The Missing Half – How to Bring Men to the Gender Conversation?

May 15, 2020


This is an edited version of a panel discussion titled ‘The Missing Half – How to Bring Men to the Gender Conversation?’ Devyani Srinivasan, an independent researcher assisting Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, participated along with Ravi Verma, Director of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) Asia; Sujata Khandekar, Executive Director of CORO India; Gary Barker, Founder and CEO of Promundo; and Harish Sadani, Co-founder and Chief Functionary of Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA). The panel was organised by The/Nudge Foundation during #Charcha2020, and anchored by Dalberg Advisors.

In her introduction to the panel topic, Dayoung Lee from Dalberg narrated a story that exposed some of the sector’s miscalculations when it comes to issues of gender. While researching in Chhattisgarh with her team, Lee’s mandate was to design an app for providing maternal and child health information to rural women. They were carrying out prototyping sessions, largely with pregnant women and young mothers until the women asked, “Why are you only talking to us? Can you make this thing useful for our husbands also because we want them to know this information, as well?” Lee’s team had not planned to engage men in these discussions, assuming that this information will be most useful for the women and that the return on investment was going to be higher if they targeted women for this type of information.

But recent research has really shown that this kind of “low hanging fruit” mentality has really led the development community to only exacerbate centuries-old gender norms in patriarchy such as women’s role as caregivers and men’s role as breadwinners. And so Lee and her team went back to talk to the men, and also came up with ways to engage them better. Promoting gender equality has been about providing more resources and opportunities to women and girls, building their confidence, helping them stand up and advocate for themselves. But if men are such a big part of the problem, why aren’t they also a part of the solution? How do we bring in men and boys into the gender conversation?

Reframing the Gender Conversation

Gary Barker’s work took him to Brazil in the early ’90s to coordinate a study with UNICEF on girls who were being sexually exploited. While working with government social workers and interviewing girls he realised that if they actually want to stop the flow of men paying for sex with underage girls, they had to look at what it was that’s driving it, what allows them to do this, and why so many of their friends watching don’t say anything. Gary also points to the way that gender seeps into language. He kept thinking about how in Brazilian Portuguese the expression of violence against women and sexual exploitation of girls sounded like it was missing words. Then he realised that it’s missing words in English as well, because violence against women is men’s violence against women; the sexual exploitation of girls is men’s sexual exploitation of girls in large part. We forget that there’s an object or a subject in that sentence. With the simple idea that gender equality needs men and men need gender equality, he founded Promundo.

Sujata Khandekar ran into a similar problem while working on violence against women in low-income communities of Mumbai. CORO was providing counseling, training, creating, awareness, legal aid, etc. but there was still no reduction in the violence. They realised that it was not enough to work with women alone, because quite often the violence against women increased when they started speaking for themselves, as a backlash because men now felt threatened. Rather than working with the patterns and instances, they worked on the mental models that are creating, perpetuating, endorsing, justifying violence. They began questioning how we can challenge and change social norms that perpetuate, endorse, and justify violence against women. The role of men became very crucial because they have to be brought in communication, as part of the solution.

With Nilekani Philanthropies, our work with our portfolio of organisations that engage young men and boys on gender equality is really driven by Rohini’s belief that programs that work on women’s empowerment are never really going to achieve their full potential unless they also work with men. The other side of this is that those programs also need to address men’s fears and men’s needs for them to be sustainable. We’re learning from the organisations all the time, so even within our portfolio, there are three different approaches in terms of how organisations are thinking about benefits to men. With the #MeToo movement and the Nirbhaya case, we’ve had a lot of moments where violence and inequality against women have been highlighted, but those are also incidents that have been quite polarizing. Unless we start to see men as part of the solution and not only part of the problem, Deyvani Srinivasan suggests that we are actually going to see increasing violence and polarization in society.

Ravi Verma points to the fact that we need to reframe our entire discussion on gender. When ICRW carried out a major national survey in India in 2002, it revealed interesting results. Many women justified violence that was happening within households and were even party to it, pointing to the larger patriarchal structure that seems to go beyond men and women. During that time, Ravi remembers that campaigns against HIV were focusing on men to reduce the HIV infection rate. From this time, he began to bring the idea of gender transformation in the discourse on women’s empowerment and men’s engagement. To him, discussions around engaging men must include an element of questioning the construct of gender. It doesn’t have to be equated only with women, but rather asking how we address the structures, institutions, and larger norms that sustain particular gender relations which impact both women and men? The idea is to enable questioning of the structural parameters that make men, and women fall in line with certain expectations.

Challenges and Approaches

Over the past 13 years of his experience working with young men and adolescent boys, Harish Sadani notes that in order to create a safe space for men in their 20s and 30s, you need a lot of perseverance. You need to have conversations where they feel they can open up without being judged or labeled, and can talk about their vulnerabilities and anxieties. When you talk about gendered relationships, you need to talk about sexuality. Today, Harish argues that raising a boy is more difficult than it was 15 years ago. The age of adolescence or puberty is declining. While young girls get information about menstruation from other women in her family, however limited that dialogue is, at least it means they have someone who tries to address how their body is changing.

