Gender Equality: Indian Men’s Attitudes Complex

Article Date

11 January 2011

Article Author

By Gillian Gaynair

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Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Traditional norms about the role of men and women in society have not adapted to keep pace with India’s rapid economic growth and rise in opportunities for women, according to a new report by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).

Based on a select sampling of respondents, initial findings from ICRW’s International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) in India reflect the complex and at times contradictory nature of many Indian men’s attitudes about gender equality. Their behaviors mirror the contrasts that define India’s swiftly transforming society, one that at once is becoming a major player in the global economy, while also remaining home to high rates of poverty, child marriage and HIV.

For instance, researchers found that even though many Indian men support policies that promote equal opportunities for women, they also feel that they lose out if women are afforded more rights. And while they are aware of laws against violence against women, this knowledge does not always coincide with their values: 65 percent of Indian men surveyed said they believe there are times that women deserve to be beaten.

“While this data represents only a small sample of the vast Indian population, it provides a much needed look into men’s attitudes and behaviors around gender issues,” said Ravi Verma, director of ICRW’s Asia Regional Office and an author of the report. “It’s imperative that we now gather this type of data on a regular basis and from a representative sample across India to help us monitor how men perceive efforts aimed at empowering women.”

Verma added that programs and policies that, for example, strive to economically strengthen Indian women or reduce their HIV risk, have to involve men to be effective.

Patriarchal attitudes

For the three-year IMAGES study, ICRW researchers interviewed Indian men and women ages 18 to 59 about their intimate relationships, health practices, parenting, sexual behavior and use of violence. The survey was carried out among 1,037 men and 313 women in New Delhi, and 497 men and 208 women in Vijayawada, in the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh. The sites were chosen because of their geographic diversity and because they already had efforts underway to involve men in work that promotes gender equality.

IMAGES was also conducted in Brazil, Chile, Croatia, Mexico and Rwanda. ICRW will release the full report of initial results on Jan. 26 in Washington, D.C.

In the case of India, initial findings show that Indian men were among the least supportive of equitable relationships and roles between men and women. Researchers applied the Gender-Equitable Men Scale for the results, which measures men’s attitudes about societal messages that dictate expected behavior for men and women. Among the findings, 80 percent of men surveyed agreed that changing diapers, bathing and feeding children are a mother’s responsibility. And while nearly half of the men in all IMAGES countries said that they play an equal or greater part in one or more household duties, India was the exception: only 16 percent of Indian men said that they had a role in domestic matters such as washing clothes, preparing food or cleaning the house.

“Throughout India, social norms and practices are mostly governed by patriarchal ideologies that define the roles of men and women,” said Ajay Singh, an ICRW technical specialist and an author of the report.  “Men are confined to it, and it’s reflected in their attitudes and behaviors. And these views are playing out alongside increasingly reshaped roles for women in society.”

Although many Indians adhere to strict notions about men’s and women’s roles in society, the country is nonetheless home to some of the world’s most progressive affirmative action policies. Long-standing reservations guarantee a proportion of university admissions and government posts to members of scheduled castes and tribes. Meanwhile, legislation recently passed by legislators seeks to add reserved spaces for women in parliament to their already guaranteed places in “gram panchayats,” or town councils.

But ICRW found that the existence of these laws doesn’t necessarily reflect an overall endorsement of women’s rights. Initial IMAGES results show that while upwards of 74 percent of Indian men supported quotas for women in executive positions, university enrollment or government, only 47 percent of them supported gender equality overall.

“This finding moves against the global trend, but India’s case is unique because of its long-standing reservation policies. Men in India approve of the quota systems they see around them, but simultaneously hold the attitude that ‘men lose out when women’s right are promoted,’” said Brian Heilman, a program associate at ICRW and an author of IMAGES. “This points to the need to disseminate more widely the evidence – prevalent in IMAGES and elsewhere – that gender equality in public and private spaces benefits women and men alike.”

Violence against women, prostitution

Men’s attitudes about violence against women showed similar contradictions. Indian men said they were increasingly aware of legislation against gender-based violence, including India’s domestic violence law, which passed in 2005. However, as was the case in other IMAGES countries, Indian men’s awareness of and attitudes about domestic violence laws did not coincide with a decrease in their use of intimate partner violence.

“It seems that men acknowledge an overall cultural change happening around gender-based violence,” Singh said, “but have not yet internalized this change into their personal behaviors.”

Indian men who participated in IMAGES also stood out for their experiences with transactional sex. Researchers asked men in all countries whether they had ever paid for sex and, if so, whether they thought the sex worker was under 18 or trafficked. The question was included in the interview to learn more about social expectations globally about men’s sexuality – expectations that generally encourage men to engage in sex for sale.

In India, nearly one-quarter of men surveyed reported having sex with a sex worker. Out of this group, almost half believed that at least one sex worker they had had sex with was younger than 18 years old. Thirty-four percent of the same men believed that a sex worker with whom they had had sex was forced or sold into prostitution – results that dwarf those from other IMAGES study countries.

Men’s responses also reflected conflicting views on sex work. Between 65 and 91 percent of Indian men surveyed said they believed it was a woman’s choice to be a sex worker. At the same time, upwards of 84 percent of respondents said they thought sex work was morally wrong.

“This is the first time that a population-based survey has provided a robust estimate of the demands for transactional sex in India,” Verma said. “We think this initial data will be especially useful for HIV prevention programs, however, we need a deeper analysis to better understand the concentration and nature of the demands.”

Overall, ICRW experts in India stressed that it’s essential to conduct a more nuanced analysis of the IMAGES results, which for now only provide a snapshot – albeit a needed one, they say – of what men think and do about gender equality. “What became abundantly clear through IMAGES is that men have conflicting attitudes about women’s – and their – roles in society,” Singh said. “Their views change depending on the context and situation with which they’re presented, and this is something we’d like to further explore.”

In the meantime, ICRW researchers say they hope the IMAGES report on India can serve as an important guide for policymakers and program implementers who address gender equality issues.

* Next week: A look at IMAGES data on men and work-related stress.

Gillian Gaynair is ICRW’s writer/editor.

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that Vijayawada is in the state of Tamil Nadu. Vijayawada is located in the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh. The same information is incorrect in the IMAGES report. ICRW has issued an errata to be included in the publication.