By Ravi Verma
For years, initiatives aimed at improving the lives of women and girls have focused solely on women and girls. Men, for the most part, were seen as an external entity. In recent years, the global development community has come to recognize that whether men and boys act for or against gender equality, they are active participants and their involvement is inevitable – and critical.
The International Center for Research on Women has been at the forefront of efforts to raise awareness of the importance of engaging men and boys to transform unequal and harmful social norms that undermine the well-being of women and girls, as well as men and boys themselves. In Southern Asia, we’ve also put theory to practice by working with men and boys through two innovative programs, one school-based and the other grounded in sports, to foster greater gender-equitable attitudes and as a result, healthier behaviors.
We have ample evidence that reveals that we cannot achieve gender equality unless we involve men and boys as agents of change for their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters. Evidence also reveals that to build gender-equitable norms, we must reach boys at a young age, well before their norms – their ideas, their attitudes – are set and ingrained. But how do we effectively engage men and boys where harmful gender norms that perpetuate violence and discrimination against women and girls are pervasive?
This is what we will be discussing at the second MenEngage Global Symposium taking place this week in New Delhi, India, where leading development experts from around the world are gathering to discuss ways to engage men and boys to end violence against women and build harmonious gender relations for prosperous communities and societies. My colleagues and I are participating in various panels during the symposium, and on November 10, I will be highlighting a new ICRW study, which looks at men’s attitudes and practices around gender inequality, son preference and intimate partner violence. The report, “Masculinity, Intimate Partner Violence and Son Preference in India,” was undertaken in partnership with UNFPA, and aimed to understand how varying forms of masculinity affect men’s desire for sons and their perpetration of violence against their intimate partners.
A year ago, we released the preliminary findings of this study. Since then we conducted further research and comprehensive analysis of the data which was collected in seven Indian states – Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh – based on interviews with more than nine thousand men and over three thousand women ages 18-49.
What we found is that in India, rigid forms of masculinity where men exhibit controlling behaviors and inequitable gender attitudes, strongly determines their preference of sons over daughters as well as their tendency to perpetuate violence against an intimate partner. The data puts a spotlight on the high prevalence of intimate partner violence – 52 percent of the women surveyed reported that they had experienced some form of violence during their lifetime and 60 percent of men stated that they had acted violently against their wife/partner at some point in their lives. While men who perpetuated violence were diverse in age, place of residence, and educational status, overall, educated men and women who were over the age of 35 were less likely to perpetuate or experience violence.
Data also suggests that men who experience economic stress were more likely to have perpetuated violence. Norms related to masculinity can threaten men’s belief in their own abilities as primary economic providers for their households, which leads them to be more controlling and violent toward their partners. Correspondingly, where education and economic status were increasing, men were less likely to exercise control over their partners and more likely to respect equitable norms. Education and economic status not only eases pressure for men to conform to the dominant ideology of masculinity; it also empowers women to be more resistant to husbands control over her.
The study emphasizes that men’s controlling behavior and gender inequitable views strongly determine men’s preference for sons over daughters and their tendency for perpetuating violence against their intimate partner. The findings also strengthen the evidence base that childhood experiences of violence and discrimination have a strong impact on adult men and women’s attitudes and behaviors with regard to masculinity and control.
The findings underscore that men and boys must be involved in any discussion about advancing gender equality. To eliminate intimate partner violence and son preference, it is critical that we develop national policies and programs that promote dialogue between women and girls as well as men and boys to shift harmful gender norms that perpetuate violence and discrimination.
We need a holistic approach to tackling violence and deeply ingrained harmful norms. It is imperative that we reach boys at the early stages of childhood to teach them healthy and non-violent forms of masculinity while their identities are being formed. We must enhance access to quality education and ensure that the promotion of gender equality is part of educational curriculum.
And finally, we must continue to invest in research that helps us find what works and what does not in eliminating violence and shifting unhealthy norms. It is essential that we bring men, boys and women and girls together to create a space where we can reflect on the construction of gender, challenge norms, and work together to achieve gender equality.