Challenging Gender Norms with Indian Boys
“A man takes decisions at home as he is the head of the family,” says a 14-year-old boy. Another claims, “If a boy teases a girl and she does not respond, it shows that she is a good girl. If she retorts, she is acting smart.” A third boy says, “If, after marriage, the husband lives at the wife’s place, she becomes powerful. And if the woman moves to the man’s place after marriage, he becomes powerful. He can beat her, insult her in front of others, use her.”

These are the voices of adolescent boys from Amrut Nagar, a slum village in Mumbai. They are discussing what makes a man, women’s place in society and the politics of marriage as a part of a youth empowerment program that begun in 2009. This segment of the program, the brainchild of the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action (SNEHA,) is focusing on gender equality.

SNEHA previously focused solely on adolescent girls, but soon realized full empowerment of girls and women depended on looping in the adolescent boys. According to Garima Deveshwar Bah, director of SNEHA’s sexual and reproductive health program, “we realized that to empower girls, we had to involve boys as well because they are future partners.”

SNEHA was not alone in its former targeting of only females; such is the case with most government-sponsored programs. Confirmed by Neha Madiwala, trustee of NGO Sahyog Chetak, “In India, the whole focus of adolescent programs has been on early marriage and early pregnancy, which targeted girls.”

Yet experts assert that this focus comes up short and instead call for large-scale interventions among teenage boys. High profile incidents of fatal gang rapes and rapes of foreigners and children throughout India over the course of the last year only further underscore this need. In many of the cases, the accused are males between the ages of 16 and 24.

SNEHA is not alone in its efforts targeting adolescent boys. The International Center for Research on Women teamed up with the Committee of Research Organizations for Literacy and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences launched the Gender Equity Movement in Schools (GEMS) program, also in Mumbai. GEMS targets gender-related issues in 45 municipal schools. The program has reached more than 8,000 children between the ages of 12 and 14 since its launch.

GEMS utilizes comic strips, role playing and interactive activities to encourage children to question social norms and gender biases. Result of efforts in shifting the perspective in gender norms: when GEMS was begun in 2008, only 20 percent of boys and girls were in support of gender equality; a year into the program, 53 percent of girls and 39 percent of boys supported equality of the sexes. Further, there was a huge increase in support for girls seeking higher education and boys aiding in household chores.

According to Rema Nanda, founder of the NGO Jagruti Trust, an organization that runs youth leadership programs throughout rural parts of India, “Evidence shows that reaching out to boys, even as early as of eight to 10 years, is critical. This is what we are seeing in different parts of the world. And you have to reiterate the message over and over again to get men to change their behavior.”

Kelley Calkins