The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) is helping to reduce violence against women in India by working with men and boys through its innovative "Parivartan" program.
MUMBAI, India – Two young men stand before their peers on a veranda that faces lush greenery and, in the distance, the sea. They play out a scene in which one of them sweet-talks the other – who acts as a girl – for a kiss.
She’s not interested.
The audience, a group of Indian men ages 18 to 35, watches while sitting barefoot on a thin purple rug under a sloping corrugated tin roof. They raucously egg on the suitor with suggestions of how to woo the girl and verbally nudge her on how she should respond. An instructor eventually uses the theater to spark a discussion about respect, saying that when a girl says no or doesn’t respond, it doesn’t mean yes – a common misperception here. He later stresses that there is no excuse for pressure, intimidation or abuse in any relationship.
It’s a lesson that will transfer to a place that means more to these young men than any role-playing exercise: the cricket field.
The men – in a training workshop on this Sunday afternoon, more than an hour’s drive from their homes – are part of the International Center for Research on Women’s (ICRW) “Parivartan” program. Parivartan, which means “change for the better,” helps boys and young men see women and girls as equals, and treat them with respect. The program draws in its participants by using the popular sport of cricket to teach a real-life lesson: Aggressive, violent behavior doesn’t make them “real men” – nor does it help win cricket matches.
Launched in March and modeled in part after the U.S.-based Family Violence Prevention Fund's "Coaching Boys Into Men" program, Parivartan reflects a growing recognition that efforts to advance gender equality and reduce violence against women must involve men and boys. Parivartan essentially challenges them to question traditional notions of manhood that are present in many societies, including India.
The impact of these norms plays out in several ways here: Many parents deny their daughters an education in favor of marriage. Men often believe it is within their right to physically or verbally abuse their wives if, for instance, dinner isn’t prepared properly. Some husbands feel entitled to dictate the length of their wives’ hair, the clothing they wear and how much makeup they use. And it’s a society in which some brothers feel that only their sisters must handle household chores, and where sexually harassing women on the street is treated almost like an acceptable boys’ sport.
Oftentimes, men’s respect for women is only reserved for their mothers and sisters, says New Delhi-based Madhumita Das, ICRW’s senior technical specialist who manages the Parivartan program.
“In most cases, respecting women and girls turns out to be controlling them. Restricting women’s and girls’ movement is seen as taking care of them, safe-guarding them from harm and protecting their bodies,” Das says. “Men exercise this power often and see it as their right. And it’s true across every class and education category; the difference is just in its magnitude and visibility.”
ICRW hopes to change that through Parivartan.
With its partners, ICRW recruited professional coaches from Mumbai middle schools and 16 “informal coaches” – known as mentors – from a slum community. Both groups are trained to recognize “teachable moments” on the cricket field to address respect and non-violence. Coaches already are applying Parivartan principles with their teams; mentors will begin in June. They all work with teams of boys ages 10 to 16.
“We want to encourage them to adopt different values about what it means to be men,” Das says. “We do that by exploring notions about gender roles, masculinity and relationships in a space where they feel comfortable sharing their perspectives.”
This is true not only for the young cricket players, but the adult mentors, too. The program already is making an impact on their lives.
Most mentors are senior players or captains on cricket teams from a slum called Shivaji Nagar. Located in an eastern suburb of Mumbai, it’s a community of about 600,000, where many men work as carpenters and embroiders. Residents are mostly Muslim migrant families who live in homes measuring about 10 by 15 feet, which are accessed by narrow lanes that weave through the slum. Their backyard is Mumbai’s largest dumping ground.
The community is a colorful labyrinth of life’s daily rhythms: the scratch-scratch of women washing clothes with brushes in their doorways, the din of crying babies and playing children, the chanting call to prayer that echoes from a loud speaker five times a day, and the never-ending bustle of shopkeepers selling goods, barbers giving shaves and vendors hustling sales from their carts stacked with mangoes or papayas.
And cricket is omnipresent in Shivaji Nagar. Boys play the game wherever and whenever possible, often barefoot or in sandals. For Parivartan mentors, it is their passion.
Leena Joshi has known most of these mentors since they were children. She heads up Apnalaya, a nonprofit that has worked since 1972 in Shivaji Nagar and is one of ICRW’s primary partners in the Parivartan program.
She believes the effort is timely – if not overdue.
“We have all worked – NGOs, governments – on women's issues very specifically," Joshi says, "and I think in the whole process, the men have been left behind."
Now, a group of men are being brought to the table through Parivartan. They face the challenge of learning a new way to view women, as well as their roles as men. And as they try to practice these ideals in their own lives, they must learn how to maneuver the pressure of strong social messages that say otherwise. Then, the mentors must figure out how to pass on the lessons of Parivartan to their cricket players.
At the workshop, Joshi and her Apnalaya colleagues tell the mentors that what they’re learning won’t be judged by a written test, as is the case in school. Instead, what matters is their behavior both on and off the cricket field.
“How you internalize what you learn in your own life is an examination for you,” Joshi tells them as they look at her in silence. “It is a test for you.”
Many mentors say they already feel a transformation taking place within themselves. Because of the program, they say they are treating women and girls – and their male peers – with more respect. They’re trying to handle conflicts without using fists or harsh words. And they’re gaining the confidence to intervene when they see others mistreating women.
Nasir Shaikh is one of them.
The serious-looking 32-year-old says that his lens has changed because of the issues that Parivartan raises. He now realizes the “many ways in which women suffer” and how men often are given more opportunities. A father of two girls, Shaikh says he’s realized that women “also are human beings” – they, too, feel pain when disrespected, have desires to pursue their own interests and the right to express their opinions.
For another mentor, Rajesh Jadhav, Parivartan has given him a place to understand how to address the differences he says he always noticed between women and men.
“Through the program, I’ve learned how to be polite, how to talk, how to be respectful to girls and women,” says 20-year-old Jadhav, who leads a cricket team called the New Generation Sports Club. “I’ve learned that controlling is not a way to love a girl, but (the way to love) is to give her space in her life.”
“I’m feeling very excited,” he says of soon teaching the concepts of Parivartan to his players. “But I’m also nervous too, because I want to do well with my kids.”
Gillian Gaynair is ICRW's writer/editor.
Photos: © David Synder/ICRW