Rajesh Khakar* used to hit his wife on a regular basis, seeing it as a way to take out the anger and frustrations he felt at work. He didn’t consider his behaviour wrong; where he was raised, in Mumbai, domestic abuse was considered normal and even justified by many.
Little did he realise the damage he was causing to his wife and their relationship, until two years ago when he met me in Pune city. In a workshop I conducted on gender and masculinity for a group of men, Rajesh was encouraged to critically reflect on how his violent behaviour was harming not just his wife but also himself. Through participatory methods like focus group discussions and role-play, he had the space to reconsider traditional notions of masculinity in India.
Today, Rajesh is sensitive and caring towards his wife. He has realised that violence is not an acceptable way to handle his frustrations. He even mentors hundreds of young men towards promoting gender-sensitive behaviour and healthy relationships.
Violence against women is sometimes physical, as in the case of Rajesh, and in other cases can include psychological, sexual and economic forms of abuse. To stop and prevent any form of violence, women across India are leading the difficult fight to ensure their safety. However, we will not be able to address the root cause until and unless men and boys are engaged in the conversation.
Most reported incidents of gender-based violence in India – whether it’s the infamous gang-rape incident on a Delhi bus in 2012 or the recent rape, murder and arson of a woman doctor in Telangana – are met with victim-blaming responses questioning what the woman was doing, what clothes she was wearing, and with whom she was spending time. On the other extreme, we see an uproar for strictest punishment for the perpetrators of crime, including chemical castration and public hanging. There is comparatively little discussion or serious deliberation on the male mindset that led to such heinous acts, and how that might be changed.
Most people and institutions in India that work on gender-based violence – the Central and state governments, civil society bodies, international funding agencies, journalists – see men as ‘part of the problem’. Indeed, India’s patriarchal attitude that bestows countless privileges to men and sanctions restrictions on women is at the core of the problem. By and large, men’s violence against women is permissible.
If men are part of the problem, how can we solve the problem unless men are also a part of the solution? What is desperately needed is to encourage men to actively stand against violence against women, while also interrogating how rigid gender roles negatively impact their own lives. Men are not born violent; they are conditioned by society’s image of masculinity. It is high time men question the image and break out of it.
We cannot expect women to become empowered without also sensitising and transforming how men behave. They have to work hand in hand.
In the last decade, apart from the work done by my organisation MAVA (Men Against Violence and Abuse), there have been many promising examples of male engagement around the globe, including the White Ribbon Campaign in Canada, Promundo in Brazil, Sonke in South Africa and Men Can Stop Rape in the US.
These programmes have a few common elements. They engage men and boys in conversations about toxic masculinity and gender norms, including the severe consequences on women’s health and themselves. Men are encouraged to understand their accountability and responsibility in ensuring that no woman lives amidst violence or in fear of violence. They are also motivated to look at how their lives would improve by undoing their patriarchal privileges, like healthier relationships and more deeply enriched lives.
Thanks to the efforts of over a dozen men’s groups across India, a sizeable number of male youth are taking active stands against discrimination or violence faced by women in their personal lives. Some are protesting in the streets in their respective regions against specific incidents of sexual harassment. Some men are organising public campaigns to stop the silence surrounding domestic violence by engaging celebrities and other eminent citizens. Some are conducting long-term interactions with adolescent boys in slum communities, enabling them to be peer communicators on gender.
However, these efforts are still quite nascent overall. There is comparatively little money or attention devoted to helping men rethink their relationship to masculinity and violence.
Lay men can also play an important role in preventing gender-based violence on women. Part of it is through simple individual steps like refraining from using swear words in the name of one’s mother or sister and actively intervening when hearing another man narrating sexist jokes or passing degrading remarks against women. Young men should be raising their voices against the normalisation of gendered violence and objectification of women, and not remain mute spectators to incidents of abuse. It is imperative to teach boys at a young age how to be empathetic and sensitive to girls and to show respect to their mothers and other women in their lives.
It is time for a multi-pronged effort to invest time and resources in sensitising men and boys for a healthy, violence-free tomorrow.
Harish Sadani is a leading gender rights activist who has pioneered efforts in India as co-founder of Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA), where he works with young men and boys to prevent violence on women.