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Changing the minds of youths to stop bias against Girls
by Ariel Sophia Bardi
In 2014, Breakthrough India, an independent human-rights organization, launched a program to tackle gender discrimination throughout 150 schools in Haryana, one of India’s most gender-biased states.
A 2011 census showed that Haryana, a primarily agricultural state bordering Delhi in northern India, had the worst child-sex ratio in the country, with only 830 girls for every 1,000 boys. Recent policy changes have effectively countered these gender imbalances, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi leading a campaign to address Haryana’s sex ratio.
The overall number of females has climbed, but female feticide remains a widespread problem, reinforcing a still-wide demographic divide. Though sex-determination tests are illegal throughout India, an underground network of medical providers bypasses laws and 50,000 female fetuses are aborted each month.
“Girls are neglected in every aspect of life, even before birth,” said Sunita Menon, the director of curriculum, leadership and development for Breakthrough.
Male babies are riotously celebrated, with sweets handed out after they are born. Female infants, however, often come into the world already viewed as liabilities. As boys and girls advance in childhood, deep-seated patriarchal attitudes surrounding gender roles create stark differences. Girls are closely scrutinized and confined at home, saddled with household chores, while their brothers roam freely.
Into adulthood, the low sex ratio ensures that public spaces are dominated by men. With fewer women and a higher number of unmarried men, brides are trafficked into the state. The state has also seen a surge in crimes against women: in January, Haryana was rocked by a streak of six brutal rapes — four against minors, including a toddler — in less than a week.
“The reality in Haryana is terrible — the amount of domestic violence, women being trafficked, women being treated as sex slaves. It’s another world,” said Veenu Kakkar, a Delhi-based gender consultant and women’s rights activist. The devaluing of women begins at an early age. “Girls come from completely aimless and dreamless childhoods, and then are expected to be subservient.”
The after-school gender awareness youth program that Breakthrough devised — “Taaron ki Toli,” or “Legion of Stars” — has emerged as a rare success story in a battleground state for gender relations. In partnership with the Haryana Ministry of Education and Save the Children, Breakthrough developed a curriculum for 12- to 15-year-olds that was taught in 45-minute sessions every two to three weeks. It involved games, discussions and activities that sought to challenge gendered prejudices and promote equality between the sexes.
“A lot of boys and men are also fed up now too,” said Kakkar. “They don’t want to be this masculine male who needs to give up his seat for a woman, even if he’s not feeling well, who has to go out and sexually harass a woman to prove his masculinity. Men are also looking out for some change now.”
The program, which began in 2012 and is now expanding, was assessed in a recently released evaluation carried out by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a global center focused on reducing poverty. Researchers there found that out of 14,000 participants interviewed both before and after the start of the program, discriminatory attitudes had been largely reversed, reflected in changed attitudes, behaviors and aspirations.
The evaluation centered on a set of statements and questions; for example, “Wives should be less educated than their husbands,” or “What is the highest level of education you would like to complete?”
Whereas before the program, boys and girls hewed to more stereotypical gender attitudes, alumni (now in their teens and early 20s) show more support for women’s education and paid employment outside the home and hold firmer beliefs in the ability of women to succeed beyond reproduction and household work.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the evaluation provided the encouraging conclusion that children surveyed who had been raised in families where gender discrimination was the norm now held the same perceptions as peers from progressive households.
“One of the reasons why we focused on this age group is that opinions and mind-sets are formed during this age, and it is the right time to create awareness on issues that will bear influence later,” said Sohini Bhattacharya, chief executive of Breakthrough India. “Our aim is to shift gender norms, so the earlier we can create awareness of gender inequality and discrimination and change unfavorable gender attitudes and perceptions among boys and girls, the better.”
One reason the Breakthrough India program focuses on youths is that this is the age when mind-sets become ingrained, so it’s an optimum time to raise awareness with lasting results.
Breakthrough wants to expand the youth program to other states in India, mainstreaming the sessions into a national education curriculum. It is devising programs for Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jaharkhand — north Indian states that also have high rates of gender discrimination and gender-based violence. “Introducing an intervention like ours can work nationally and globally,” Bhattacharya said.
