In 1995, Gertrude Mongella, Secretary General of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, had declared that ‘there is [a] need to look at women's issues in a holistic manner and address them as part of overall societal and developmental concerns. …It will not be possible to attain sustainable development without cementing the partnership of women and men in all aspects of life… It is now the turn of men to join women in their struggle for equality’.

Nearly two decades on, the voices calling for inclusion of men and boys in the global fight for gender equality and putting an end to violence against women that affects over a billion women worldwide have only grown louder. In India, rigid patriarchal norms, which tip the gender balance firmly in the favour of men, have severely restricted this positive discourse of change. Even today, a majority of women are forced to accept and internalise male dominance in their lives. They have no real say, whether it is about picking what to wear or deciding on the number of children they want to have.

How can Indian men be motivated to stand up for the women in their lives? How can they be enabled to discard their sexist outlook and help in redefining the existing gender roles? Answers to these questions lie in figuring out the mindset of desi men to ascertain what informs their actions and impressions of acceptable behaviour. After all, how can effective gender equality be achieved without a clear understanding of how their thinking can be influenced.

The new study, ‘Masculinity, Intimate Partner Violence and Son Preference in India’, undertaken by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), takes a look at how the average Indian male interprets the idea of ‘masculinity’ and how it shapes his interactions with women and increases his desire for sons.

Whereas the notion of masculinity can be expressed in a variety of ways, this study explores two areas that are particularly important in the Indian context: intimate partner violence and son preference. It’s a well-established fact that Indian women experience intense social and familial pressure to produce sons and the failure to do so increases the threat of violence and abandonment in marriage.

Indeed, not all men think, feel or respond in the same way, which is why the study employs an innovative masculinity index to measure the degree of behavioural rigidity, based on the levels of control men practice in intimate relationship as well as their attitudes towards gender equality.

According to Frederika Meijer, UNFPA India Representative, “Gendered ideas of masculinity and childhood experiences are significant contributing factors behind men using violence. This research identifies alternative expressions of masculinity that offer pointers to effectively engage men and boys in achieving gender equality. It identifies triggers that could enable them to become change agents in addressing gender discrimination.”

So, how does the average Indian male understand masculinity? Judging from the telling responses of the 9,205 men interviewed for the study, he is convinced that ‘mardangi’ (masculinity) is all about acting tough, freely exercising his privilege to lay down the rules in personal relationships, and, above all, controlling women.

Take a look:

* One-in-three men surveyed didn’t allow their wives to wear clothes of their choice.

* Sixty-six per cent men believed that they had “a greater say than their wife/partner in the important decisions that affect us”.

* In the bedroom, 75 per cent men expected their partners to instantly agree to having sex if they so desired. Moreover, over 50 per cent didn’t expect their partners to use contraceptives without their permission.

Clearly, “being a real man” is characterised by authority, while a woman has to prove her femininity by epitomising the qualities of “tolerance and acceptance”. Any departure from these mannerisms and she would definitely risk provoking a violent reaction.

Sure enough, the study shows a very high prevalence of intimate partner violence in India. Around two-out-of-five men from the seven study states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Punjab and Haryana were found to be ‘rigidly masculine’ in their attitude and behaviour, as they firmly stated that women should neither be seen nor heard.

What’s more, 60 per cent admitted to using violence to assert their dominance over their partner if she so much as even tried to step out of her traditional roles or was unable to meet the expectation of bearing sons. In fact, more than half – 52 per cent – of the 3,158 women surveyed, too, talked about experiencing some form of violence during their lifetime, with 38 per cent suffering physical violence, like being kicked, beaten, slapped, choked and burned, and 35 per cent subjected to emotional violence, including insults, intimidation and threats. While Odisha and Uttar Pradesh emerged as the states with the highest incidence of intimate partner violence at 75 per cent, Punjab and Haryana followed at 43 per cent and Maharashtra at 37 per cent.

“The study reaffirms and demonstrates that addressing inequitable gender norms and masculinity issues are at the heart of tackling the root causes of intimate partner violence and son preference,” states Luis Mora, Chief, Gender-Human Rights and Culture, UNFPA.

If men with discriminatory gender views are more inclined towards physically abusing their partner, then they are also the ones more likely to want sons, affirms the study. Male children are central to Indian families as they stand to inherit property, carry forward the family lineage and participate in specific religious rituals. However, this attitude only consolidates their status as the custodians of patriarchal values. Little wonder, India’s level of discrimination against girls is among the strongest in the world, and is demonstrated early through the heinous practice of sex selection. Indeed, even the latest Census 2011 data notably reveals the child sex ratio in the country has dropped from 927 girls per 1,000 boys to an all-time low of 918. Incidentally, while examining the extent of son preference, the study measured daughter discrimination and found that on an aggregate over a third of the men and women showed both high daughter discrimination and son preferring attitudes.

Undoubtedly, the traditional construct of masculinity increases the proclivity for violence and son preference among men. But, in order to be able to enlist them to become a part of the solution, and not the problem, a couple of factors need to be taken into account. Firstly, the study catalogues economic stress as a major trigger for both violence against women and the desire for sons. A crisis that threatens their position as the primary providers instantly prompts them to lash out. Simultaneously, it reiterates their belief that more male children can guarantee better financial security.

The other aspect that plays an essential part in intensifying conventional masculine attitudes is childhood experiences. The more men witness their father exercising greater influence at home in their formative years the less likely they are to develop gender equitable attitudes. Says Ravi Verma, Regional Director, ICRW-Asia, “The findings of the study are extremely clear on lasting impact of childhood experiences. It is high time we begin to seriously think how we wish to bring up our boys and also present ourselves as adults to younger ones within the families.”

If patriarchy has hurt women grievously, then misplaced impressions of masculinity have damaged men. The Masculinity study makes an urgent call for developing policy that builds men’s confidence to behave differently. Though it makes several recommendations, two solutions that offer the promise of real transformation involve breaking the cycle of discrimination by reaching out to young boys with fresh ideas of masculinity that are not based on power or authority, and ensuring quality education for both sexes.

( Women's Feature Service)