Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar
Equal Community Foundation’s singular mission is to help raise every boy in India to be gender-equitable. The Foundation’s flagship program, Action for Equality (Pune), is a gender-transformative programme for boys that has not just made boys agents of feminist change but also provided 50 other organisations with the capacity to follow in ECF’s footsteps.
Action for Equality has been active for 10 years across 20 low-income areas in Pune, where it engages 13-17-year-old boys over a year through a structured curriculum that draws on the work of gender and education giants. The material is contextualised to suit the local community, following which monitoring and evaluation tools capture its impact on the boys and the society.
Action for Equality – Ground Rules
The programme has a few firm cornerstones and principles. It believes that men and boys are not born violent and discriminatory but may be socialised into being so. It also believes that not all men may be a part of the problem but all men can be part of the solution. It trusts that men are capable of change – and want to change. It positions men as allies and not heroes or champions. It uses a participatory and not a saviour approach where participants bring their own opinions, beliefs and experiences to the table thus creating opportunities for reflection. It keeps everyone’s needs in mind instead of pushing its own agenda, and constantly asks itself, “How do these boys want to be better people and how can we aid that?”
The programme also makes sure to provide a judgment-free safe space where the boys can unpack any thoughts and experiences. It builds and uses materials geared toward gender transformation in order to help participants identify, challenge and change gender norms. In this way, it complements other (more prolific) gender work done with women and girls. Its “theory of change” is that if boys are equipped with human and gender rights knowledge, critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills, then they can reflect on and change their own attitudes and behaviours and perhaps even influence change within their family, peer groups and communities.
But how do you change boys?
A major question that arose amongst the audience was ”How does the programme get boys to sign up?”
Programme associates look diligently for participants by visiting shops, community spaces, Anganwadis etc and then make trips to the boys’ homes to get consent. This part is tricky since they have to explain the full programme to the parents and get them on board. More often than not, there is backlash; parents argue that such “extracurriculars” are not as important as their boys’ education. Fathers often show reluctance when they discover their sons will learn to share in household responsibilities. But steady and consistent home visits and discussions eventually help overcome this stigma. The boys themselves influence their fathers to change. So while many fathers are unsupportive in the beginning, they begin to take more initiative later on.
Another question that arises is “How does the programme communicate with boys about gender?”
Action for Equality takes complex concepts and simplifies them into easily digestible parts. In the talk, Christina gives two examples of this “known-to-unknown” teaching methodology.
In the first, boys learn the concept of human rights through a simple activity where they write down and draw basic rights they think everyone deserves to have. They are asked about which ones they are allowed to practice and which ones they are denied. By digging deeper and deeper, they eventually get to those whose rights are violated more. They also understand determinants such as lack of money or education, discrimination on the basis of caste, class, religion, and gender, and finally connect these concepts to their sisters’, mothers’ and peers’ experiences – where girls they know are pulled out of school or where they see their mothers are victims of violence.
In the second example, Christina illustrates a simple drawing activity through which the boys are taught to distinguish between sex and gender. They learn that there is nothing in their biology that prevents them from cooking and likewise, girls don’t have anything in their biology that should keep them from education.
The outcomes of these activities are measured both qualitatively and quantitatively. Within the first few weeks, the boys start sharing household responsibilities. Later on, some boys take it a notch further and become agents of change in their community; some participants exceeded expectations when they challenged menstrual taboos, challenged child marriages, and conducted street plays to raise awareness.
Action for Equality also conducts a Gender Attitude Survey (based on the Gender Equality Male Scale (GEMS)) with questions on three scenarios; Scenario 1: “Violence and Intolerance,” Scenario 2: “Manhood and Masculinity,” and Scenario 3: “Gender Roles and Responsibilities” to monitor outcomes. The responses are coded and categorised as “inequitable,” “less equitable,” “moderately equitable,” and – the very rare due to the programme’s high standards – “equitable.” Usually, it is noticed that the boys are able to identify gender issues but unaware of how to challenge them. Their attitudes shift easily with regard to Scenario 3 but Scenarios 1 and 2 take longer to be transformed.
Christina Furtado’s talk on the Equal Community Foundation’s work was eye-opening. Most work that happens for gender equitability happens with women and girls – Action for Equality is changing that narrative by doing work that is visibly changing the next generation of men, and breaking new ground on gender equitability.