Enabling teenagers change attitudes for the better
Ranjita Biswas, Kolkata
November 27, 2017

Thanks to a Pune-based NGO, many teenagers in Bengal’s districts are now part of a gender-sensitisation programme that aims to tackle gender-based violence and trafficking (the state has one of the highest numbers of trafficked women in India). The adolescents are encouraged to take personal and collective action to challenge gender norms at home and in their communities, prevent child marriage, take action against domestic violence and sexual harassment in the streets

“I didn’t know why girls in our school didn’t come on certain days. I liked the discussions around it.” – Suman Halder, a Class X student in Bengal.

“In our area, eve-teasing was a great problem. We visited homes of some of the perpetrators but they didn’t listen. Then we took help of the sister of the leader of the gang and asked her to put on a burqa while crossing the section of the road where these boys waited to harass the girls. As usual, she was teased and followed by the gang leader; then she took off her burqa and one of the boys was shocked to see that it was his sister. Now 85 per cent of the people in our area have changed and the boys have learnt their lesson.” – Amit Sardar from Sandeshkhali, South 24-Parganas District, Bengal.

The young teenagers from the districts of West Bengal belong to a social change participatory model that aims at associating boys (ages 13-17) in a gender-sensitisation programme. Equ-al Community Foundation (ECF), a Pune-based NGO, has conceptualised and designed the module. The programme started in Maharashtra but has now expanded to other states. In Bengal, 12 organisations are part of the programme which is funded by the Hummingbird Raise initiative steered by Clare Mathias, executive chair.

Mathias had spent many years in Kolkata. She has witnessed firsthand gender-based violence and a trafficking problem that bogs many areas in the hinterland as well as in the city. Back home in the UK, she raised funds and launched the Hummingbird Foundation in 2014. Its main aim is to ‘enable communities to promote systemic and sustainable changes in the attitudes and processes that create vulnerability to trafficking’.
Bengal, incidentally, has one of the highest numbers of trafficked women in the country.

A sensitisation programme has the participants all attentive.

According to a report filed by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in Parliament, 19223 women and children were trafficked in 2016, up from 15448 in 2015, with the highest number of victims recorded in Bengal.

Backed by technical support from ECF, the Hummingbird Raise programme has till now worked with 5224 adolescents across 76 villages in Bengal. Rujuta Teredesai, co-founder, ECF, points out that there are many advocacy programmes aimed at women’s empowerment, even engaging the police and the judiciary. “But where are the men? Why do they remain invisible in these sensitisation programmes?” he wonders.

In recent times, there has been a realisation that men, personally and collectively, have to get involved to prevent violence against women. As Mathias reiterates, “If the men are a part of the problem, then they must be engaged as a part of the solution.”

ECF tries to fill in the lacunae with its structured approach at gender sensitisation, starting at the roots, that is, at home, where ideas of gender discrimination starts to shape up due to age-old ideas about women. After all, as Teredesai says, “Violence is not simply a biological or physical act. It is located within a specific social and cultural context.”

Many social behaviour experts feel that one has to start young with boys so that they are sensitised about gender roles as they grow up and learn to question society’s imposition of ideas on so-called ‘girl-behaviour’ and ‘boy behaviour’. There are 230 million boys in India under the age of 18. If nothing changes, then as adults, 114 million (50 per cent) might be violent: 79 million (34 per cent) might commit sexual violence, including rape, ECF believes. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), every third Indian woman age 15 to 49 years has experienced some kind of sexual or physical violence in her lifetime.

The idea of ECF germinated in 2009 at the Solar Cinema programme in which films are screened in community clubs in Maharashtra to highlight social issues. It was observed that most of the viewers were adolescent boys though the films were aimed at women. 

Why not start here when there was already a captive audience? Hence, the idea grew to hold interactive sessions in local community centres on easy-to-relate issues where boys could join after school hours. The programme accordingly was launched in 2010, aimed at engaging the boys for a period of one and a half years through a three-phase curriculum. They even get a ‘graduation certificate’ after completion.

ECF started in localities with low-income groups in Pune. The boys play games, the facilitator interacts with them to make them feel at ease and he also casually probes to assess if the engagement has changed anything in their perception of a girl/woman’s role in the family and also of a boy/man’s. Like asking: Who does all the work at home? Does the father help her as she also works as housemaid outside?

The style of discourse, quite different from a lecture or in a workshop, is conceived so that the discrepancies in how women and men are treated at home/outside comes to the realisation of the participating boy. In the Bengal outreach programme, many NGOs associated with it work in mixed groups and so girls can be a part of the process too.

Maharani Sikari, a participant in the programme conducted by Rupantaran, an NGO that works in South 24-Parganas, says, “We didn’t know about the danger of early marriage. Now we know and are determined to stop if any such marriage is arranged in our locality.”

Suman from the Sundarbans area is a staunch advocate against child marriage now. Many of the young boys like him from the districts who congregated in Kolkata to share their thoughts and experiences at a session organised by Hummingbird Raise and ECF, said that they now took part in household chores, helped their mothers or had open discussions, even in so-far taboo subjects such as menstruation, after participating in the programme initiated by the NGOs.

Some of the boys taking part in the sensitisation programme become leaders to other boys later after they crossed their teens. But how does ECF know whether there has been any behavioural change in the boys? “We also meet the women in the house to get feedback. Many say that they have seen a marked difference in their attitude. They empathise more with the mother and sister,” says Teredesai.

The ECF team also listens to adolescents. “We learn from them, too, and take note of how we can change our contents accordingly,” says Teredesai. For example, many of the young participants asked why the facilitators were always male. So, now, they are training women for the job as well, women who can be role models for the boys, going beyond the mother image.

Listening and not being judgmental is important, feels Deep Purkayastha of Praajak, a partner NGO. “Boys also go through lots of anxieties; they too are victims of set ideas of machismo. Breaking down those barriers is something we try to do at the sessions.Giving up these ideas imposed by society prove to be liberating for many boys.”

November 2017