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Dec 16, 2016

Promote men’s involvement for changing social norms

Bhawani Prasad Nayak

Bhawani Prasad Nayak is the district coordinator with the Institute for Social Development (ISD), a partner organisation of Oxfam India in Odisha. Bhawani is also associated with the Forum to Engage Men (FEM) in the state. He writes about the critical role men play in helping achieve gender equality. 

While India strides ahead on the economic front, the overall social status of women has been improving very slowly. Ghastly incidents of violence against women are still on the rise. Reports of domestic violence, eve-teasing or sexual harassment in public places, rape, child sex abuse and so on are now commonplace. Earlier, the initial response was one of denial – a refusal to believe that such an incident could happen at all. However, that has now changed and more and more cases are now being reported in the media. 

But brutal physical violence is not the only way women experience their secondary status in society. From the time girls are born their life circumstances and opportunities are different from that of boys, much of it is due to different social norms and expectations from girls and women, and boys and men. Increasing dowry demands, persistence of early marriage, women’s double burden of work outside and inside the home, lack of adequate educational and income opportunities for women, declining female sex ratio are some of the ways in which gender discrimination continue unabated in our society. 

Some of these discriminations have been accepted and steps have been taken to address these. The laws of the country have been amended to strengthen laws on crimes against women. New laws like the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act and the Protection of Women Domestic Violence Act provide some level of security at home and at work place. The Government has also initiated steps to address these gender related discriminations through programmes like ‘Beti bachao, beti padhao’. These are important steps but the progress is slow.

Most of the attention is towards women and the girl child; the idea is to provide them with safety and opportunities for parents to provide them with greater care and nurture.  The need of the hour is to shift the onus of change from those who are facing discrimination to those who create and uphold social norms. It’s time to get the men and boys involved in the larger scheme of things. While the status of women and their social discrimination has become the talking point, it is very important to take note of what is happening with boys and men. It’s time to take a closer look at masculinity and gender relations vis-à-vis gender equality. 

 A son is given the better share of care and support which creates a sense of entitlement and privilege. A son is taught to compete, to work hard, to succeed, and to win at all costs. The messages are loud and clear: ‘do not to cry like a girl’, ‘do not play with dolls like a sissy, take the gun’, ‘do not come into the kitchen, it’s women’s work’. In others words, ‘Be a man’. And a man never fails. This is the notion of a ‘real man’, albeit a false one, that the society has been breeding for ages.

This is how we create ‘sons’ who not only have an overwhelming sense of self-importance, pride and privilege, but who have been trained to be strong, immune to pain, angry, and be violent. Silently, but very effectively, the society keeps itself engaged in propagating and promoting patriarchy. 

While globalisation and economic liberalisation have created an opportunity for men and trained them to succeed, it has also proven devastating to those whose situation has been adverse.  There are no avenues for men to share their grief, cry on someone’s shoulder, or recover from a humiliating experience.  This pushes the ‘failed real men’ to seek instant gratification from pornographic video clips and ‘exercise their power’ on children, or sexually ‘punish’ the woman. Many who can’t reconcile with their failure take their own lives adding to the thousands of men who commit suicide every year. 

So while as a society we train men to be strong, to succeed, to be a good provider, we have also taken away his ability to respect, reflect, show his sympathy and compassion, be creative and deal with failures. It is hard to miss that most public places are full of men  the chowpal, stadium, pub, malls or the Parliament. In these places men can be found posturing, bragging, celebrating success, engaged in a brawl over disagreements or failures, but rarely will they be found confessing failure, acknowledging lack of clarity, sharing confusion or seeking honest support. Men often lack the space for reflection and rarely seek honest advice; these are seen a signs of weakness and failure. The social figure that men are trapped in denies them the opportunity to have meaningful, mutually respectful, caring, equal relationships with women, be it their mother, aunts, sisters, wife, daughters or even with other men. If we want to change the situation for women it is important to understand that this cannot be brought about by the efforts of women alone. If we believe that gender equality is a vision for the entire society then the entire society must be engaged in championing this change. 

Men and women will have to be brought on board together. We should realise that if women change, men too must change their expectations and aspirations from the women in their family and other women around them. When women become successful, the men must cherish their new successes. Men, as fathers, brothers and uncles, who play important roles (often silently) in supporting current discriminatory norms, need to come out openly in support of the sisters, daughters and nieces and change the overall environment which is against the fullest expression and empowerment of women. It is time to make men equal champions of gender equality. 

Changing men’s expectations of women, is closely related to changing men’s expectations from themselves. If success, victory, expression of power and authority no longer remain the sole parameters for what it means to be ‘good’ or ‘successful’, men will be under less pressure to perform and win. They will have greater opportunities to savour meaningful relationships. This will not only reduce violence and discrimination in society but also improve human relations overall. 

Changing these social norms, these gender norms will usher in new human relations and a better society that we are all striving for. 

 

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