Pathways to Equality: Advancing Gender Goals in the G20 (a publication by Observer Research Foundation (ORF)) assesses a selection of critical issues faced by women in the G20 nations. It is a critical ‘thinking and doing’ volume for readers seeking to understand how we can transform society by moving the needle on gender equality. The curated essays discuss gender inequality in the G20 countries and explore current initiatives that are being taken to address this pressing issue. It features an all-star set of contributors from various fields, including eminent leaders from politics and society, philanthropists, policymakers, and thought leaders. The featured essays highlight the struggles but also offer up ideas and positive examples of how gender bias can be remedied in creative and practical ways.
A POSITIVE VISION OF MASCULINITY – ROHINI NILEKANI (this article was first published by ORF)
As early as 1995, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action called for a change in the partnership between men and women. This declaration was signed by India, along with 188 other countries, and much progress has been made on women’s rights since, especially when it comes to crucial indices such as enrolment and retention of girls in school, maternal health, and mortality, access to sexual and reproductive health, and financial inclusion. In India, I have witnessed the transformation among some of the 60 million women who are members of self-help groups, becoming more financially independent and sometimes emerging into local politics, as powerful influencers of public policy. This has resulted in more than one million elected women leaders at the panchayat level of government, possibly a world record. Much more remains to be done, however, when it comes to the empowerment of women, girls, and other genders. In fact, in many societies, we may be losing the gains made in the past two centuries.
This, then, is a useful moment to revisit the spirit of the Beijing Declaration. This is the time to understand the root causes of gender inequity and to pause and examine why efforts around building a gender-equitable society often omit the participation of or active engagement with boys and men, whose lives are inextricably linked to women.
Gender equity is as important for men and boys as for women and other genders. Inequitable gender norms lead to severe negative impacts on people of all genders. While women and transpeople face violence and discrimination, barriers to livelihoods, health services, safe public spaces, and more, rigid masculine norms can put pressure on men and boys to engage in risky behaviours such as violence, unsafe sex, and substance abuse. Men often find themselves in physically and psychologically unsafe spaces, while social norms prevent them from being vulnerable or opening up about their challenges and seeking help. As a result, many men struggle to form stable, fulfilling relationships.
My attention was drawn to the issues of men and boys about seven years ago. A few instances from that time have stayed with me. One was in Ramanagara, Karnataka, when I saw a young boy crying in a public space and stopped to ask him what had happened. He was with his sister, and he was crying because although he had done very well in his 10th standard examination and wanted to study further, his father
had just informed him that he had secured him a job in the local Skills Training Corporation and that he would have to join the government. There was no question about him studying further. I have spoken
similarly to dozens of young men who have felt forced to follow in their father’s footsteps when it came to their livelihoods.
Another incident was when our car was stopped on a busy highway by a group of young men wielding lathis (sticks). They were holding up traffic in frustration at a local deadly accident, but their faces were flushed with excitement and a sense of raw power. The youngest among them could not have been more than 10 or 11 years old. And there were no girls or women in that mob.
The last example is of the scene at an employment queue, where dozens of young men were waiting, praying for jobs. These were posts like security guards, sales and service agents, or others that would barely offer subsistence wages. In their eyes, I could see equal parts of hope and despair. These snapshots assemble like a gallery for me, portraying the reality faced by 200 million young men in India, between the ages of 13-25, many of whom lack adequate opportunity, employment, and dignity.
This led me to investigate which organisations are working on these issues. There were not too many when I opened up a philanthropy portfolio to work with and for young men and boys. Today, my foundation has 16 partner organisations trying innovative ways to create shared and safe places for young males who aspire to become their best selves.
In multiple accounts from our NGO partners, and through our own research, we have heard boys talk about their worries, and rue the lack of intimacy or spaces where they can be real and vulnerable. In focus group discussions with boys in the 18-to-22-year age bracket across social classes, some said that many ideas of boyhood and manhood are forced upon them—they have to be strong, breadwinners, successful, protect and bring honour to their families, and uphold the traditions of society (1). They have to become worthy of marrying a girl by accumulating higher educational qualifications and high-paying jobs, and always doing better than their fathers.
