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Why Fighting Toxic Masculinity Is As Important As Working For Women’s Empowerment

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By Renuka Motihar:

In the early years of my career, I worked at CEDPA (now Centre for Catalyzing Change), a pioneer in working with adolescent girls in India. As we interacted and engaged with young women, there were demands from them, “You have changed my life. Now please change the thinking of my future husband.”

We soon began to realise that to effectively challenge and change gender inequalities, we needed to get men involved, not just to make it easier for the girls, but for the sake of the boys and men themselves.

What Does Masculinity Mean For Men Growing Up In India?

The concept of masculinity shapes young men’s thinking and the way they are socialised in their growing years; it forms and sets their understanding, thought process and action for years to come.

During a discussion with college-going young men in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh in October 2016, they shared how they followed what was prescribed to them by society. These young men unquestioningly did what their fathers and elder men in their families and communities did. They had minimal interaction with girls and didn’t particularly understand what girls said and meant. They didn’t even know how to talk to them. There was a strong belief among them that when girls said no, they actually meant yes.

There were also unsaid rules on what boys themselves could and couldn’t do. A young man shared how he enjoyed cooking but his family frowned upon it until he rationalised it for them: he needed to learn it, he said, in order to survive once he began to live alone for higher studies and work. In another interaction, young married men in rural Maharashtra shared how there was opposition from within the family initially, when they started doing household work and helping their wives. One man shared how the biggest opposition was from his parents, especially his mother. “She felt I would become my wife’s slave. Her fear was that I would leave my parents and not listen to her.”

In 2013, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and UNFPA undertook a research study to understand perceptions of masculinity in India, learn more about men’s attitudes and behaviour towards women and girls, and to inform effective programming strategies.

A disturbing finding from the study was that the greatest proportion of rigidly masculine men were in the youngest age group (18-24), a time when many men in India marry. Experiencing economic stress also increased men’s likelihood of holding rigid notions about masculinity.

Photo Courtesy: Equal Community Foundation

Addressing Masculinity, Deconstructing Patriarchy

Despite how entrenched this issue of masculinity is in the country, not many organisations work with boys and men in India. Notable exceptions include Centre for Health and Social JusticeEqual Community FoundationYP FoundationHalo Medical Foundation, and MAVA among others.

According to a review by the Public Health Foundation of India and ICRW in 2014, organisations used gender-accommodating or gender-transformative strategies to change attitudes of men and boys around gender-equity.

Programmes that used accommodating strategies typically engaged men in their roles as husbands, partners and community members. Transformative programmes mainly used social and behavioural change communication strategies to target husbands and young men, encouraging them to reflect and question established masculine behaviour, traditional gender and social norms, and roles and relationships that may have adverse effects.

There have also been attempts to work with boys and men as agents in deconstructing forms of patriarchy, preventing violence and discrimination, and raising gender equitable boys and young men. It has been found that well-designed and well-conceptualised programmes do change men, their gender attitudes and their idea of masculinity.

There’s A Long Way To Go

Many programmes (and a bulk of the funding) that engage men and boys do so from a lens of preventing violence against women. However, at a time when the perception and impact of masculinity is in itself problematic, it is not enough that we only work with men and boys through the lens of their impact on girls and women.

In order to make India truly gender-equitable, we need programmes that understand and challenge the traditional idea of masculinity and initiate reflection and questioning.

We should also be careful that including men and boys does not mean positioning them as ‘saviours’ or ‘protectors’ of women and girls.

The Need To Stay Invested And Engaged

There is a continued need for programme interventions to catch men young, make them gender-sensitive and question established norms, build their capacities and help them become active participants in their own development. However, this is easier said than done.

For starters, there has been limited funding available. Bringing about such normative and structural change requires long-term investment.

Due to the complex, deep-seated nature of these norms and the discomfort in discussing them, programmes which seek to change them, require a long-term and consistent engagement while working with the same group of boys and young men, over time. Most funders are often not willing to make such investment in initiatives that take time to produce visible results.

Changing deep set beliefs about gender is not easy and doesn’t happen overnight. But if we want to improve the lives of young women and men in this country, we don’t have a choice.

About the author: Renuka Motihar is an independent consultant working on social development issues based in New Delhi.

This article was originally published on India Development Review.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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