By Abhijit Das

Every day the news is painfully familiar. A man in the U.S. has shot students in a school or travelers at an airport; a gang of young men has had a street fight somewhere leaving many dead and wounded; a young man is arrested in a European country for being part of a terrorist plot that killed and maimed dozens; somewhere else, a man has raped a girl; a brother has shot his sister for planning to marry a man of her choice in Pakistan; a father killed his children and then his wife before hanging himself somewhere deep in the central part of India. The list is endless.

Men all over the world are in the news for killing, shooting, raping, domestic violence, honor killing, acid attacks and many more forms of violence against others—women, men, children, sisters, wives. Society has long glorified violence and killing, especially in wars aimed at political gain and public safety, where the other party is cast as the enemy. But in recent times such “heroic” acts of violence seem to be replaced by more interpersonal violence, or violence not aimed at any obvious enemy. And this disease seems to affect men everywhere.

Leaders of a number of development organizations sought me out not long ago on how best to reach men in the communities in which they work. All the organizations have been working with women for years, in some cases decades. Women had organized into community groups; they were engaged in different kinds of economic activity and bringing money into their households. A positive development, right? Except that because they were more articulate and mobile and had more aspirations for themselves, they faced resistance both from men in their families and their communities. The request to me was about working with men at community and family levels to create a more supportive and enabling environment for these obviously empowered women.

Violence and Societal Control

What is the relationship between the violence by the men I described in the first instance and the societal and familial control exerted by men in the second? The relationship begins with our expectation of men in the family and in society. In the second case the present expectation is for men to encourage and endorse women’s aspirations. While I can understand where the anxiety of these organizations comes from—and respect their understanding of women’s rights—they have failed to understand how patriarchal society, a society based on men’s primacy, creates men. Not only creates them, but leads them to a kind of hegemonic masculinity which controls not only through boundaries, orders, coercion and force, but equally through overprotectiveness. Men are comfortable being in positions of authority even when they assume those positions fueled in part by fear. And helping men understand women’s need for more opportunities and space can be challenging, as some men may become cruel or violent when they feel their control is challenged.

This phenomenon—men becoming cruel and violent when their comfort levels are challenged—is at the core of the high levels of violence we witness everywhere.

Violence, control and coercion are key expressions of power. Societies often glorify such expressions under the guise of providing “safety” and “discipline.” In virtually all families, boys are trained to become “conventional” men, internalizing masculine roles through myths, stories, games, toys, comic books, video games, TV. (The list of commercial influences is endless.) Even many well-meaning mothers prepare their sons for their future role by encouraging study, sports and outdoor life, much more than, say, household work, art, music, or dolls.

Among the emotions the masculinity police say are acceptable for boys and men is being sad, discouraged, feeling anger. And those feelings must be quickly pacified so men don’t linger on disappointment. Today boys are encouraged to be happy and successful at all costs; few are trained to manage disappointment. The result? We raise boys to be men familiar with being in positions where their needs are satisfied—in other words, to be in positions of authority and power. They know they can express dissatisfaction through anger and believe that violence by people in positions of authority can be morally justified if it is against a perceived “enemy.” Taken together this approach produces a toxic mix.

The real world is different from the cocoon of the family. It is full of potential disappointments and frustrations. Today the world order is changing rapidly. Subordinate social classes are much more assertive, livelihood opportunities once abundant for men are in decline; jobs are insecure and there is increasing poverty. In many cases, the security of the home is becoming lost due to patterns of migration. More men are finding their world topsy-turvy; fewer reside in the comfort zone of privilege, entitlement, and authority. In such confusing times many try to hang on to earlier security blankets of caste/class, and/or ethnic, race or religious-based superiority. Further compounding circumstances are the many groups preying on the insecurity of young men. The killing of bloggers in Bangladesh or any number of actions by ISIS feed off this phenomenon. Many men, who now see the “enemy” everywhere, feel justified in their violence.

The staggering economic growth of neoliberal capitalism, coupled with the technological revolution, has not only sparked unprecedented rates of change, but also led to increasing social and economic division globally.

Women have been aspiring to improve their social, economic and political conditions and have fought hard to realize remarkable achievements over the last 100 years. Women also are adapting to the overall environment of change much better than are men. Their agitating for change, and their superior capacity to adapt to it, has resulted in many men seeing women as their enemy. Does that fact in part explain some of the violence happening at home and in the community?

Men’s inability to cope with change results for some in a deep sense of failure. Failure is not something most men are trained to deal with. From childhood onward, success is the only credo they have learned—in school, at sports, and on the battlefield. Believing that a man who has failed has no honor, many unsuccessful farmers in India have opted for suicide, leaving their families to manage their inherited debt. Women, better trained to manage failure, are left to continue on in their absence.

Where does this leave us in considering the road ahead in dealing with men? What pathways to a different future does it suggest? For those of us who have embraced women’s empowerment, one strategy has been engaging men as allies in redefining our ideas of manhood. Over the last few decades we have learned some lessons worth considering in exploring how to work towards a better future.