But millions of young men simply cannot live up to these expectations. We see this even on a global scale, with the International Labour Organization calling the young men of today a scarred generation (2). Too many of them are undereducated, underemployed, and unemployable because they lack the new skills valued by the current economy, as traditional livelihoods like farming have lost their appeal. These are challenges that men face in ways unique only to them, but as Richard Reeves says, we often mistake the problem of boys and men with the problem with boys and men.
When we look at the lives of men and boys through the lens of data, the statistics are grim. In India, for instance, in 2021, 81 percent of all recorded accidental deaths were men; 73 percent of all suicides were
male (and these numbers have jumped by an average of 25 percent since 1967) (3); 96 percent of all persons in prison are men (4); and an overwhelming majority of alcohol users are males (about 95 percent) who fall in the age bracket of 18-49 years (74 percent) (5). Anecdotally, substance abuse among boys is on the rise, with the age of initiation getting lower and lower. In education, the latest Unified District Information System for Education data shows that more than 18 percent
of districts in India are reporting higher school dropout rates for boys (as compared with girls) (6). Moreover, data reports boys having higher rates of extreme stunting and wasting in comparison with girls (7).
The argument here is not that girls and women face no challenges, or that the lives of boys are worse than that of other genders. The point of presenting data about the lives of boys and men is that raising boys in a patriarchal mould is not only serving the world badly but is also coming at a high cost to them. This is something we must take a closer look at, especially because the world is changing rapidly, and society is in a period of great transition.
The Role of Boys and Men in Shifting Social Norms
This is a time for new openings, but also tremendous anxieties. Boys and men increasingly feel they have no control over their future. They are having to deal with elements in the marketplace that they have not been raised to understand—including women, technology, and climate change. At the same time, there is a lack of positive/alternative role models for many boys. How often do boys see fathers taking on household work or being the primary caregivers? Not only do social norms disallow men from stepping up to these roles, but the structural economy also prevents it. In India, fathers are entitled to only 15 days of paternity leave, compared with 26 weeks for the mother. This is even though studies show that paternity leave not only pushes fathers to assume greater parental responsibilities but also fosters better relations with and growth of the child, to say nothing of being a huge support to the new
Without adequate structural support, the burden of livelihoods will continue to fall on men, which will in turn keep women locked in traditional caregiving roles. The falling rate of women’s labour participation in
India may be a wake-up call. Perhaps it is time to see gender equity as a household-level issue, where women are freed from the home so they can break ground in traditionally male-occupied spaces, and men are encouraged (and sometimes they even need permission to be so, as our informal research has shown) to be active householders. Certainly, an efficient, demand-led system of childcare, provided by both the sarkaar (state) and the bazaar (market) could be a key driver of change in the samaaj (society).
Without such interventions, boys are set up to continue reinforcing the archetypal macho image and pretend that everything is fine, even when it is not. When there are millions of young people who feel this way in any nation or society, it results in these young and restless men turning inwards or outwards, possibly in violence. Recent events in India and worldwide confirm that there is indeed a backlash from increasingly insecure males of all political and religious hues. It is prudent for all of us, especially academics, policymakers, and practitioners, to pay keen attention to why that is happening, and design a non-judgemental, highly creative response to this emergence, not just in programmatic work, but within each one of us, in our homes, social groups, and in the broader polity.
A Call for Public Programmes for Boys and Men
How can we better support boys and men looking for change? Civil society organisations are natural allies for this work, but public programmes can catalyse this work at scale. In our internally commissioned research, we found that in 2021, ~US$365 million was allocated in the national budget for schemes and programmes for girls (for example, girls hostel scheme, Mission Poshan, and Mission Shakti) but no separate funding was allocated for programmes looking to intentionally engage males. In 2014, US$3 million was allocated towards a scheme called Saksham (holistic development of adolescent boys); however, no funds were released, and the scheme was shelved.
