By Renu Golwalkar:
India has a sex ratio of 940 females per 1000 males. The literacy rates of Indian women and men are 68.4% and 85.6%, respectively. Globally, about 800 women die daily due to ‘preventable causes’ related to pregnancy and childbirth. Of these women, 20% are from India.
As per the International Labor Organisation (ILO), women form 60% of the lowest-paid wage labourers, but only 15% of the highest wage-earners. In the Lok Sabha, only 12.15% of the members are women. According to a survey by the United Nations (UN) in 2013, around 35% of women globally have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence.
Inequality in society has existed for centuries, and the greater brunt of this inequality has always been faced by females. It has manifested itself in various forms; some regions being more affected than others. However, gender inequality is a global phenomenon.
There is widespread agreement among many that gender inequality and inequity needs to be tackled through a multi-pronged approach. But this approach has mostly focused on engaging with women and girls – empowering them to find solutions, take control and be more vocal about the issues that affect them.
Engaging only with females also indicates that gender inequality and gender-based violence (GBV) are considered to be ‘women’s problems’. Therefore, only the females are expected to find solutions to these problems and overcome the challenges. However, one needs to realise that the problem is a societal one – the brunt of which is borne mostly by women, girls and minorities.
Globally, there have been many research studies which show that engaging only with women on challenging gender stereotypes, especially in the areas of sexuality, health and family planning, have led to an increase in violence and increased resistance to changing oppressive gender stereotypes.
One such report states: “Qualitative research suggests that the intersections of HIV/AIDS, gender inequality and gender-based violence may involve notions of masculinity that are predicated on the control of women, and which value male strength and toughness”.
It is therefore evident that there is a larger and more complex interplay of factors, attitudes, perceptions and beliefs among both women and men, here. The solution too should entail engaging both with men and women.
Gender stereotypes and oppressive gender norms are followed, perpetuated and promoted by women, men and other key stakeholders of the society. This ‘mixed fabric’ of promoters needs to be targeted. Thus, their participation is paramount if the issue is to be solved.
Engaging with men can provide a lasting solution to this problem. If repeated pregnancies are a challenge, which lead to increased maternal mortality rates (MMR) and infant mortality rates (IMR), then the solution should not focus only on discussing contraception for females and targeting women for tubectomies (female sterilization). In India, women constitute 98% of the sterilised population. It is also reflected by poor contraception coverage and a highly skewed gender statistics for vasectomies and male condom usage.
In most cases, women do not exercise the basic right to choose the timing and number of children they want or don’t want. It is therefore important that men too be a part of this engagement and take an equal share of ownership and responsibility for family planning. It is also vital that they understand the ill-effects on the health and survival rates of women and children.
There are many prevalent gender stereotypes, like women being ‘good’ at taking care of children and households while men are good at ‘office work’. Although we are aware of such stereotypes, we follow them in our daily lives.
It is important to challenge these stereotypes, as they hamper attainment of ‘full potential’ among both males and females. What is unnatural about a man wanting to be at home to look after the children? So what if a woman has good business acumen and wants to run the family business or start her own? Gender equality is as much about freedom as it is about breaking stereotypes. Women can and have broken many stereotypes by themselves. However, if men join in too, the ripple effect will be more impactful and sustainable.
Many a times, men want to break gender stereotypes. However, the fear of facing society, peers and even their own families acts as an effective deterrent and forces them to keep following stereotypical roles and expectations.
It is easy to behave in a ‘socially acceptable’ pattern, rather than go against it and challenge it. The ‘pseudo-notions’ of masculinity require a man to display his ‘power’ rather than ‘cry’. It requires a lot to break these norms which perpetrate gender inequity.
Following social norms may let one live in a comfort zone, but challenging them requires courage and conviction. It requires one to be bold and stand up for what one believes to be just and right.
This journey of change does not stop at only the transformation of a man. It begins with the transformation of the man, but also entails inspiring many more individuals. In other words, one should strive to be a ‘male champion’ for gender equality and lead by example, thereby inspiring others and setting a chain of transformation in families, neighborhoods and immediate circles. ‘Gender transformation’ takes time, and the change should start within all of us. Each one of us matters – whether woman or man!
