An alternative path to creating a more gender-just and gender-sensitive society is to involve the men and boys in the dialogue and the process
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had argued fiercely about bringing in social reforms before political reforms for real development to happen. The political situation now is much changed from Ambedkar’s times and perhaps more complex, but the deeper need for social reforms continue to remain unattended. One area that requires critical attention and a big push is the agenda which the feminist movement has so arduously and dedicatedly brought so far on the issue of societal gender norms, interactions, and patriarchy. Civil society has been trying to tackle the various aspects of this issue in their own ways – through providing women, the ‘victims’ of patriarchy, with education, economic empowerment, land rights, political empowerment, and addressing violence etc. so that they can be stronger and stand up for their rights. But one critical aspect of patriarchy is almost never addressed, at least not directly – that is engaging with men and boys since they play a central role is preserving these social norms.
A tough task, one might say. But Vikalp Sanstha of Rajasthan has proved to be just that change maker.
To the outsider, Rajasthan is always associated with grandeur, valour, kingdoms, warfare, chivalry, traditions, and colours. Scratch the surface of such associations, and one will find a society mired in deep-rooted social practices that ensure continued discrimination and violence against women across all stages of life. The societal pressure of having a male-child is acute, forcing women to go for sex-selective abortions. Those who do give birth to girl-children are said to be carrying stones in their womb. Their births are neither announced loudly nor celebrated; and are given names such as Mafi (sorry), Noko (throw away), Aachuki (stop now) etc. to remind them and others of their worth. Limited education or no education for girls is a norm and so is girl-child marriage. Dowry system, no widow-remarriage or even shunning widows from social functions, purdah-system, wearing of bangles (full-arms) by married women till either partner is alive, marrying off girls if an elderly man dies in the family etc. are just some of the other practices that continue to be followed with a question.
According to recent Census and National/District Family Health Survey data, only 45.8% of women in rural Rajasthan are literate, more than 57% of girls got married before their legal age as a result of which teenage pregnancy is also high, and it also has one of the worst child sex-ratio in the country with 888 females per 1000 males.
Vikalp was started by a group of youth in 2004 who believed in the philosophy that change happens from within. So instead of waiting for political leaders, policies, or organisations to show people the way, they decided to undertake the difficult task of changing community mindsets and societal gender norms themselves. In order to bring in lasting change, Vikalp approached the issue from various angles – address men, women, and youth, include the jati or caste panchayat and other community-based groups in the change process, and advocate with government departments, schools, hospitals and clinics, and police for better implementation of laws and rules.
They saw youth as the real change-makers, as they are open to new ideas and can also influence their families and peers. Through discussions, street plays, training and workshops, the youth, especially boys were made aware of societal gender roles, patriarchy and how it impacts society, and discrimination and violence against women in daily life. This youth group or ‘Change-makers’ started questioning and changing norms within their own families like stopping child-marriage, supporting their sisters in pursuing education, stopping their fathers from resorting to violence etc. They also went around their communities spreading awareness on the various laws against sex-selection, dowry system, child marriage and its impact on health and family life etc. Encouraging interaction between the sexes along with sensitising helped reduce eve-teasing.
One of the most influential groups in rural Rajasthan is the jati or caste panchayat formed by groups of village elders (men) who settle disputes and take decisions on their community’s behalf. These groups of men are usually highly patriarchal and the strongest voices of customs and traditions. Vikalp worked with them and other village elders and by changing their attitude sought to change the community at a larger and deeper level. Now these very caste leaders are encouraging girls to get educated, getting widows remarried and celebrating the birth of girl-children by beating the thali instead of a supra (which has a muted sound implying lesser joy or sadness). Workshops are held for men where they are made aware of gender issues, hyper-masculinity and various forms of domestic violence. This perhaps is the toughest part of Vikalp’s work as deep-seated behaviour can get difficult to break. Even then there have been many transformations where husbands have started sharing domestic chores along with their wives.
Through focussed campaigns on various topics, Vikalp also addressed the issue of women’s empowerment. These campaigns included celebration of girl-children where widows led the ceremony by beating a thali, enrolling girls to school, providing them with cycles, encouraging them to take up sports in order to build their confidence and character, and ensuring they completed their education, stopping girl-children from getting married, providing legal aid and counselling to survivors of violence, and encouraging girls to step-out by providing them with opportunities of livelihood. Vikalp also campaigned with the schools to change their rules to make it inclusive for girls like participation in PT classes or taking the morning oath which only boys used to do; they also conducted surprise checks on clinics and hospitals to ensure that all rules regarding Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act were being followed.
In the decade or more of its work, Vikalp has developed a team of more than 400 volunteers and 200,000 'change-makers' from 231 villages who have been slowly but surely going about creating a more gender sensitive society. You know that things are changing when priests refuse to perform wedding ceremonies if it's that of girl-children, when a daughter files an FIR against her father for being abusive towards her mother, when girls have the confidence to wear jeans instead of their traditional skirts, when a new mother fights her family to give her daughter a meaningful name, or when a son helps out in the kitchen and with other household work. And perhaps Vikalp's alternative is the way to create many more change-makers that our society urgently needs today.
Bipasha Majumder shifted to the social sector after working in advertising and media for a decade. She loves traveling to the grassroot, talking to the communities, understanding their issues first hand and writing about her experiences. Currently she works as a communication consultant for various NGOs and CSR projects.