Case study

Case study: Men as key stakeholders in gender equity

Author: Sapna Kedia
Published by: ALIGN
Young India men in a classroom. @ICRW Asia

A gender-transformative approach

The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) works on various programmes and studies to engage young men and boys using a gender-transformative approach.  Our programmes seek to transform gender norms by understanding what drives them and figuring out ways to challenge or adapt them, to create conditions for greater gender equity for girls and women, boys and men. ICRW believes that working with men and boys is vital for the achievement of such equity.

Our work on men and boys has a solid foundation on evidence-based research. This has helped us identify the rationale to work with men and nuanced ways to do so. For example, our very first study on domestic violence in India 2001-2002 focused on masculinities and the ways in which various constructions of masculinities express themselves in different settings. Similarly, as part of the global International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES), we studied harmful norms of masculinities and explored linkages between, for example, childhood exposure to violence and subsequent perpetration, and between rigid masculinities and son-preference and intimate partner violence in India. Evidence from these studies has been used to develop our programmes with men and boys.

ICRW’s interventions with men and boys began by focusing on gender-based violence (GBV). Our flagship programmes around this issue have been the Gender Equity Movement in Schools (GEMS) in Mumbai and Jharkhand, India and Parivartan Boys in Mumbai, India. GEMS and Parivartan operated in different settings. GEMS is modelled on the Population Council’s Yaari Dosti Program, which was a contextual adaptation of Program H by Promundo. While GEMS was a curriculum-based school programme and worked both with adolescent girls and boys, Parivartan was a sports-based community programme with a focus on young men and boys and coaches.

At the core of these programmes was a determination to help young boys and men deconstruct and challenge the concept of what it means to be ‘real men’. At the same time, ICRW has used these programmes to create ‘buy in’ from patriarchal and masculine structures within education and sports for our on gender equity. We have also negotiated with our partners who work primarily on girls’ issues, to include components on men and boys in their work.

One key strategy in our programmes has been to combine work on men and masculinities with that of the empowerment of girls and women. This stems largely from ICRW’s experience of having worked in communities with women and girls, where we were often asked why we were not working with men. Parents, teachers and community members have often expressed a need and demand for work with men and boys because their contribution is seen as vital to address gender inequities. Drawing on the lessons learned, some of our recent programmes for adolescent girls, such as Plan-It Girls (school-based) in New Delhi and Jharkhand and Pankh (a sports based community programme) in Rajasthan have components on men and boys.

Work with boys from an early age

During the course of our programmes, we learned that it is crucial to begin to work with boys at a young age, because their attitudes are already formed by the time they are 14-15 years of age and it is more challenging to encourage them to examine these – and the gender norms that they value – with a critical eye. Younger boys are more willing to engage and more receptive to the questioning of norms. In the Parivartan programme, for example, it was easier to work with younger boys than with the older coaches.

Build in crucial points in programmes where girls and boys can engage

We have had a mixed experience in terms of how girls and boys interact within a programme. It has sometimes been effective to segregate them around some topics such as sexuality and then bring them together for common sessions. This mix of separate and joint sessions often works.

We have had to adapt as programmes have progressed and comfort levels have developed. During the course of programmes, we have created specific content around masculinity and built spaces that allow for a deep dive into the content with men and boys, including crucial points where they can engage with women and girls. The creation of such dedicated spaces is important to ensure that boys and men open up and are able to examine their own thoughts and feelings.

Start conversations around privilege and power

While working with boys and men, it is important to create dissonance and challenge their exercise of power and privilege. This has been extremely difficult, because it creates discomfort. Boys and men are willing to talk about violence, but when it comes to examining the privileges and gender norms that give them a sense of entitlement to inflict violence, they often become uncomfortable. Breaking through this discomfort has been a challenge.

One key observation during our work with men and boys has been to understand the power hierarchies between them and how they struggle to fit into the expected mould of ‘being strong and earning well’.  Those who do not fit into this mould often face a backlash for not being ‘man enough’.  As a result, it is difficult to increase men’s acceptance of alternative ways of behaviour.