The statistics for gender-based violence (GBV), mainly against women and girls, are disturbing. A significant part of our efforts therefore address and try to mitigate violence against women, while also setting up systems and procedures for the redressal of survivors.
While the former is important, there is also a need to look at the ‘ecological framework‘ in order to understand violence against women. Gender based violence is not caused by any single factor. Rather, it is a combination of several factors that increase the risk of either committing violence or becoming a victim of violence.
One of the underlying factors is ‘gender socialisation’ and ‘subsequent internalisation’. Engaging with men for promoting gender equality and healthy gender ‘power dynamics’ will lead to addressing myths, misconceptions and ill-perceived notions of masculinity. This will address one of the significant causes of GBV, as has been shown by the engagement of men in many such projects around the globe.
Globally, females have been denied many basic and human rights. There have been many movements to reclaim these rights and strive for an equitable society. Despite the ongoing efforts, the goal is still too far and the friction too high.
But what if women don’t have to fight for their rights and equality? What if the society itself takes responsibility to ensure gender equality?
In one of CARE India projects in West Bengal, we were trying to address ‘gender inequality in intra-household food distribution’ through ‘reflective’ meetings in the community consisting of both men’s and women’s groups. This was a community where women traditionally ate at the end. Usually, they consumed only carbohydrates in inadequate quantities.
However, as a result of this engagement, when the women went home, they did not have to fight for their nutrition. Both the women and the men of the community discussed the issue and decided that from now on, they would dine together and consume equal quantities. Moreover, in many of our project areas, men and women have decided to register property jointly.
This is a ‘silent revolution’ within the lives of individual women and men, as well as in their families and communities. The revolutions helps in creating and enabling environments for transforming perceptions of gender roles.
In Families: Gender equality begins from home. Nurturing boys and girls as equals and unique individuals ensures gender equity and equality.
Equal nutrition, education, opportunities, household chores, not following gender role stereotypes and involving boys in kitchen and girls in market chores – these are useful suggestions that can be considered. Also, there should be similar rules of social engagement for boys and girls.
In Schools: When one looks at the gender equality in society, it is evident that school programs should impart life skills, leadership skills to girls, while also training them to deal with issues pertaining to sexual and reproductive health (SRH).
However, these same skills also need to be provided for boys. This will help them to understand more about their selves and build a healthier perspective on gender equality, and not view it through the lens of superiority or inferiority.
Promoting co-ed schooling and having ‘gender responsive approaches and methodologies’ in schools will also help both girls and boys understand and respect gender and diversity.
In Neighborhoods: Men who are engaged in jobs that do not subscribe to gender stereotypes should be motivated and encouraged. They should be inspiring role models – bold in their own lives and not made fun of for being agents of a positive change.
In Offices: An office crèche should not be synonymous with only mothers bringing their children. Men too should be encouraged to bring their kids to crèche in office. They should also be entitled to office breaks to look after their kids.
Paternity leaves should be increased and made compulsory for fathers taking care of their newborns. Human Resources (HR) teams can focus more on hiring a gender balanced team and engaging men in gender dialogues. The teams should also help males to challenge gender stereotypes in their lives and in their interactions.
Media Matters: We are all aware of the influence of media on the formation of gender stereotypes and norms. A lot of films and TV programs show women in derogatory, submissive, victimized and inferior positions compared to men. These portrayals reinforce the unjust, inequitable gender norms prevalent in society and also influences the minds of young, impressionable children.
On the other hand, films and programs can and should depict women and men negotiating healthy and positive gender ‘power dynamics’ in their lives. It is imperative that every film maker, TV program maker, actor, actress, advertising company does a ‘gender audit’ of the content of their program. The broadcasting station or channel can also perform a ‘gender audit’ to decide whether they would like to air a particular program, based on the results of the gender audit.
Media matters a lot to everybody, and the way females are projected in mainstream media needs to be thoroughly relooked at.
The author is a doctor and the Head of Gender Equity And Diversity at CARE India.