Violence against women and girls have rocked our consciousness and fuelled an unprecedented public outcry across the nation. And for the first time, men and women came out in unity protesting on the streets.
The India that we see today fringes on modernity and social prejudices, and can be a cruel place for women. Each day papers are teeming with stories of women and girls being abducted, raped and killed, acid attacks, honour killings, female foeticide, malnutrition, discrimination in access to schools and jobs, maternal mortality, etc. A G-20 nations’ survey (2012) ranked India as the worst place to be a woman.
Despite the campaigns and work carried out by the government and NGOs in the area of gender equality and women’s empowerment, as well as years of struggle by women’s movements, inequalities between men and women still persist in our society.
In the 1970s, development efforts paid more attention to women as agents of change and directed resources to women, putting gender dynamics and inequalities on the backburner. By mid-1990s, the movement for gender equality underwent a broad shift, recognising the need for active involvement of men in promoting gender equality and women’s rights. It highlighted the roles of men and boys in the sharing of family and household responsibilities, sexual and reproductive health and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Gender equality is very important for the development of society and is regarded as key to achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. An empowered woman contributes to the productivity of her whole family, both economic and social. The astounding success story of Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad is a classic example of harnessing the women’s strength in the economic realm. The brain child of seven semi-literate Gujarati housewives from Bombay, the enterprise was started with a seed capital of Rs. 80. Today, Lijjat has a turnover of Rs. 500 crore, providing dignity and employment to over 42,000 women.
Research has shown that gender inequality in areas of reproductive health, women’s empowerment and labour market participation impairs human development as well as a country’s development. According to 2013 Human Development Report (UNDP), “gender inequality is especially tragic not only because it excludes women from basic social opportunities, but also because it gravely imperils the life prospects of future generations.” Since India ranks 132 out of 187 countries on the gender inequality index, as per the UNDP report, it is especially important for the country to take its men along the path of fostering gender equality and women’s empowerment.
Men play a significant role in many aspects of social and political life. Husbands often make decisions about family planning, their wives' economic activities and the use of household resources for healthcare and education. These decisions have a direct impact on the well-being and prospects of the whole family. The care and support of an informed husband improves pregnancy and childbirth and has a positive outcome for maternal mortality. Supportive fathers play a larger role in the nurturing of their children. Fathers with gender-equitable and responsible attitudes towards family are more likely to pass on those values to their sons and daughters, thus empowering a whole generation.
Gender equality and women’s empowerment can only be brought about by changing the mind-set of people and breaking the societal norms to involve men in the process. Mohd. Alam (29 year old) is a young crusader from the settlement colony of Trilokpuri in East Delhi. A proud father of two girls, he is a household name in his community. "It was God's wish to bless me with two daughters. After I became a father I felt the urge to do something for making our country a better place for daughters," reveals Alam. He approached the local community centre of Swabhiman, Smile Foundation's national programme on women and girl child empowerment, in New Ashok Nagar area three years ago and started working as a devout 'change agent.' He has since then put together a large force of community youth who have become his ardent followers. They motivate local communities and also perform street plays with colloquial scripts, travelling across Delhi and sensitising people on the need to make the society a better place for girl children. "When we become living examples, it is easy to bring change," Alam concludes.
Swabhiman programme enables women and adolescent girls, who belong to the lower socio-economic strata in and around Delhi, by empowering them to lead a life of dignity through realisation of their self-esteem and inner potential. It follows a tailor-made strategy called the ‘4 S Model’, which is an acronym for four novel approaches, namely Seeking Healthcare as a Behaviour, Support for Education, Supporters in Men through Male Involvement, and Sustaining the Change in Communities.
Learning from the experiences of past interventions, Smile Foundation adopted an innovative model of involving men in the communities where they work for creating an enabling environment for women. Under this, exclusive counselling sessions are held with men to encourage them to be more participative and actively involved towards the issues concerning maternal and child health. Swabhiman’s experiences as well as various research studies have demonstrated that men, when shown the way, take responsibility for their sexual and reproductive behaviour as well as their social and family roles.
Violence against women is one of the most pervasive human rights violations across the world and especially in India. It is rooted in gender inequality and discrimination against women. Any effort to eliminate such violence must focus on the achievement of substantive equality between women and men and on promotion and protection of women’s human rights. The involvement of men and boys in the struggle to transform gender relations and eliminate violence against women is essential.
Ideas about manhood are deeply ingrained in our society. From an early age, boys are socialised into gender roles designed to keep men in power. And they grow up believing that dominant behaviour towards girls and women is part of being a man. Since gender stereotypes are pervasive and operate throughout a lifetime, a life cycle-based approach is required to transform the way men and boys socialise in their surroundings - home, education, workplace, economy, etc. Life cycle-based approach should start with early childhood education and care. Here, mothers have a crucial role in educating boys in how to treat their female partners.
If India is to enter the league of developed nations, gender equality must be central to all its development policies. During a recent visit to India, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said, "Unless you put women at the centre of the development process, unless you move aggressively towards gender equality, it's not just that you are doing the wrong thing in terms of human rights, you are doing the wrong thing economically. If you want to grow economically, you've got to focus on gender equality. We couldn't be more committed to this issue and we know this is an issue that is very important to India."