This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s talk on the peripheral status of men and boys in discussions on gender and the need for inclusive gender empowerment, at The Bridge Talks.
I have worked in the nonprofit sector for the past 20 years, and through my philanthropy, I’ve been active in issues of education, microfinance, ecology, arts and culture, and governance. Through my foundation, Arghyam, we support work in 23 states to help communities have better water. This has given me a window into grassroots organisations all around the country, working in especially hard geographies and social conditions. I’ve also had a ring-side seat the last 35 years, thanks to my husband Nandan Nilekani, at the amphitheatre of the corporate world, and have glimpsed at the innards of government. So my perspective comes from both the samaaj, bazaar, and sarkaar.
Has the Pendulum Swung Too Far?
Over the years, a few images have stayed stark in my mind. One is the huge yellowing eyes of a 12-year-old Musahari boy, from a small island in the Koshi river where no government services were available. He was suffering from kala-azar, was barely literate, and was waiting to be transported to a hospital. I also remember the copious tears of a young boy I met on a roadside with his sister. Although he had done well in his board exams, his father had said, “There’s no way you can study further, I’ve got you a job in a government organisation, and that’s what you’re going to do.”
I can’t forget the body language of both hope and despair of dozens of young men in an employment queue, armed with their school or college degrees, waiting and praying for a job that will barely hold their body and soul together, as a security guard or as a sales person. I remember the resigned look on the face of a very raw and freshly scrubbed pani-puri vendor in Bangalore, who had to hand over a bribe to a sub-inspector. Then I remember the macho threatening behavior of a group of angry young men who had stopped cars on a highway because there had been an accident and one of their friends had been injured. To me, these are snapshots that assemble a portrait, a gallery of the reality faced by 200 million boys and young men between the ages of 13 and 25 in this country, probably the largest such cohort in the world.
India has made great strides to reduce the inequality between men and women in terms of legal rights, economic opportunities, and personal empowerment. We have several laws to protect women and help them advance. One of the greatest institutions that we have supported over the last 30 years has been the development of self-help groups. There are 70 million women in self-help groups around the country, and that enables them to access credit, state support, and much more. We’ve included women by quota in local government, and India has the unique pride of having more than one million women as elected representatives across governments in the country. We also have several policies to support the education of the girl child and a special drive for maternal and child health.
But what is beginning to worry me greatly is whether we have swung the pendulum too far. Where is similar support for these 200 million young men? They also have rights, needs, and burdens, especially coming from the strong patriarchal structure that India has been living with for centuries. They are restricted by gender stereotypes, and by not conforming, they can be subject to merciless bullying. The concept of masculinity is very conditional — you cannot be masculine if you’re emotional, sensitive, or compassionate. We know how hard it is to escape these social beliefs, even though masculinity is being redefined in the 21st century. This is excluding all the added challenges of being a young male of a lower caste, lower economic class, or different sexual orientation. I’m talking about the burden of being a young man with hormones no doubt raging, with no kind of stable relationships perhaps, locked into predetermined notions of how to be a man.
The Gaps in the State and Civil Society
Over the last few decades, this conversation has opened up around the world but we have not been able to address it in India. Unless we are prepared to see that men are also trapped, I don’t believe we can make much progress towards true empowerment or gender equality. Often, people talk of men as the ones who need to change so that women can be better off, not what they need in their own right. Can we go beyond that thinking to analyse its root causes? Can we look into the faces of those millions of men, with their fears and insecurities, lack of access to good education and skilling, and the lack of jobs and secure relationships, and creatively confront the challenge to make a positive change? Where are the safe platforms like the SHGs for men, where they can share their questions about sexuality, the patriarchy, masculinity, and the burden of being male? Do we have structured activities anywhere in the country that are secular, not necessarily political party-based or religion-based, that get young men together to play sports, to learn music, to do theater, or bird watching or anything at all? Are there enough state-sponsored programs for adolescent, low income, urban boys? The answer to all is mostly no, no, and only a few.
If we look at our legal frameworks, law making in India can be pretty shoddy at times, and some laws might have gone too far to protect women, leaving men in a fairly precarious state. The Anti-Dowry Act is a rather vexed case, that has engaged both men and women activists alike. For one, I don’t think it has achieved its social goal of eliminating dowry. On the other hand, there has been some abuse of the law to the point where staunchly feminist organisations that I work with and know, have been thinking of relooking at some of its provisions. The Supreme Court in one case said, “As noted above, the object is to strike at the roots of dowry menace, but by misuse of the provision, a new legal terrorism can be unleashed. The provision is intended to be used as a shield and not an assassin’s weapon.” When non-bailable offences are created, the police need to be extra careful to screen complaints and to make sure that the accused can be justifiably arrested for the alleged crime.
