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SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY
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PERSONALITY Gender activist Nandini Azad talks to SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY about her initiative that targets young men in rural areas

MEN AS GATEKEEPERS:Nandini Azad, chairperson, Independent Commission for People’sRights and Development in New DelhiPhoto: Monica Tiwari
MEN AS GATEKEEPERS:Nandini Azad, chairperson, Independent Commission for People’sRights and Development in New DelhiPhoto: Monica Tiwari

It has been some time since our activists figured out that men have to be brought within the ambit of the gender equality movement. The new knowledge has been that empowered women are most likely to hit a wall if men remain patriarchal bigots. After all, both men and women assemble a society and both will have to work for a conflict-free, equality-based social order.

In this space, feels gender activist Nandini Azad, a lot to be done still. What she is particularly excited about, however, is the extent of possibilities. Azad, chairperson of non-governmental organisation Independent Commission for People’s Rights and Development (ICPRD), should know better as ICPRD has been taking this approach for an initiative for the last seven years in rural Karnataka. Called Youth Forums Against Gender Based Violence (YFAGBV), the initiative has been running in three districts of Karnataka aimed at boys and young men in the age group of 14 to 24.

“We are running the project in 80 villages of Mysore, Channapatna and Bellary districts. It is rooted in the belief that so long as women are unable to lead a life of equality and free of violence, society at large will not be able to attain its full potential,” says Azad during a chat in New Delhi. It is therefore imperative, she states, “that patriarchal norms, both in the private and public domain, must be transformed through concrete strategies to a gender equitable framework.” And in this march, men, together with women, will combat the inequalities perpetuated for centuries. “This makes gender-based violence a community issue and the onus is not just on women then,” she underlines.

ICPRD particularly targeted boys and young men to create role models in village communities “as gatekeepers who are opposed to gender inequality.”

“By doing it, we established a strong point that the communities themselves can be empowered to initiate change and have a preventive culture,” she highlights. It simultaneously helped Azad and her team “to underscore the point that leadership exists within a community and that it is crucial to start at an early age for a re-orientation intervention towards socialising differently.”

The tool ICPRD uses to bring about a change in young men is street theatre on issues like eve-teasing, dowry demand, girl child education, wife beating, alcoholism, etc. “Being a Bharatanatyam dancer myself, I also use it to creatively steer them to a positive outlook in life,” she adds.

The volunteers and trainers are plucked out of the communities. “Initially, it needed my intervention; we had to seek help from local authorities as there was a strong resistance from the men folk there. Nowadays, I am hardly required. The communities have made it their own,” she says. The day she “saw a group of young boys and girls sitting together in a village panchayat office after sundown identifying wife beaters in their village and coming up with a plan to approach the local Excise Department to close down a local liquor shop in order to fight alcohol induced abuse on women” made her feel “the initiative has taken wings.” Now, the village youth “are working on setting up toilets for women, installing street lights so that women don’t fear to get out of their houses after sundown.”

Azad, former director general of Nehru Yuva Kendra, says ICPRD is open to the idea of implementing the initiative in other parts of the country. “In fact, preliminary baseline work in Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu has been done for future implementation of the approach there.” The advantage of the initiative is, “it is cost-effective. Schools are our biggest friends; they give us their grounds for free after school.”

She states, “Our approach gains more weight after the Nirbhaya case in Delhi. The community we work on are poor, many of the earning members have lost their livelihood because of loss of land to build airport, etc (near Mysore), also for a downturn in the traditional sericulture industry in Channapatna. So there is frustration in men, many have taken to drinking which also leads to wife beating. If you look at the profile of the young men involved in the Nirbhaya case, you will see that they also belong to marginalised communities, increasingly being pushed against the wall.”

“Melanne Verveer, U.S. Amabassador, at large for Global Women’s Issues,” she adds, “called our street theatre methodology one of the most powerful visualisations by young men anywhere in the world on women’s issues in the U.S Congress. Hilary Clinton also referred to our work last year.”

Azad sums up by saying, “From my over 30 years of experience at grassroots level, I feel with a higher number of women getting out of their private domain for education, work, governance, it is time to re-order patriarchal thinking in individual and institutional mindsets systematically. Our gender manifestoes should include training of men and boys in gender neutral values through school curricula.”

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