They called him bailya (sissy). When Harish Sadani was growing up in Mumbai, he was the only boy in his neighbourhood who helped with the household chores. His neighbours and friends, who considered these feminine tasks, used to mock him.

Sadani’s family had moved to Mumbai from Karachi during Partition, and though they are Sindhis, he grew up speaking Marathi and considers himself a Mumbaikar. He saw his father, who had only been educated till class IX, behaving differently from other men, helping with housework and in the kitchen. He mimicked him and was encouraged to do so by his paternal aunts, who played a major role in raising him.

“I was struck by how the woman’s role in a home was considered beneath a man’s," Sadani says. “But I was inspired by the example of my father and realized that not all men need to be the same."

A lover of cinema, Sadani became a fan of Smita Patil, the late actor and noted feminist, and would write her letters asking questions about the strong female characters she played. “Smita Patil actually wrote back to me seven or eight times with detailed answers. She told me that she received tons of fan mail, but my questions forced her to think."

Inspired by one of the characters Patil played, Sadani completed a master’s in social work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. During the course, he began working with a reputed women’s rights organization, but was taken aback by their approach to dealing with instances of domestic violence. “They would organize dharnas (protests) outside the man’s house and then try to blacken his face. But I realized that just attacking the man would not improve the situation. One needed to work with him to make sure he would not repeat his behaviour."

In 1991, Sadani responded to a newspaper advertisement by journalist C.Y. Gopinath inviting men who were opposed to domestic violence to a meeting. When he saw that more than 200 other men had also replied to the call, Sadani was motivated to start an organization that would work with men to achieve gender equality rather than treat them as villains.

Thus was born Mava (Men Against Violence and Abuse), an organization that aims to establish equal rights for women, but unlike most women’s rights groups, targets men. The principle is quite simple: In a male-dominated world, there is no way to secure equal rights for all sexes unless men understand the failings of their behaviour and want to change it.

“You have to dispel the notion that feminism targets men," Sadani says. Mava portrays patriarchy as a common enemy of women and men, explaining that the same societal structures that deny women several rights also cast on men an unhealthy pressure to perform and achieve, and not show any vulnerability. “You have to convince men that they will also gain from gender equality," Sadani says.

Since its inception in early 1993, Mava has tried to work with men of all ages and economic classes. Sadani and his team of 20 volunteers organize one-on-one counselling for men by trained psychologists and have managed to work with several men who have been violent in their marriages. He has now also begun working with companies, serving as an adviser on the sexual harassment committees firms are legally mandated to set up. In addition, Mava publishes an annual Diwali magazine called Purush Spandana, which contains stories and articles written by men on the subject of gender.

In the past decade, the main focus has been helping young men aged 18-21 gain a better understanding of gender equality. Mava organizes youth programmes under the name of Yuva Maitri in seven districts of Maharashtra, including Mumbai and Pune. The group ties up with National Service Scheme cells in colleges and conducts orientation programmes about their work. Students can sign up to become Mava leaders, and, every year, four-five students from different colleges are selected to attend a five-day residential, gender-sensitization camp.

At these camps, Mava’s volunteers, who come from backgrounds ranging from social work and psychology to education, talk to the male students about gender, stereotypes and sexuality, among other topics. These boys then go back to their colleges and conduct regular interactive sessions with other students, perform street plays and host film screenings on the subject of gender equality. More than 600 youth leaders are now working with Mava and a Yuva Maitri helpline that responds to questions on issues such as sex, gender and marriage.

Sitting on the wall enclosing the walking path that circumscribes Mumbai’s iconic Shivaji Park, young Mava communicators excitedly list the changes in their lives since they became part of the organization’s youth programme. Twenty-one-year- old Ravi Jaiswal now talks to his mother about her periods. He lives in a middle-class family in Mumbai, where sons and brothers contort their faces in various expressions of disgust at the mere mention of the word “period".

