Shishir Chandra is a community organizer with Men’s Action for Stopping Violence Against Women (MASVAW) in Uttar Pradesh, India, an alliance of individual men and organizations that are committed to reducing gender-based violence through education and advocacy. Here he talks about the struggle to challenge gender roles for both men and women in India, and why he believes that young men can and should step up to the challenge.
1. Why do you think it’s important for young people to get involved in these issues?
Although gender equality is such a burning issue, not many youth in India get an opportunity to get involved in advancing gender equality. Young men and boys all over India have had many difficult experiences regarding gender inequality and sexual violence but traditional societal structure discourages them to be open about these issues. Youth join MASVAW because this network provides an outlet for youth to freely share experiences and concerns, and seek recognition of their alternative masculinities, of limiting gender roles.
If men, as perpetrators of violence, are part of the problem of gender inequality, they should be part of the solution as well. The inherent desire for justice and equality is sometimes within themselves and sometimes can be guided by mentors.
2. What major obstacles have MASVAW members encountered?
Rigid religious and familial norms present barriers to young men and boys trying to get involved in gender equality campaigns. Many people believe that to challenge gender roles is to challenge God. Religion also dictates family life, so when one person deviates from set family norms they are also seen as deviating from much respected religious tradition. The Indian family structure can also inhibit involvement because of the ideas of honour and reputation. Therefore, if a youth is affiliated with a group or a movement that his or her family disapproves of, the reputation of both the individual and the family are perceived as damaged. This dual stigmatization is an obstacle for youth who wish to become change agents and active participants in ending violence against women.
3. How is MASVAW responding to these challenges?
Gender stereotypes are perpetuated when discourse on the subject is absent. MASVAW believes that in order to overcome obstacles of negative gender stereotypes, a path must be paved for open and candid discussions, education and advocacy aimed at erasing myths surrounding these stereotypes. MASVAW teaches young men and boys to facilitate these conversations about the possibility of change at home, at school and among their peer group through the forums, trainings and events. We have film shows and discussions, interactive sessions on gender issues in universities, poster making competitions and street exhibitions. We have held debates, and developed special games which can be played by either groups of young women or men, that help to break gender stereotypes. We’ve written activity books for school children on gender issues, and encourage young men to write and publish stories about gender equality and to be role models in their peer groups.
We also have different ways of building networks on university campuses and in communities, and support advocacy and campaigning on issues such as sexual harassment in academic institutions, and the effective implementation of the Domestic Violence Act.
4. Can you given an example of a MASVAW campaign that you feel have had impact in your community?
In 2005, MASVAW led a successful campaign at Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidhyapith University in Varanasi around one case of sexual harassment, which ultimately led to the formation of an anti-sexual harassment committee on campus. When a female student reported that she was sexually harassed by one of her teachers, a group of male students supported her by helping to file a police report against the teacher. The accused teacher was ultimately punished and dismissed. After this incident, female students felt empowered to come forward about their personal experiences with sexual harassment at school
A campaign led by Lucknow University students in Uttar Pradesh for safe public transportation for girls and women is another example of effective youth organizing [see video]. The youth forum at Lucknow University spear-headed and independently organized this campaign for which MASVAW provided logistical support and guidance.
5. What more can be done to better engage youth?
It was my academic advisor at my university in Varanasi who first helped me form a world view with a gender lens, and I know from experience, both personal and professional with MASVAW, that great potential for organizing and norm changes lies in the educational arena. If young people’s potential and courage are recognized, progress will be made toward establishing gender equality in educational institutions through compulsory gender education starting from the primary level. I also feel that youth must be provided with appropriate venues and platforms for facilitating gender equality campaigns. Comprehensive steps to strengthen these platforms, which might include youth and sports clubs as well as student and youth organizations and unions, should be taken in order to discuss action plans for the creation of a more gender-equal society.
The voices of youth are virtually absent from the gender equality policy arena in India and political representation has thus far been weak and ineffective. However, a recent increase in youth participation in voting represents a vital interest in getting involved in policy making process. Young men and women have a right to early and active involvement in suck kind initiatives that promote gender equality. Societies must create an environment where girls and boys are viewed as equals, enjoy dignified labour and easy access to quality education, and live lives free from violence are supported to create equitable relationships.
Video: Hear Shishir discuss his work with male youth to combat unequal power relations between men and women, and transform notions of masculinity. Here he describes a successful advocacy campaign, supported by MASVAW, that mobilized female and male university students against ‘Eve Teasing’ or sexual harassment on public transport in Lucknow. The campaign demanded government accountability on the issue, and gained the support of the initially-resistant local university authorities.