In India we have almost become indifferent to reading about crimes against women. For decades now the daily news has contained stories of rape & brutality against women. The authorities seem to be stirred into life only if a middle class woman is raped and then murdered. Given the scale of the issue and given the paucity of resources of the Indian state it would be a miracle of the Indian state is able to do anything to reverse this grim trend. Relief, if it comes, will have to come from social change and social reform. In this context, this story from the BBC points to an encouraging trend: “Omkar is one of more than 5,000 boys in Pune, India to participate in a programme called Action for Equality (AFE). Launched by the Equal Community Foundation (ECF) in 2011, the AFE programme is seeking to fight violence against women – with teenaged boys.”
Why does Action for Equality focus on this specific group – teenage boys? “Battling for gender equality is like fighting the current of a rushing river, says Christina Furtado, executive director of ECF. “We’ve been telling [women], ‘It’s very important for you to fight for your rights.’ We’ve managed to pull a few women out and put them on a life raft,” she says.
But when solutions focus solely on women, “what you’re not doing is not changing the flow of the current,” she says. “Because at the end of the day, educated and empowered women will go home with violent and abusive men.”
This is why programmes like this have such an important role to play. Even so, conservative Pune, India may seem an especially unlikely place to launch a grassroots campaign for gender equality, let alone a place where teenage boys would lead the charge. In low-income, traditional communities like this one, both boys and girls often are bound by old-fashioned customs that dictate that housework is women’s work – and that men can sexually, verbally, and physically abuse women without consequence.
In AFE, boys aged 13 to 17 spend 43 weeks studying education curricula designed to teach them about gender-based violence, disrupt gender norms, and make their communities more equitable and safer for women and girls.”
So how does the program work and is it scalable? “The programme’s facilitators are people who teenage boys tend to look up to: young men in their 20s. ECF requires participants to attend 60% of sessions and to complete a capstone “action project” – a community solution that they then implement. About 80% of participants graduate.
Eighteen-year-old Akshay initially joined the AFE programme in 2014 as a volunteer to conduct the sessions. He later enrolled in it himself, along with his two brothers. Since he graduated from the programme, he says, he has become a role model for other boys in the community…But both Omkar and Kanta [his mother], equipped with the knowledge to spot signs of sexual harassment and violence, feel empowered to report incidents to police and community leaders. Omkar notes that teenage girls trust him because they know his ECF experience means he has the education and the compassion to help them when they feel unsafe…
Omkar is already passing his knowledge on to the younger generation. With a male friend, he coaches 10 boys who are too young to join the AFE programme in gender equality concepts – teaching them not to catcall girls, to help out around the house, and to speak up if they see men being abusive.
“We want to encourage the boys to take initiative and we are there to support them and everything that they do,” says Suhasini Mukherjee, programme associate at ECF.””
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