Report from India

By Abhijit Das

Recently, I attended two international conferences where involving men and boys in gender equality was central. I have been advocating for men to engage as equal stakeholders in promoting gender justice for the last two decades. I have also been working on getting this idea accepted among feminists in India, so I should have been elated. Surprisingly I was not; instead I am a little worried.

Even though profeminist men long have been involved in gender equality efforts, there is a concern among some women’s rights activists that “working with men and boys” has emerged as the “flavor of the month” and may draw both attention—and resources—away from the important task of advancing women’s empowerment. I understand their concern. When it comes to gender justice we should never suggest working with men and boys should be an alternative to working with women and girls. My concern is with an emerging narrative focusing on what some call the “vulnerability of men.”

Patriarchy, as is well acknowledged, perpetuates a gender order that not only imagines a binary formulation of gender but also promotes a set of obligations on both women and men. However, the impact of these obligations on women and men can never be equated, or treated with similar concern. It cannot be denied that there is a systematic subordination of women and girls through an elaborate process of socialization, gender stereotypical roles, and social expectations and norms. Over time, they cumulatively rob women of their autonomy and agency. Central to their autonomy is women’s control of their own sexuality and reproductive decision making.

Through a similar social process, patriarchy imposes a set of obligations on men, but the results are in no way comparable. For one, men and boys are privileged by fulfilling their obligations, and receive material and social benefits, a fact borne out through a range of disparities seen through various social and economic indicators. Most men, even when fretting against so-called burdensome expectations of being a man, are comfortable with their privilege and sense of entitlement. For example, earning a livelihood is a gendered obligation for men. There are men who may not wish to engage in earning a living, perhaps pursuing interests like music or art, pursuits not considered manly. Do such men, constrained as they are by one dimension of patriarchal obligation, question other areas of their privilege, or question patriarchy as a whole? Do such men use their time to become more emotionally mature, or contribute to household or unpaid work or other domestic chores? Do they question women’s sexual subordination to men? In most cases they do not, instead enjoying their unearned privilege—even when they question their unwanted responsibilities.

Male Privilege Coexists with Men’s Vulnerability

A core idea within patriarchy is the gendered privilege men and boys enjoy over women at home, in the community, and through institutions, not only today but historically. They can coexist even with disadvantages around class, caste, ethnicity, educational status, place of residence, and so on. These additional axes of social hierarchy influence men’s relationships with women as well as with other men. For men, these multiple axes and layers of hierarchy lead to a diverse understanding of manhood and the continuum of masculinities. These include the subordinate male worker who is meek at work due to his low position in the office hierarchy, but is assertive and aggressive at home where he is the “man.” Similarly, the Dalit males in South Asia (formerly called “the untouchables”) are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. In mixed group settings they are often made to sit off to the side, eat and drink using separate utensils. Still, this does not make men from Dalit groups less patriarchal in their domestic relations or in relations with women within their own caste groups.

Across the world women’s share of unpaid care work is unusually high compared to men’s, and can be considered a universal sign of patriarchal privilege that men enjoy. In South Asia the ratio is particularly skewed, with women working up to six times more than men in the home on a range of domestic activities including childcare. Some now believe that giving men paternity leave will encourage men to stay home and take part in childcare responsibilities. This will lead, the argument suggests, to a new social norm of men participating more not just in childcare but also in other domestic tasks. The result? A reduction in women’s domestic workload and an increase in women’s opportunities for formal employment. Presently in India, the ratio of women’s participation in work is among the lowest in the world.

What Works in Scandinavia May Not Work in India

The logic that giving men paternity leave will lead to women’s empowerment and increased participation by men in care work may work in Sweden, but its success in countries like India may not be simply achieved. First, in many countries across the world—and for a large majority of working women—paid maternity leave is still out of reach. It needs a much stronger global push. Second, let’s assume that men want to be closer to their children—and that giving them leave will strengthen and transform that closeness into committed action in caring for their children. There is nothing stopping men who receive paid leave from using it to care for sons and daughters. In India, unfortunately, this is seldom seen.

It is not true that all men are so busy working outside the home that they are unable to provide time at home. I worked in the mid-Himalayan regions for nearly 15 years and my experience was that women did most of the work, both at home and in the fields. Men aspired to jobs outside the region and migrated in large numbers. There were also many men at home, including those who had been unsuccessful finding work away and those who hadn’t even ventured out. Those men rarely shared the workload with women. Believing they don’t need to work in the domestic space is a patriarchal privilege they were not willing to give up just because their patriarchal imperative to earn a living was not being satisfied.

Rooting Change in the Understanding of Privilege

To be effective working with men and boys for gender justice, it is imperative to understand how power is experienced and exercised. If we only approach men and boys from the perspective of their vulnerability, we may exacerbate their blind spot, shielding them from developing an understanding of the privileges patriarchy affords them as well as the actual privileges themselves. Yes, patriarchy does create some expectations on men, but these do not take away the privileges men experience, nor the agency and opportunities they have to exercise domination. My own experiences helping men to develop an alternative conception and practice of gender just relations include the following components:

  • an understanding of the multiple intersecting axes of power
  • realizing patriarchal privilege as well as other advantages
  • developing an aspiration for equality as a universal value

Individuals are encouraged to exercise their own agency, to share power and to support others who are being subordinated through social hierarchies.

Acknowledging men’s vulnerabilities may be useful to initially encourage men to discuss gender equality; no one argues that it would be difficult to get men to consider these ideas by accusing them of being the oppressor. However, if a man’s understanding of gender is primarily gained through the lens of male disadvantage, ultimately it will be counterproductive. Men need to learn about their privilege and how to share power, not develop an additional sense of entitlement.

At the same time, a confrontational approach—where individual men are made to feel personally responsible for gender disparities or violence against women—is not useful if the goal is to get men to seriously consider gender equality.

What to do? Our goal must be to provide men with both information for their minds and feelings for their hearts. Men must cultivate a sense of moral outrage about gendered oppression and discrimination. We must invite men to look at gender through an intersectional lens. Given context, they will be more reflective about their own privilege and open to contributing to changes in gender relations. In practical terms, this means identifying those who are weaker, understanding the social and economic manifestations of their disadvantages, and taking both small individual actions and large collective actions to address the disparities. Small steps at home like sharing housework and childcare are useful to get men to be more involved with their partners and their children, especially empowering daughters and sensitizing sons. Such intimacy lays the groundwork for deeper and more engaged relationships. The result will mean more empowered girls and women, and more emotionally intelligent boys and men.


Cochair of the board of the global MenEngage Alliance, Abhijit Das is executive director of the Centre for Health and Social Justice in New Delhi, and an occasional writer for Voice Male (