Unmasking Masculinity in India

Article Date

12 November 2013

Article Author

By Ellen Weiss

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

December marks a year since the fatal gang rape of a young Delhi woman sparked outrage across India, drawing the world’s attention to India’s crisis of sexual violence – one of many forms of gender discrimination and violence common in the country. Underlying such acts of violence and discrimination, at least in part, are deeply entrenched, but little-understood views of masculinity.

To learn more about men’s attitudes and behaviour towards women and girls, and to inform effective programming strategies, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and UNFPA undertook a study to unmask perceptions of masculinity in India. The study, Masculinity, Son Preference & Intimate Partner Violence, was released yesterday in Delhi at the outset of a high-level meeting on responding to gender-biased sex selection in Asia. The meeting aims to build governments’ ability to address the widespread problem of skewed sex ratios of females to males at birth in the region. 

For its study, ICRW researchers interviewed 9,205 men and 3,158 women aged 18-49 from seven states in northern India: Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. A significant finding of the study was that there is no one definition of masculinity in India: men hold a range of beliefs about manhood, including how much control men must have over their wives and how equal women can be to men in the family and in society.

About two in five men were found to hold ‘rigid and discriminatory’ gender views, meaning that they believe women are not equal to men, and strongly support actions to control women, such as deciding who their wife can spend time with and whether she can make household decisions. On the other hand, one in four men strongly believe that men and women are equal. For example, these respondents agree that men should share house work and responsibility for contraception. They also did not feel that men should control their wife’s behavior, nor believe that a woman is to blame when she is raped. ICRW researchers categorized these men as ‘equitable.’ The remainder (about one-third) fell somewhere in between the two ends of the spectrum.

Compared to equitable men, the men who hold the most rigid views of masculinity are three times more likely to physically abuse an intimate partner in the last year and nearly four times more likely to want their wife to bear a son over a daughter. Son preference can have a detrimental effect on women through repeated pregnancies in order to produce a son. It also drives sex-selective abortion, resulting in millions of missing girls and a sex-skewed ratio at birth and beyond.

The data also show that men with a secondary or higher education and urban men are more likely to be equitable than their less educated and rural counterparts. A disturbing finding, however, is that the greatest proportion of rigidly masculine men are in the youngest age group (18-24), a time when many men in India marry. Experiencing economic stress also increases men’s likelihood of holding rigid notions about masculinity.

The report highlights the policy and programmatic implications of the findings, calling on government, development agencies and civil society to start early. By working with boys through a variety of institutions and platforms, like schools, sports and mass and social media, more equitable gender attitudes and behaviors can be shaped that will last a lifetime and be passed on to their own sons. It also recommends mobilizing equitable men to be role models to convince the “men in the middle” that a more gender equitable approach to family life and society benefits everyone.