Sarath Warrier, a second-year mass media student at Ruia College, says he has become aware of the subtle differences in the way his sister and he are treated at home, and has changed his attitude towards her. “Also, I no longer tease girls in college, and my friends and I have made a pact not to use certain swear words, as we have understood why they make girls uncomfortable," he says. Akhilesh Bhat, a second-year commerce student at Siddhartha College, says he helps with household chores and speaks up when the men in his family try to stop his mother from going to the temple during
her periods.

When Jaiswal, Warrier and Bhat talk about becoming gender sensitive, what is interesting is that they do not paint themselves as selfless crusaders fighting for the poor damsels around them. In fact, they are eager to explain how understanding the true meaning of gender equality has helped them, as men. All of them have found they are now able to talk to girls more easily.

In September 2014, actor and United Nations Women goodwill ambassador Emma Watson delivered a rousing speech at a UN event to launch the HeForShe campaign, asking men to join the fight for gender equality. “How can we expect to effect change in the world when only half of it is invited to participate?" Watson asked, referring to the predominance of women in the gender equality movement. The speech, which went on to talk about how gender stereotypes imprison men too, got over seven million views on YouTube.

Sadani says he is encouraged that a message he holds dear is now part of mainstream conversation. “Initially, some women activists did say that our group was diluting their cause," Sadani admits. It is understandable that Mava’s characterization of men as victims of social structures may seem overly sympathetic to some. To women’s groups, in particular, it may feel like a devaluation of the struggle women go through. “We have made it clear that the main objective is to secure equal rights for women, and accept that the struggles women face because of patriarchy are far worse than what a man may encounter," says Sadani.

“Men began to become active in fighting for women’s rights during the 1980s, when there was an anti-rape movement in the country," says Vibhuti Patel, head of department of economics at the SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai, who has been part of various women’s rights organizations since the 1970s. “But women’s groups did not want to admit them. Their attitude was that every man is a born rapist."

One of the biggest changes in the past five years has been the recognition by women’s groups that working with men is important. “We have had esteemed women activists write forewords in our magazine and take part in other Mava activities," Sadani says. “Now, even most women’s groups have at least one programme dedicated to working with men for gender equality."

“Activists like me actually prefer a group like Mava to talk to boys rather than a women’s group as they can connect with them and that is an important role to fill," says Patel.

“Groups such as Mava actually help young girls because they sensitize young men to gender equality," says Shilpa Phadke, sociologist and author of Why Loiter? “Often, while working with young girls we find that they are more oppressed by their brothers than their fathers, and that is the age-group of boys Mava is working with."

There has also been an increase in the number of gender equality organizations that focus on men, with groups such as the Equal Community Foundation (ECF), the Forum to Engage Men and Samyak doing work similar to Mava’s.

The ECF, run by Will Muir and Rujuta Teredesai, has devised a curriculum that is being taught to boys, aged 14-17, from low-income communities in Maharashtra as part of its Action for Equality programme. It has managed to form an important bridge with women’s groups, who Muir says are sometimes threatened by groups working with men, and shares its curriculum with 20 women’s rights groups in West Bengal.

Increasingly, groups working with both men and women are presenting a joint front in the battle to secure gender equality.

Sadani, now 49, single and living with his mother, aunt and sister’s son, says he battles gender stereotypes in his daily life and is therefore able to connect with young men attempting to do the same.

HOW TO GIVE

MAIN SPONSORS

DAWN (Direct Action for Women Now) Worldwide, a US-based charity run by Geeta Aiyer; Maharashtra Foundation; and the US consulate in Mumbai.

BIGGEST NEEDS

Tie-ups with firms to hold gender-sensitization workshops for working professionals; and inclusion of a course on sex, sexuality and gender in the official state curriculum.

A DONATION OF 10,000 CAN

Help fund residential gender-sensitization camps held for students. The camps cost around 1 lakh for five days.

VOLUNTEERS CAN HELP

By getting any educational or other organization to agree to host a gender workshop that Mava volunteers will conduct.

CONTACT

www.mavaindia.org

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