During discussion, boys and men often highlight structural issues in their environment that prevent them from challenging patriarchy. They often talk about how the lack of safety and the high risk of violence in their community prevents them from supporting the mobility of their female family members and friends. What has worked is to ensure that such discussions are non-confrontational, and that they allow men to reflect on and examine their own attitudes so that they can develop solutions and ways of doing things differently. Here, it is important to look at the eco-system in which men and boys live. Well-trained male facilitators and resource persons are also crucial during this process. Through our programmes, we have been able to develop a network to train men and boys and develop responses to some of the arguments often used by men and boys to defend their privilege.

Keep the focus on boys and men

It has been challenging to engage boys and men on gender issues in our programmes, because they often consider this as an issue for girls or women only. Separate sessions with boys and men have helped to position gender as an issue that also affects their daily lives. Men and boys taking part in the programmes start to feel that they are doing something good for ‘girls and for women’, rather than themselves, so it is important to constantly bring the focus back to them – and this does not come naturally. It takes effort.

Masculinity is also linked in complex ways to sexuality and it can be very challenging to deconstruct this link and deal with the resultant discomfort. Our programmes have made young men and boys examine their own views and feelings, but we haven’t been able to break into the core of why men and boys hold certain thoughts around sexuality. As a result, therefore, we have been able to influence attitudes, but this has not necessarily translated into changes in behaviour.

Did our programmes create gender-equitable men? We do not know. Yes, there was a reduction in violence, but we do not know how this manifested over time. Gender transformation is a long-term and time-consuming process. Given the short-term nature of programmes and lack of funding for long-term impact evaluations, one limitation has been the inability to measure the longer-term impact of our work with men and boys.

Build the capacity of local partners

The process of working with men and boys has taught us the importance of building the capacity of our local partners. If an investment is made to strengthen the capacity of local partners working on the issue, the chances of programmes being scaled up and having a sustainable impact become higher. We worked with a local partner in Parivartan, which then designed and scaled up its own programmes on gender norms in the community. ICRW has influenced grassroots partner organizations to adopt a gender perspective into their programmes, not as standalone components, but as a concept that needs to be woven into their approaches at various points.

Create change agents

As a result of its programmes, ICRW has been able to leave a legacy of shared discussions on gender equity in communities. Our programmes have also left behind a few change agents: leaders who define their own trajectories that are often a little confused or contradictory, but that are filled with a sense of constant questioning. We have been able to create shifts in individual perspectives around household chores, intimate behaviour, violence and mutual respect.  We have also left behind the message that boys are privileged and powerful and that they must manage this power responsibly.

An evaluation of the GEMS programme in Mumbai found that students who participated demonstrated a positive shift in attitudes towards gender equality. GEMS has gained universal appeal and has been adapted to various contexts in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Viet Nam and elsewhere.

Evaluate the impact on the lives of boys and men

When young adult men participate in programmes that deconstruct masculinity, it creates conflict within themselves, their family, their community and their work. It is important, therefore, to build in follow-up to programmes. This keeps the conversation going and helps us to identify and understand any changes over a period of time in the lives of these young men and boys. Because ICRW’s work with men and boys has been a part of larger programmes with girls and women, we have not been able to capture the impact of our work on the lives of men and boys adequately, or to rigorously evaluate this work to test the effectiveness of our strategies. We have generated many perspectives on how best to work with boys and men, but have been unable to translate these perspectives into long-term programme strategies and outputs.

Create dedicated spaces to work with men and boys

At ICRW we have struggled with the adoption of an instrumentalist approach to working with men and boys. There is much debate about working with men and boys for their sake or because gender equity for women and girls will never be achieved unless we engage with the men and boys who currently exercise power and privilege in society. There has also been an echo of the larger discomfort about working with men and boys and the need to make it accountable to the needs of women and girls.

There is consensus however, on the need to engage with men and boys, the need for this to be adequately resourced and to create dedicated spaces where work with boys and men can happen. We recognise that it is too risky to not work with men. Moving ahead, we would like to absorb all the lessons we have learned and develop strategies for dedicated long-term programming with men and boys, with clearly defined outcomes and in-built evaluation techniques that can capture changes over time.