For the longest time, women have been solely responsible for ensuring their own safety in public. Clutch your keys at night while walking down a dark alley; take a self-defense class to feel safer; avoid wearing skimpy clothes in sketchy areas. Such advice abounds from all corners of a woman’s world: family, friends, strangers on the Internet, even the government. Basically, the message is: Since you are the only affected party in this culture of violence, the onus is on you to fix it.
This message is reinforced by the type of solutions offered by various social institutions. For example:
- Under the Nirbhaya Fund Scheme created by the Indian government, 7,800 women of the Kangazha village in Kottayam between 10 and 60 were trained in self-defense.
- There is now a pan-India phone number, 112, part of the Women’s Safety Initiative of the Emergency Response Support System. Women can either dial the number—available in 16 states or union territories—or in case of an emergency press the panic button on the 112 India mobile app.
- In the private sector, emergency response initiatives such as the Watch Over You app (https://watchoveryou.in/) have a special women’s safety feature, which claims to be “a personal guardian angel that oversees women when they travel or feel threatened.”
- India’s popular bus service, BEST, received a 100 million rupees grant from the government (about US $1.5 million) to operate women-only buses to enhance female passenger safety. There also are women-only police stations and squads doing sensitization and protection (even though questions exist whether they are the most effective methods of ending gender-based violence).
Notice a pattern? Every single “solution” is targeted at changing the habits of women. There is no denying these initiatives will help some women, but for systemic, societal change, “we need to do something more long-term,” said Anand Pawar, executive director of Samyak, a Pune-based resource center that builds awareness of gender issues and challenges toxic masculinity. “Technology cannot be the solution to patriarchal control,” he said. (samyakindia.org) One solution would be to shift responsibility for ensuring women’s safety away from women. Samyak has accomplished this in part by challenging men’s risk-taking behavior—road rage, exercising control over women’s bodies, reckless sexual encounters— hallmarks of toxic masculinity’s tropes of aggression and competitiveness, Pawar noted. “In many of our workshops, men said that those who do not beat their wives are ‘lesser’ men. This toxic definition of manhood pushes men to these behaviors. Men have created the definition of manhood, and they kept it so ‘high’ that now they are just trying to reach it but cannot.”
All these behaviors also pose a risk to men’s well being, Pawar said. They risk sabotaging their relationships and health, even their lives. Samyak workshops explain the detrimental consequences of these behaviors—for men and those around them. Men need to recognize that “the dominant idea of manhood is not the only idea of manhood,” Pawar said. As he sees things, it has never been enough to just empower women. In South Asia, “we need to understand that empowered women are not promoted to another planet.” They still have to navigate the patriarchal framework of society. To flip the narrative, Samyak teaches men how to live with independent women and addresses men’s anxieties and insecurities surrounding gender equality and privilege.
Samyak emphasizes creating non-threatening environments that promote equality. “If your pedagogy is not creating a threat for men, many of them do come forward and express their desire to change,” he said. “We help men understand their privileges and the losses they might incur because of their urge to maintain those privileges.”
Samyak promotes gender sensitivity through workshops, graphic design classes, film festivals curated around gender issues, and awareness campaigns targeted at young boys, adolescents and grown men. Its 20 gender trainers discuss gender constructs and how toxic masculinity controls mobility, resources and people, including members of the queer community. Pawar noted that Samyak also reaches out to fathers, especially encouraging emotional connections with their sons and educating them about the danger of patriarchal control of the household.
Nivas Varape is a good example. Varape, 45, had never given a second thought to his daughter’s higher education until he attended a Samyak workshop. Since then, he has made arrangements to educate her further, he said, with a hint of pride in his voice.
As Samyak’s Pawar noted, “A lot of men might have learned the language [about feminism] but they didn’t learn about the power relations. There is usually symbolic but not real lasting change. We train men to reflect on their notion of masculinity and their experiences with power and privilege, rather than going out and patronizing women.”
Rajvi Desai is a features editor with The Swaddle, a parenting and family health site for Indian parents. A graduate of New York University (journalism and politics), she covered news in New York City before returning to India, where in her free time she works to dismantle societal beauty standards. A version of this article first appeared in The Swaddle.