Many men find the incidents of violence I described at the beginning of this article as “upsetting” or “unacceptable.” In their feelings of disquiet are the seeds of a new understanding of human relations. In many cases their unease is followed by a rationalization that such violence happens “elsewhere”—not among men they know or are. Some try to avoid bad news, or intellectualize about it as a way to create distance between what’s actually happening and their personal circumstances. The goal? Dilute the truth to render it harmless.

Drawing of two outstreched hands with the male and female symbols painted on the. An equals sign is between them.

In working to engage men we have
found that building closer relations
with women at home has enabled men
to understand the value of empathy. In
forging closer relations with their children, men have come to value the virtues of caring, nurturing, and sharing.

The road to a different future lies in men acknowledging that the problem is not in “other” men or “other” communities, but in the men we are bringing up—our boys, our sons—through our own unconscious reinforcing of hegemonic masculinity. The most enlightened parent concerned about equality between the sexes might say, “I bring up my daughter like a son” but it is never the reverse. Boys are rarely taught the values of nurturing and empathy, of managing adversity and failure, and of managing for themselves. Among all classes it is nearly universal that most boys do not clean their own dishes or wash their own clothes. This is not about training for future participation in domestic work but a valuable lesson in selfsufficiency. Of course there is a pressure to succeed, but rarely an emphasis on collaboration, cooperation or respect for others. Equally if not even more important is the need to train boys to manage disappointment.

Remember the conversation I referred to with leaders of development organizations and the problem they see women in their communities facing? The solution does not lie in the most obvious approaches, i.e., asking men to loosen control at home and to protect women in public places. These approaches, as I mentioned earlier, can inadvertently create greater paternalistic concern and control.

Those of us working to transform our ideas about manhood have found that in order to create greater gender collaboration between women and men we need to work from a less competitive place. In a typical patriarchal arrangement, public space belongs to men and private space is women’s domain (but still under masculine control). This control is maintained either directly or indirectly—through “senior” women like a mother-in-law.

There is little interaction between women and men, even husbands and wives, in the home or personal space. An obvious example is men not sharing in housework or doing much childcare, often the sole domain of women. In rural India there are many physical barriers between husbands and wives interacting with any degree of intimacy. Similarly, brothers and sisters often drift apart after puberty. Fathers are not close to young children, since the latter reside within the women’s domain and only when sons become men through a coming-of-age ritual does the “man-to-man” bond strengthen. We have found some men who say they regret a lack of closeness and connection not just with their wives, but also their daughters, sisters and sisters-in-law.

In working to engage men we have found that building closer relations with women at home has enabled men to understand the value of empathy. In forging closer relations with their children, men have come to value the virtues of caring, nurturing, and sharing. We have seen this happen with adult men in their twenties and thirties, and even older men. In addition, men can be encouraged to develop a new sense of fairness enabling them to begin to see through the limitations of patriarchy. Taking this a step further, in India, we have successfully encouraged men to take stands against caste and religious discrimination as well. But the initial step was taken via the roles and relations in the family.

These efforts have sometimes been belittled as essentially “reformist,” not sufficiently political, charged with not adequately addressing deeply embedded societal power inequalities. Others have said that the work lays too much emphasis in the private and personal sphere and not the public or political space. I hear these criticisms and I understand the anxiety. My justification of our approach is not only through my own personal practice and some small- and large-scale community-based interventions, but also draws on a nuanced understanding of power and privilege and how it is exercised and experienced.

A politically sound approach to social justice, or a world envisioned with less violence and more mediated solutions, cannot come from working with the violent and the underprivileged alone. Many political movements have been born from a sense of injustice and demands for rights. However, acknowledging this reality requires those with power and privilege to change their own beliefs and actions, and to exercise power accordingly. On the battlefield the loser has no power; in a negotiated settlement a third party is often asked to mediate so the loser experiences an “acceptable” loss of face.

In society there is often no third party. To get where we want to go—achieving true gender equality—means men giving up their positions of authority and privilege. And, it requires acknowledging that men’s advantages of power and entitlement are often one-sided and lead to subordinating others. Most men have little experience in giving up power without losing face. At home and in their intimate relationships, men can give up power without losing face; they can become comfortable without wielding power and authority. Such experience can serve as valuable practice for men creatively mobilizing their ability to share power and yield authority without a sense of loss. In our work, we have seen it happen.

Now is the time to take these lessons to scale. Once men recognize that inequality is unacceptable, once they acknowledge the fundamental equality among all humans, then we can adopt egalitarian ways of behaving towards others, beginning with the way we raise our children, especially our boys.


Abhijit Das is the executive director of the Centre for Health and Social Justice in New Delhi, and cochair of the board of the global MenEngage Alliance. A physician with training in obstetrics, pediatrics and public health, he is a founding member of the Indian NGO Men Against Sexual Violence Against Women (MASVAW), and the reproductive health and rights network Healthwatch Forum. He is also a clinical assistant professor in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of Washington, Seattle.