The Second Global Symposium hosted by MenEngage in Delhi was one of the most timely and engaging events I've attended this year. The Symposium opened widening the discourse on women's empowerment by discussing ways to engage men and boys in the achievement of gender equality, to create a more equitable, caring, and non-violent society. The setting for this event in Delhi was especially welcome, given India's longstanding history of violence against women. In India, patriarchy and systematic impunity for rapists has left women feeling unsafe in public spaces. Nearly two years after the gang rape of a 23 year old University student in Delhi, 95% of women continue to feel unsafe in public spaces and on public transport. This has had dramatic consequences for women: many have dropped out of school, rejected placement offers, and quit their jobs because they feel unsafe traveling long distances.
One of the first sessions I attended was entitled, “Working with Children and Young People for Gender Equality by Preventing Violence and Transforming Masculinities.” The panel was chaired by representatives from Save the Children, UNFPA, Promundo, and various other community based organizations. The session introduced the idea that young men around the world need gender-transformative interventions to break out of systemic violence. Crucially, this discussion viewed the harmful effects of gender inequality from a male perspective. Dickens Ojamuge, a representative of Save the Children, talked extensively about a mentoring program for young fathers operating in Northern Uganda. He pointed out that many young children born in areas of conflict have never experienced a world absent of violence. Since the communities in Northern Uganda are still recovering from war, boys who were born into refugee camps know little to nothing about the experiences of a normal childhood free from the scourge of violence. This kind of continuous exposure to high thresholds of violence often permeates into their relationships later on in life, with their families, and with their partners.
The issue seemed to be that young men who are born in war-torn regions are often survival oriented, probably as a result of challenges that they’ve had to overcome to sustain their livelihoods. Some of the issues haunting these men are alcoholism, pressure to support their families, and a lack of support for mental health problems such as depression. Ojamuge said that after these young men overcame these initial challenges, they found a positive change in their contributions and actions towards their families. He urged approaching the issue of gendered violence not as an inevitability, but as a symptom of society that could be fixed with skills training and information. To encourage men to handle conflict with their partners in a nonviolent manner he has, for example, introduced the concept of a “yellow card”. Either individual in a relationship can hold up the card when they want to avoid conflict and have a discussion.
Implementing these ideas has had obvious and immediate repercussions. For instance, more young fathers begin to express affection for their children, take responsibility for them, and cease to commit intimate partner violence, alcohol abuse, and other physical violence in households.
Though the ideas were innovative, it was the stories that stood out. One of the most powerful testimonies came from Robiul Islam, who works as a Community facilitator for Save the Children’s program in Bangladesh. Speaking in Bangla, he described his own experiences growing up in a poor household in Rajshahi, a village near the Bangladesh-India border. Until 2010, he had been routinely involved in harassing women on the street, substance abuse, petty theft, and the perpetration of violence. It was only when he joined the local program called Allies for Change in 2011 that he began to change his behaviors. He received skills training from Allies for Change on gender issues (e.g. masculinity and aggression). He now works as a focal point for sustainable action to empower women, and galvanize public support to eliminate sexual and gender based violence.
The Symposium also highlighted different initiatives, such as those that work through recreational sports in places like Hebron (Palestine) and El Salvador. These are areas where young girls and boys seldom have a chance to experience childhood together (engage in gender socialization), causing an otherness that can lead to the ability to commit violence with less care. Promundo, a civic organization based in Brazil, stressed the need for gender-transformative approaches and de-mystifying masculinities.
In the afternoon another series of sessions began, called “Beyond the Gender Binary: Working with Gender and Sexualities”. Chaired by prominent activists from the LGBT community this was an opportunity for the audience to question their own biases. The panel, manned by Akshay Khanna, Zethu Matebani, Chayanika Shah and Reshma Prasad, talked about the political and social discourse in the media around the identities of “gay, lesbian or transgender”. A few of the questions that the panel raised were indeed interesting: Is it possible to interrogate the way we have all been looking at the ideology of gender? To look at homosexuality as simply a “form of sexuality” instead of an identity? These are tough questions people seldom ask in a society that pushes nonconformist communities, like LGBT communities, to the fringe - depriving them of comprehensive access to rights as citizens. Matebani talked about the possibility of gender ambiguity, a way of eluding gender norms that can result in violent outbursts from communities. He showed the audience a short video of the life of a Black lesbian woman in South Africa as an illustration of this. Also discussed was the importance of education and policy interventions for youth and children starting school, and the possible introduction of a fluid gender narrative in school texts.
Walking away from the conference the main idea was that violence exists, but men and women experience and respond to violence differently. There is an urgent need for all of us to challenge perspectives on gender in the media and learn about how they are constructed. Certainly, there will be challenges, but the questions are too important not to ask.
I have no doubt that this event has properly framed the conversation. I hope to see continued solidarity between men and women on the issue of gender inequality and the elimination of violence against women. Gender inequality is inextricably linked to the perpetration of sexual violence, so if we are to end the use of rape in war we must sustain this momentum for the achievement of gender equality.
Youth Ambassador for India on Sexual Violence in Conflict