On the final day of this year's 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, Nisha Agrawal, Oxfam India’s CEO explains how an inclusive struggle to challenge and change social norms is our hope for gender equality. The entry was posted on 10 December 2015.
The most hopeful and optimistic moment of 2015 for me was when Justin Trudeau, the newly elected Prime Minister of Canada was asked why he had 15 men and 15 women in his Cabinet and his response was “Because it’s 2015”. Short and simple and stunning! And a response that resonated right around the world and brought hope, optimism and applause with it.
Unfortunately, the reality is that it is indeed 2015 but we are still fighting the same old battles that we have been fighting for centuries—how to get a more equal world in which women and girls are as valued as men and boys. And have as much of a chance of leading a life free of violence.
As 16 Days of Activism Campaign makes a global call for zero tolerance on violence against women and girls, I strongly believe that the need of the hour is to engage on challenging social norms that reinforce violence. It is the invisible power of our attitudes, beliefs and practices that we need to challenge and change to shift the power equations.
The reality is very stark. A study by UNFPA-ICRW in India found that approximately 65 per cent men and women justified domestic violence; the same study indicated how 93 per cent men defined a man as the one who is ‘tough’. The study infers that it is rigid notions of masculinity that contribute to men engaging in intimate partner violence. The writing on the wall is clear: we need to challenge these very notions of masculinity, break them down and find positive alternatives for the current norm.
While we see more women challenging and changing the norm, be it within their families or workspaces, it is not enough that only women challenge the norm. It’s time this became an inclusive struggle where men question it too and demonstrate the alternative. We need to create supportive spaces for men to express their emotions and take on roles of nurturers and caretakers.
Abhijit Das and Satish Singh who founded MASVAW (Men’s Action for Stopping Violence Against Women) have captured their 12 years of experience of working with men in a paper titled ‘Changing Men : Challenging Stereotypes. Reflections on Working with Men on Gender Issues in India’. They mention that men who have accepted positive attitudes and practices around gender roles have benefitted immensely, as they tend to have healthier relationships with their families. After an initial period of ridicule, some have gained social prestige in their communities as well.
Such positive examples are not just limited within the development sector but we see a growing acceptance for such efforts also at the policy level. For instance, I read an article a while ago about how Bogota in Columbia, which was considered an unsafe city for women, transformed to be a more inclusive city. The local government started mass campaigns of public awareness, including hiring street mimes to embarrass people indulging in sexist behaviour and handing out football style yellow and red cards. This was accompanied by allocation of spaces for pedestrians, hawkers and paid parking – a ploy to encourage legal compliance and to make public spaces more women friendly. Studies have highlighted that the presence of hawkers in the street have helped in making public spaces safer for women.
The question then is whether such change possible in India where the incidence of violence against women is increasingly visible? The small steps to change and hope begin by engaging with the young, when gender roles and norms have not yet hardened – a time when the young are still exploring their identities. Oxfam India in its 16 Days of Activism Campaign this year is engaging with the young to challenge social norms around gender inequality in their own lives.
It is the young who often remind us that we need to transcend barriers, outgrow traditions and see each other through the prism of humanism and equality. Some of the most incredible campaigns in India like Pink Chaddi and the recent Pinjra Tod that are challenging norms around women’s mobility have come from the youth. It is the young who have the power to be changemakers.
The journey will be incomplete without building bridges and alliances with the women’s rights organisations, private sector, media, powerful voices of influencers and celebrities and many other actors. We value our partnerships with women’s rights organisations through campaigns like One Billion Rising who have paved the way for change. Additionally we welcome the waves of change from the unexpected actors. For instance in the advertising world, advertisements like the recent one from Myntra are challenging gender biased norms around working pregnant women. We also see more celebrities in India and across the globe advocating for gender equality including male celebrities like Farhan Akhtar who has started a social media campaign MARD.
We hope to join hands with such diverse changemakers across different walks of life who are raising their voices to break the silence, challenge the taboo and saying a resounding “No to Violence”. We are surrounded by such changemakers and perhaps you are one too! We invite you to share your stories of change and join us in challenging and changing unequal social norms for a more equal world in 2015 and ahead.
Join Oxfam India's 16 Days of Activism Campaign