As we continue to work for women’s empowerment, can we also creatively solve this challenge of young men’s empowerment? Can we design public programmes for young males? Can we innovate safe, shared spaces so that boys can talk to each other without ridicule and fear? Can we imagine social structures where young men can organise around financial and other needs? Can we make time for boys to learn
about arts, sports, painting, and music, and encourage them to pursue things that help them grow as human beings?
We need to open up these conversations in our own homes, at the dinner table, or when families spend time together. We need to especially have these conversations in rooms where many men and women come from a place of privilege. While we continue to run gender sensitisation programmes on the field, in villages, and places where boys and men sit at the intersection of many disadvantages, it is equally necessary to keep one channel open with powerful privileged men. How do men who are rich, successful, and powerful participate in the creation of a society they want for their daughters and sons? What kind of role models can they be for the next generation? How can business owners thread care
and gender equity into all aspects of their factories and businesses?
This is a creative challenge for the corporate sector, which has done some credible work on empowering women at work. Now there is more work to do with men. I have met so many young men who want to enter the social sector or the corporate sector to change the way capitalism works. They could be great leaders for this societal mission.
Through my philanthropy, I support many wonderful organisations that are at the forefront of this complex work. And through them, I am learning that the discourse is indeed shifting (9). The younger generation is increasingly questioning fixed gender norms, and their conversation is platforming plurality and fluidity. Tens of millions of young men are moving onwards and outwards from where they were born or where they were stuck, to try and make something more of themselves. But they need society’s help.
Even if they have been brought up with certain traditional values, they are open to new norms, especially on gender issues, and like young people everywhere, they are experimenting. As the saying goes, the future is here, it is just not evenly distributed. If we support them, we can make it happen sooner than we think. Moreover, green shoots are already emerging. Think of the small but noteworthy examples of single fathers, who are adopting children despite the difficulty the law presents them with. Think of the men entering unusual occupations in the arts or in the care economy.
And then there are the celebrities. Cricketer Virat Kohli missed three out of four test matches that were part of an important Australian tour to be with his newborn baby. He had to brave much controversy when he talked about this. Tennis players Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal cried openly in defiance of the norm as Federer retired from an illustrious career. More and more famous and powerful men are showing younger boys that masculinity need not be a prescripted idea.
We know that there are many such good men in the world, who have silently worked on themselves and with the women in their lives to balance power better. Again, in the spirit of inclusion, of not generalising, of not lumping men together, let us acknowledge, celebrate, and ally and work with the men who are on this journey. This must be a co-powered journey for a more humane society.
(1) Rohini Nilekani, Report: What’s It like Being a Young Man in Urban India Today?
(Bangalore: Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies Foundation, 2022), https://
(2) International Labour Organization, Global Employment Trends for Youth: 2011 Update,
October 2011 (Geneva: International Labour Organization, 2011), https://www.ilo.
(3) NCRB, Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India 2021 (New Delhi: NCRB, 2021), https://
(4) NCRB, Prison Statistics India 2021 – Executive Summary (New Delhi: NCRB, 2021),
(5) National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre and All India Institute of Medical
Sciences, Magnitude of Substance Use in India 2019 (New Delhi: Ministry of Social
Justice and Empowerment, 2019), https://socialjustice.gov.in/writereaddata/
(6) Ministry of Education, Unified District Information System for Education Plus: 2021-2022
Flash Statistics (Ministry of Education, 2022), https://www.education.gov.in/sites/
(7) Kundan Pandey, “Why are Boys More Malnourished than Girls in India?,”
DownToEarth, February 19, 2018, https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/health/
(8) Richard J. Petts et al., “Fathers’ Paternity Leave-Taking and Children’s Perceptions
of Father-Child Relationships in the United States,” National Library of Medicine,
(9) Rohini Nilekani, “Build the Field. Build the Movement. Engaging Young Men
& Boys in India,” Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies Foundation, 2021, https://