But when it comes to boys, there is no guarantee that family members will talk to him about what happens to the body and the physical and psychological changes he will experience as he grows up. 95% of young men have pornography as one of their primary sources of information about sexuality. As these boys grow up, their testosterone levels are at the highest level and if they are not guided properly and resort to violence or offensive behavior, we label them criminals. But the problem is that they don’t have an alternative. We have never responded to the unmet needs of countless young boys in India.There are also multiple inequalities that intersect with their experiences as young men. Religion is one example. Hinduism is 5,000 years old, which means 5,000-year-old beliefs about how men should be controlling women are still being reinforced, says Harish. So there are several challenges to face.

As Devyani mentions, one of the key questions is what boys and men would consider as benefits to themselves from engaging in this work? One approach that Nilekani Philanthropies has invested in, involves trying to get boys and men to participate in a kind of activism for spreading gender equality and gender awareness. The idea is that they can take on active roles in spreading the message and generating awareness. The theory of change behind that approach is that men and boys can also gain skills that are transferable, like communication skills, critical thinking, and problem solving, but in the process they are also sensitised to gender issues as well.

The second approach takes the perspective that gender norms and gender identities are damaging for men as well as women. Gender norms are damaging or at least restricting for boys and men, so the ability to challenge those norms and embrace other masculine identities, would benefit them as well. The third approach, which is the approach of some of the organisations that are new to our portfolio, is an intersectional approach. It takes into consideration the contexts of the young boys, who may come from lower castes or are in situations where they might have an abusive parent. So this approach uses intersectionality to build empathy among boys and men, to help them relate to situations where they’ve been dominated, oppressed, or violated, and link that to women’s experiences.

But if we want to engage men and boys, and address this issue of raising the ability to question power and entitlement, then it has to begin very early in life, says Ravi. This is one of the approaches that he advocates for – engaging children from 10-16 years old, so that we saturate the interventions at that age. These interventions also need to be situated within the institutions because a lot of what boys and girls begin to learn and internalise are sustained and nurtured by the institutions within which they study, play, and interact with their peers. There are many institutions within which boys are made to believe that they can enjoy certain entitlements or carry certain expectations. So Ravi suggests that we need to work within those structured institutional spaces.

His third point is that we need to find ways to bring a kind of a convergence because there has to be some way to connect institutional programs with community-based programs. This means that there have to be some kind of change agents or people who would anchor these change processes on a sustained basis. Within schools and institutions, for example, we need to work with teachers or mentors so that they remain there and continue to engage in these difficult conversations. This would not be a project-specific piece of work that they’re doing, but a kind of transformation that they themselves are going through. They have to change the pedagogy. They need to change the learning and teaching styles in a way that will be engaging, inclusive, and participatory, and they need to be ready to face difficult questions from children without being perturbed by them. If we work with three principles, Ravi hopes that perhaps this will raise and challenge some of those difficult issues that men and boys take for granted.

Making the Invisible Visible

Gary notes that much of this work is difficult because the world is structured to make certain things invisible to men. He uses a metaphor of men as fish in a fishbowl, who don’t perceive the water around them. If you ask a fish, “How’s the water?” a fish is likely to say, “What water?” Gendered norms are so enmeshed with our world that it is difficult to bring awareness to people. If we really want to achieve the change that we’re after, Gary argues that we’ve got to change the system. As an example of what that could look like, he mentions working with Brazil’s Ministry of Health to create a men’s prenatal health protocol. So rather than just working in group education to convince men they should be part of prenatal visits, they said, “Let’s make that system inviting to him.” There’s a chair for him to sit during the consultation, people expect him to attend appointments and make his own sessions to talk about family planning, to do STI tests, etc.

Gary also points to the fact that conditional cash transfers or micro-credit programs around the world focused on women. We continue to send a message that we don’t think men are very responsible at the household level. But the design of these programs are actually antagonistic to their goals. Instead, in Colombia, the National Cash Transfer program has included a small condition that says ‘We want men here to support their female partners by entering the paid workforce or doing part of the care work.’”

A common problem on the ground is that often no men want to participate. There’s no low-hanging fruit when it comes to engaging men, says Gary. However, if we’re able to create a safe space, there is at least a third of the men, a quarter of the men, or sometimes half of the men who are already on our side. But we’ve not been brave enough or creative enough to find the ways to engage them, to change the rules and say, “We know that you can be called into this.” Part of this work is to accept that deep discomfort that we have to say, “Yes, we need you to be part of this, but this is not just you being a champion who comes in and says, ‘Oh I’m going to be the good guy and I’ll fix things.” We need to create a world that leaves men with no choice but to be part of the movement for gender equality.

The current pandemic has brought up certain things in terms of human dynamics, according to Sujata. A major factor is that the vulnerabilities of all people have become very evident and there is a feeling that we are in the same boat. This has been a difficult time, especially for men who have the baggage of being a breadwinner at a time when many people will or have already lost their livelihoods. There are so many uncertainties, which have made them more vulnerable. There is also a realisation of mutuality and connectedness. So this could be a starting point for difficult conversations, where everyone’s vulnerabilities and connections are now exposed.



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