In a break from tradition in the discourse about violence against women, a group of Indian men is offering an alternative view of Indian masculinity.
The Men’s Action for Stopping Violence Against Women (MASVAW) includes social workers, students, academics and journalists who organize meetings, hold rallies, and use street media to spread the word about new ideas about men and masculinity.
MASVAW promotes gender justice in Uttar Pradesh, a rural northern state, along with parts of Uttarakhand, also in the north, and the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Their message is direct: promoting equality between men and women and denouncing violence against women. They work to change men’s mindsets which believe a woman’s role at home should be limited to domesticity, that her sartorial choices justify harassment, that her right to free movement needs to be vetted by her family, and that masculinity means asserting a “tough guy” image.
“In the first meeting, most men tell me that I don’t make sense. But sometimes, one meeting is all it takes for a man to go home and apologize to his wife for years of violence and [he] changes forever,” says Dr. Sanjay Singh, one of the conveners of MASVAW. “About a decade ago, we realized that sensitizing men was key to preventing violence against women. But neither the government nor NGOs were doing enough in this regard,” adds Singh, a professor in the Department of Social Work, Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth University in Varanasi.
In a typical meeting, MASVAW members take to a real-life game of snakes and ladders, in which every act of violence against a woman is counted as a snakebite and every household chore accomplished is a step up the ladder.
MASVAW member Shishir Chandra says, “Eve-teasing (an Indian euphemism for sexually harassing women in public) is seen as a rite of passage to becoming a man by many students.”
Traditional masculinity, where boys are brought up to believe that they have the right to control women, that they should be aggressive and dominant, lies at the heart of many men acting violently toward women. “In rural India, the worlds inhabited by the two genders are poles apart,” says Dr. Abhijit Das, one of the founders of MASVAW. “In the early 2000s, I realized that many men were playing a passive role in the movement against violence towards women. Through MASVAW, we motivate men who disagree with violence and make their disagreement stronger and better organized,” he says.
Das points to a policy gap in addressing the root of the problem—sensitizing men to curb violence against women. “In India, gender parity is routinely replaced by women’s empowerment, undermining the need for men to be held accountable. Whether it is Aanganwaadi workers (health workers involved in improving education, nutrition and health care)— these are mostly women interacting with women,” he notes.
Preeti Sudan, a secretary at the Ministry
of Women and Child Development, agrees. “There is a need for a schematic approach in the government’s engagement with men on gender equity, involving a continuous dialogue. There is a tendency in the government to focus gender equality policies entirely on women. The government has been shy of talking to men,” she says.
According to surveys conducted by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) across India in 2014, nearly two-thirds of men said that they had acted violently against their wife or partner at some point in their lives. Nearly a quarter reported perpetrating sexual violence at some point against her as well. Apart from physical and sexual violence, emotional violence remains one of the most prevalent—and most accepted—forms of violence. Emotional violence is also common: limiting a woman’s movement, restricting her to home, and forcing household and childcare work upon her.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported in a survey that an average Indian man spends only 19 minutes a day on unpaid routine housework— among the lowest in the world. Women, on the other hand, are forced to spend 298 minutes—nearly five hours a day—on unpaid housework such as cooking, laundry and childcare, the highest globally. This results in limiting women’s movement and restricting their chances of participating in paid work.
According to Jashodhara Das Gupta, coordinator of the Lucknow-based nonprofit Sahayog (which promotes gender equality and women’s health employing a human rights framework), the government’s efforts to involve men to promote gender equity has been limited to paternity leave for central government employees and a recently approved Saksham plan to encourage gender-sensitive behavior in adolescent boys. Although the National Population Policy 2000 specifically recommended appointing male health workers to promote contraceptive use and encouraging fathers to do more childcare, not one male health worker has been appointed yet.
A study on Indian masculinity by the ICRW concluded that a major reason gender-based violence in India is so prevalent is because Indian men have been socialized to believe that dominance is “normal” and violence against women is justified. For violence-prevention efforts to be effective, it recommends directly engaging with men to alter men’s attitudes and sense of sexual entitlement.
Kamla Bhasin, founder of Jagori, a women’s resource and training center, says that women’s organizations believe that in order to prevent violence against women, men have to stop being violent. “The focus at the policy level has primarily been on punishing violent crimes against women.” It’s clear, Bhasin believes, that “The government’s failure to address men’s attitudes facilitates violence.”
A version of this article was first published in Tehelka, an Indian magazine. The publication (whose name means “sensational” in Hindi) began as an investigative news organization, in 2004 a tabloid newspaper, and reconfigured as a magazine in 2007. http://www.tehelka.com/masvaw-gender-sensitiation-ending-violence-against-women/