Not enough of us are agitated about these issues, I believe, because we think that these things will not happen to the men we know. Take the case of Naseema Begum who in 1995, filed a case against a young man who forcibly kissed her, causing some injury to her lip and no doubt a lot of injury to her soul. The criminal case was settled in 2012, awarding the accused a sentence of six months imprisonment. An appeal to Sessions Court was denied, the appellant had argued that the accused was a juvenile at the time of the incident and should have been protected under the law that was then in force, which should have sent him to a Juvenile Justice Board and not a criminal court. But the court sent him to prison for six months, 18 years after the crime was committed, when both the woman and the man had settled into different marriages, and had children. The court had this to say, “In the instant case, as the appellant has committed a heinous crime and with the social condition prevailing in the society, the modesty of a woman has to be strongly guarded, and as the appellant behaved like a roadside Romeo, we do not think it is a fit case, where the benefit of the 1958 Act, leniency in sentencing for juvenile offenders should be given to the appellant.” When the law says that the modesty of a woman has to be strongly guarded, does that really serve men or women? I believe that it instead comes from the same strong patriarchal framework that we need to confront and possibly reject.
The state lags behind, but so does civil society. Through my research, I have not been able to find any kind of work at any scale, that focuses on working with young men or boys. There are two exceptions – one is MAVA, which is based in Pune and has done some stellar work to sensitise men, get them together, and allow them to talk. The second is the Equal Community Foundation, based in Mumbai. They do structured work with young people and create safe spaces for boys to discuss things that bother them, and to help with skilling. Apart from these, there are organisations like NOVO, Shadhika, and Oxfam. But these are just tiny specks in the ocean.
When the Equal Community Foundation went to West Bengal to see if they could expand their work, they spoke to 100 organisations and none of them had any specific programs for boys, even though they had many for girls. The philanthropy community is doing very little, and even the biggest European agencies working in this space gave only 5% of their budgets to this cause. One reason may be that while funders agree with the need for this, they don’t know what to fund. So we have a huge opportunity for young men to realise their rights, achieve their better selves, and be gainfully employed.
A Creative Challenge For Us All
In terms of employment, some progress has been made. Manish Sabharwal who runs India’s largest staffing company, TeamLease, says that today the problem is less of jobs than of wages. Ten years ago, the young people, who used to come to TeamLease asked for any job that was available, five years ago that changed to asking for good jobs. Now they ask for jobs that will pay them at least Rs.10,000 a month. Even that amount is barely enough to keep young men fed, with a roof over their head, and supporting their families back home. In Mumbai, employers get away with paying meager salaries, because most of the applicants stay in their own homes. But this means that employees from other parts of India are at a disadvantage. If we look at UP and Bihar, almost one out of every two children born in India will be from these two states. This forecloses their options in cities like Mumbai, where much of the economic growth is happening.
There are 150 million people who migrate within the country every year in search of work, and most of them are young men, Yet TeamLease has 10,000 open positions every day that they cannot fill. Something here is not adding up. Young men are desperately looking for good jobs and not able to find them. They have high aspirations and will not work without adequate pay and dignity. Imagine what it means for a country and society to have millions of idle, restless men, armed with educational degrees, and with no prospect of living the life they believe they deserve. If we look at the case of Nirbhaya, what was the trajectory of her life versus the people who committed such violence against her? Nobody wants to be a farmer anymore, which is understandable because it’s not very remunerative. The jobs that are available in logistics or in security don’t offer much satisfaction either. There are nine million security guards in India, where they stand at a post for 12 hours a day for meagre wages in a city with exorbitant prices.
200 million young men are stuck in low level equilibrium. What can we do about this? Firstly, they need better laws and policies. This is a challenge for lawmakers. There needs to be better public financing for affordable shelters, public transport, and identity-based access to finance. They need skilling and education, which should also be a concern for policy makers. They need platforms where they can safely explore sensitive questions, good role models, structured activities, and ways to build up empathy and self-esteem. This needs to be addressed by civil society institutions. They need all of us to partake in the civilisational goal of nurturing better human beings. We need to believe that everyone can change for the better, and those of us who can, should support the few organisations working in this space.
I believe that this is a creative challenge for all of us, and an urgent one. We have created solid legal frameworks and support programs for women. We need to recognise that we may have overcorrected for historical injustice. In their own right, young men need us to do more for them in our society, give them safe spaces to speak out, and different programs that help them get a boot up. We need to do this for men in their own right as well, for women to be more empowered. It’s now time to take this issue seriously.