This article originally appeared on VICE India.
In India, growing up as a boy can mean many things. And one of them is privilege. Sometimes, it’s just too much privilege. So when Shivraj Putage, a 24-year-old activist who grew up in a tiny conservative neighbourhood in Pune, thinks about his childhood, he doesn’t necessarily enjoy revisiting it. “When a boy grows up in our society, they’re told things about how to be a ‘man’. Like passing comments on girls on the streets, being loud or aggressive, or getting into fights. ‘Mardangi dikhni chahiye (Your manliness should show),’ we are told,” Putage tells VICE. “This is the common mentality in many neighbourhoods, and these behaviours are often rewarded or appreciated. So when my friends would harass girls, I would laugh along and encourage them.”
Violence against women has been a harsh reality for Indians, especially after the gruesome 2012 gangrape of a 23-year-old woman in south Delhi (which also led to a rehaul of the justice system to fast-track rape cases), followed by blowing up of #MeToo in 2018. Out here, “solutions'' for violence against women often involve asking women to change their own behaviours. Like asking women not to do night shifts because it’s not safe for them, rather than holding the men who abuse accountable. So as we hurtle into 2020, the patriarchal narrative around gender roles still appears to be stuck in the middle ages. In fact, it’s led to the point where Indian men and boys are now facing a mental health crisis. Data shows that 53 percent of sexual abuse incidents in India each year are crimes against boys, but they are 89 percent less likely than girls to reach out for psychiatric support.
But change is on its way, in small ways. Over the last few years, organisations and individuals have stepped up because our authorities clearly don’t, and are engaging with society in ways that could potentially revolutionise gender equality. One of them is to smash patriarchy by involving the very gender that this system rewards: boys and men. One of these is Putage himself, who remembers idling away most of his youth and getting away with zero contribution to household chores, just because he was a boy. “I started with observing my home, and questioned my father and brothers, who rarely support at home. It’s only my mother and sister. And then one day, I started doing the sweeping, filling water and washing clothes. When my brothers and father would come back from work, I would serve them food. Slowly, they started supporting too.”
Putage’s journey—like that of many other boys and men—started with gender equality organisation Equal Community Foundation (ECF) and their programme called ‘Action for Equality’, a 15-week one that has engaged with over 5,000 boys aged 13-17 over the last few years. The impact is startling for the observer and especially for the one going through the change. And this change is not a sudden or drastic overhaul of lifestyle and thinking. “These are very small steps that lead to big ones,” says Putage. “[Because] girls like those in my neighbourhood are usually bound by home duties, while most of the aggressive behaviour comes from boys. So it’s better to work with them.”
Chintan Girish Modi, Mumbai-based educator who facilitates gender sensitisation workshops, tells VICE about how his custom-made sessions stemmed from his own recognition of his “benefit from patriarchy.” “[It was] because I was assigned male at birth, and how I also suffer because I do not conform to gender roles or ideas about masculinity and heteronormativity,” says Modi, who recently started “Mardon Wali Baat” as part of his work.
Change, they say, starts at home, and interventions, like in Putage’s and Modi’s case, are a great indicator of this. Putage, who is now an alumni volunteer at ECF and works with others from his community to stage street plays that touch upon themes around patriarchy and toxic masculinity. “When I interact with boys, I am able to put myself in their shoes, and make them think of their actions,” he says. “Like abusing, for example. I didn’t even realise I was doing it earlier. But now I’ve started paying attention to social etiquette and how male aggression affects women, even though they don’t say anything. Now, even girls are able to share their stories with me openly.”
But these guys are not working in isolation. In others, Mumbai-based Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA) sets up interactive workshops, screenings, shows, discussions etc with young men of 18-20 years old from colleges and universities, while Pune-based resource centre Samyak is trying to make men comfortable with the idea of an “independent woman”, and address anxieties and insecurities of men towards them. “In many of our workshops, men said that those who do not beat their wives are ‘lesser’ men,” said Anand Pawar of Samyak. “This toxic definition of manhood pushes men to these behaviours. Men have created the definition of manhood, and they kept it so ‘high’ that now they are just trying to reach it but cannot.”
While every workshop, session or engagement depends on the men they’re interacting with, a crucial step that these men are taking is filling the gap of gender sensitisation that is lacking in formal institutions such as schools, universities or workplaces. The ones that target only boys are far and few, and even if they exist, the boys’ resistance to expressing themselves still holds us back from making an equal society. Putage tells VICE how during his roleplays, a lot of boys would initially not be okay with playing female roles for fears of being made fun of by their peers—again indicative of fragile masculinity being perpetuated in conservative towns and cities. Pravin Katke, a programme coordinator at ECF, during his time of designing workshops for boys and girls found that the big difference between the two genders is that with girls, it’s usually about their rights, freedoms and opportunities. “But with boys, it’s all about privilege and letting go of it, or how it’s harming others. That very privilege leads to domination and aggression, which is the real problem,” he says.
Once the problem is recognised, activists move on to addressing stereotypes around masculinity—especially the ones peddled by our popular culture and politics. In one such initiative around mental health and masculinity, called The BoyTalk Project, by Aangan Trust (an NGO that protects vulnerable children), various community leaders adopted Promund’s curriculum to encourage boys to develop healthy relationships with their masculinity. This is being carried out especially in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar where young men grow up around rigid gender narratives.
Modi—who often organises sharing circles, games or theatre activities, and video screenings and discussions with young boys and men—talks about how such initiatives then lead to creating safe spaces for the boys to simply express themselves. “Some have really enjoyed the opportunity to talk with strangers about things they rarely discuss with their own male friends because vulnerability is a no-go especially because it denotes weakness equated with femininity. Others have been reluctant to open up,” he says.
And so, all the cliches you’ve heard most of your life—’Boys don’t cry’, ‘Be a man’, ‘Fight like a man’—have now become important indicators to identify the problems. “We don’t just turn up and tell them, ‘This is right, this is wrong.’ We ask them for their opinions and get them to question those opinions,” says Katke. “Take men crying, for instance. We ask young boys why men can’t cry. Have you ever seen them cry? What can happen to men if they don’t cry, or how can not crying harm you? Questioning inequitable gender norms will help them reflect and change their own attitudes and behaviours to create a safe space.”
Mihir Parekh, a research assistant at IIM-Bangalore who hosts #MeToo meet-ups for men, said that the biggest deterrent for men to talk about masculinity is fear. “Fear of being judged, excluded, hurt and, most importantly, misunderstood,” he said. “Men face trouble in articulating such thoughts simply because there is a lack of importance attached to such discussions, and also a lack of education. Men aren’t taught that their voices are important in the narrative of gender, sex, and masculinity.”
And this is exactly what these initiatives are changing. Khatke tells VICE how, in all the boys he has interacted with, change is never uniform. “Some boys changed their language with their own families, some start taking up responsibilities at home, some start paying attention to their own behaviour when they’re out in public spaces—I’ve seen different changes,” he says. “But even though they don’t all change the same way, they’re still changing. And we have seen that boys can change. They’re willing to change.”
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.