India Interior

Disrupting the stereotypes

Usha Rai | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on January 13, 2017

Clothes make the man A garment folding competition for men at the Gender Mela in 24 Parganas, West Bengal

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Gender-bender melas attempt to promote equality

The horrendous incidents of women being sexually assaulted in Bangaluru around New Year should reinforce the thinking among gender rights activists that across the country they need to work more with men and boys to ensure we have a gender just society.

Since 2016, the Centre for Health and Social Justice (CHSJ) has been steering a national campaign, Ek Saath (Together), for men and boys as partners in changing discriminatory social norms. The campaign, with a network of 100 voluntary organisations across 10 states (not in Karnataka, unfortunately), reaches out to 50 lakh people, building partnerships between men and women as well as men with other men.

In a focused way, the campaign addresses gender bias in domestic work, domestic violence, early marriage, unequal educational opportunities for girls, safety for women and girls in public places, and restrictions on their mobility. It is also identifying and training 10,000 male samanta saathis, or partners for equality, so that the programme can grow over the next five years.

In November 2016 a range of events were held in 1,900 villages, 300 towns and 500 educational institutes. In West Bengal’s 24 Parganas, development organisation Parichiti, which since 2000 has been working with women domestic workers and adolescent girls, joined 14 other organisations for the Ek Saath campaign.

Kakuli Deb of Parichiti, along with the others who are leading the campaign in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Assam, was in Delhi recently to present her findings and explore ways to take the campaign forward. There were rallies, workshops, public meetings and meetings in colleges for an inclusive society.

‘Two nations’

As activists of CHSJ point out, “India is divided into two countries — one for men and boys and another for women and girls. In homes, in streets, in colleges and offices... women and girls face rules so different from those for men and boys that it is as though they inhabit separate worlds. Invisible, inflexible lines of control prevent women from enjoying the same citizenship of privileges, freedom and opportunities men have.”

To break these barriers, ‘Gender Melas’ were organised in the slums and small towns of Kolkata. A football goalpost was put up and 18-40 women, some with their saris neatly hitched up for mobility, took turns to shoot the ball into the goalpost. There may have been a few sniggers, but among the cheerleaders were several boys who were giving tips to mothers, sisters and neighbours on how to score goals.

Another game for women was shooting balloons with a gun. Playing with guns has traditionally been a boys’ sport. Now women were given the same guns to shoot a target. There was considerable debate before including this game, which could be seen as ‘violent’, in the mela. However, as a sport it made women realise they were as good as their male counterparts. The same message went out to the public attending the mela.

It was felt that men and boys had a greater role to play in removing man-made boundaries. “We did not tell the boys what games they would play at the gender mela,” says Kakuli. We only announced rewards. So there were tables with rolling pins, atta and cooking ranges. Boys were asked to knead the dough and make rotis. The person who made the most rotis in three minutes was declared winner.

Roll with it, men

There were fewer men than women at the mela. The winner was a labourer who was used to making rotis. He made seven perfectly round ones and had the women and men applauding his prowess. Other games for the men included folding saris, sheets, men’s shirts and trousers, seen as women’s chores.

Kakuli says the campaign showed that men were coming forward but with hesitancy; stereotypes of ‘good women and good men’ are strongly entrenched. Karnataka could well do with the Ek Saath initiative.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

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Published on January 13, 2017
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