their own savings. They also wrote the woman a poem expressing their anger and pain at the inhumanity of acid attackers. Such a strong statement of hope reinforced our commitment to continuing to work on what we had set out to do regarding gender equity.
MAVA’s initial work focused on intervening in specific cases of violence against women in Mumbai and encouraging both media advocacy and collective action by men. Contemporary gender injustices in Indian society, including dowry harassment and other forms of domestic violence; cruelty arising out of jilted love; the rape of a minor girl on a suburban train; a proposal from the state legislature to ban sex education in schools; and sex-determination tests to identify sex-selective abortions were among topics MAVA activists took on. Formats included discussion groups, public forums, and protest demonstrations. (All of our activities included representatives from women’s groups.) Additional campaigns and interactive sessions exhorted the general public, especially targeting young men.
Over the years, a number of other initiatives have been piloted, including poetry readings by male poets, gender-themed traveling film festivals, premarital workshops underscoring gender equality and respect, International Women’s Day observances, and campaigning in the annual 16 days of global actions challenging violence against women (November 25 – December 10). Participants ranging from internationally acclaimed filmmaker Ashutosh Gowariker to respected men from diverse fields, including playwrights, musicologists, psychiatrists, and educators, started joining and lending support to MAVA’s efforts.
One of MAVA’s landmark initiatives was Purush Spandana (Men’s Expressions), a regional magazine for and by men, published annually at the time of the Diwali festival. In Maharashtra state, we have had a rich, century-old tradition of celebrating the festival of lights with the buying and reading of special Diwali anks (magazine issues) on various social themes. More than 400 different anks are published annually. In 1996, a special ank, “Men on Relationships,” included poetry, anecdotes, stories, interviews, first-person accounts, surveys and analytical articles. From its inception, the magazine made waves across the state. More than a third of readers are women—many hoping the men in their households will read the magazine and begin questioning traditional gender roles, including their own attitudes. The magazine encourages men to share their own experiences, including their questions (and insecurities) about alternatives to conventional male stereotypes. The tone of the writing is intimate, inviting readers into the author’s experience. In 2007, translations of selected writings from past magazine issues were published as a book, Breaking the Moulds: Indian Men Look at Patriarchy Looking at Men. It was hailed by women’s activists and the media as “India’s pioneering exploration of masculinities.”
Mumbai-based Harish Sadani has been passionately addressing gender issues for more than two decades. He is a founder, member and principal of Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA). To learn more about MAVA, visit mavaindia.org or write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.