Rigid masculine beliefs and patriarchy lie at the heart of discrimination in India

Article Date

14 April 2015

Article Author

Ravi Verma

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

This blog first appeared in Girls Count’s quarterly newsletter.

A recent study from a UNFPA/International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) has highlighted that six in ten men admitted to violence towards their spouses or partners. This eye-opening data indeed is helping to shine a light on the grim reality that many women in India face, both in public spaces and even within their own homes, but in conveying these numbers, many may miss what truly lies at the heart of the matter: That harmful, deeply held beliefs about what it means “to be a man” has led to gender discrimination of all forms, including unequal sex ratios, and in effect, the high prevalence of violence against women.

The reason we embarked on this study, was to take a look at the seven states — Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra — where the level of child sex ratio – in other words, the number of girls born alive per 1,000 boys born alive – is cause for concern. In the study, masculinity was measured by two factors: How controlling men are, or believe they’re entitled to be, toward women and the beliefs they hold about the equality of men and women. For example, three-fourths of men surveyed (75 percent) expected their partner to agree if they wanted to have sex and more than half (50 percent) didn’t expect their partners to use contraceptives without their permission. A substantial number of men (66%) agreed to the statement that “I have more say than she does on important decisions that affect us”. Overall, we found that 45 percent of the men were moderate in the degree to which they exercised control in their intimate relationships and in their beliefs about gender equality. Nearly one-third of the men (32 percent) demonstrated a more rigid masculinity, in that they were extremely controlling over women and also believed that women and men are inherently unequal. Only 23 percent of the men were equitable in behavior and attitudes towards women in total sample. The degree to which men expressed their rigid masculine attitudes and behavior varied from one state to another.

Overall, however the study confirmed that more rigidly held their beliefs, including controlling what women wear, who they speak to, and whether or not women work, as well as the belief that men are superior to women, lead men to perpetrate violence against intimate partners and prefer sons and dis-prefer daughters, at a significantly higher level. Conversely, gender equitable men preferred both sons and daughters equally and were less violent towards their partner.

While myriad factors lead to violence against women and other forms of discrimination, what is definitively and irrevocably true is what our study reiterates: Strongly held masculine ideas are dictated by long-held and widely understood structural norms around what is expected of men in order to be a “real man” in a strong patriarchal society like India. The study further confirmed that dispossessed and economically stressed men and men with a troubled childhood and exposure to violence are far more violent than their counterparts, have much stronger preference for sons and hold a dis-preference for daughters. These men find themselves inadequate in meeting societal expectations to be effective providers and protectors. As a result, they become increasingly violent and discriminatory.

So where do we go from here? Sex-selection and the resulting decline in the numbers of daughters, with corresponding increasing numbers of sons have serious consequences in communities, which manifest in different forms. One such form is violence against women. This is important not only to document the magnitude of the problems of declining sex-ratios and intimate partner violence in quantitative terms, but to address underlying causes and consequences that result from the ripple effects of aggressive masculine ideology.

Evidence tells us that it is simply not enough to focus on empowering women and girls or to tackle violence on its own. Nor is it desirable to work exclusively with men and boys lest it reinforces the patronizing patriarchal beliefs. What must be remembered that gender equality is not a zero-sum game.  Rather in order to unravel centuries of patriarchal beliefs, we must work with men and boys, women and girls at every level and insist on the gains of gender equality for both. We need to question practices and challenge institutionalized norms that reinforce male superiority and female subordination and nurture gender inequality.  As such, we must provide support to programs in schools, government, families, and communities that have been proven to challenge and uproot these beliefs and norms.

This blog first appeared in Girls Count’s quarterly newsletter.