Tannu Sharma, 15, was one of the Taaron ki Toli participants, attending sessions in her hometown of Sonipat, where gender segregation has always been a highly visible norm. “I feel like I’ve changed a lot through the course,” she said. “I got to understand that boys and girls are equal, at all stages of life.”
Formerly shy and reluctant to share her goals with her family and neighbors, Sharma now confidently states that she wants to be an engineer — one of the highest ambitions for schoolchildren in India.
“My friends and I, we always had dreams,” she said. “But we never felt like we could express them. Now we feel much more empowered to tackle whatever comes our way.”
Sharma’s 13-year-old brother, though not officially part of the program, has also been on the receiving end of gender awareness instruction through his sister. She insists that he help with her with the washing up.
Through their children, parents have also experienced a shift in attitudes.
“In the beginning, I didn’t understand this thing at all,” said Suresh Kumar, 55, Sharma’s father. “But slowly I started to understand that maybe this was something we needed to have a conversation about. Now, I’m much more able to let my daughter experience things on her own.”
Just several years ago, Kumar planned on getting Sharma married off as soon as she completed high school. Now, he encourages her to keep pursuing her education and supports whatever she decides to be.
“I look at my daughter the same way I do my son,” he said. “They both contribute to the household. They’re both my children.”
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Equality between women and men is a struggle of humanity
by UN Office for Human Rights
For more than a hundred years, the world has commemorated International Women’s Day. Each year this Day presents an occasion to celebrate the progress on the road of women’s right to equality. It is an occasion to be reminded that the road remains long and full of obstacles. It is a time to pay tribute to the countless women throughout history who have dared to stand up, to protest, and to say no to discrimination against women and girls and one of its worst manifestations: violence. Their courage and revolt have been the driving force behind the progress made.
This year we seize this moment to pay tribute to the brave women who have spoken out against sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence which they have been subjected to at the hands of abusive men who enjoyed impunity made possible by environments which normalise such violence.
Through their courageous actions, these women have launched a global movement of women breaking the silence on sexual harassment and all other forms of sexual violence too often tolerated.
We also seize the moment to honour all those women who endure violence in silence because their voices are not heard, or they are threatened for speaking out.
We honour the domestic workers in the confines of private homes in a foreign land, the migrant women and asylum seekers on the move, women who struggle to feed their children, and women who are deprived of liberty. We pledge our support through our respective mandates.
A universal plague
It is the voices of so many individual women, together, that has created this powerful movement which has swept much of the globe, building on decades of advocacy from women’s rights movements demanding an end to violence against women.
The individual stories of being subjected to sexual violence have painted a collective picture of our society. The question being asked is no longer whether to believe the woman, but rather what is wrong with our society.
How can sexual violence exercised against women exist on such a massive and endemic scale in a time of peace and in the most ordinary places of life: work places, schools, universities, on the streets, in public transportation, and at home? From North to South, from East to West, sexual violence crosses lines of culture, religion, ideology, stages of economic development and touches women of all social backgrounds and in all professional settings, whether it is in political parties, financial institutions, or the media and entertainment industry, academic institutions and the humanitarian field. It happens in the family. It is truly a universal plague.
Concentration of power
The universal nature of sexual violence against women and girls is only a reflection of centuries of domination and oppression of one sex over the other, which has kept women in a secondary place, long excluded from public life and from positions of power. The consequences of this inequality linger on today and resurge forcefully at times where we see women are scarcely represented in national and global political and economic decision-making bodies, but concentrated in precarious employment and often paid less.
We see women who live in situations of dependence, economically and professionally, for existence and for advancement. Women experience life, from childhood to old age, as inferior and disadvantaged rather than as equals. They are held back by deeply entrenched but often invisible forces, be they political, economic, cultural, or religious.
We see the undying will for control over women’s bodies and their autonomy, and the tendency of seeing women as objects. In so many spheres of life, there is still a concentration of power and entitlement in the hands of men and the abuse of this power through sexual violence.
A significant moment
History will tell what a pivotal moment this movement is for women’s rights. Women, with the power of their loud and clear voices, individually and collectively, have always been the active driving forces for social and cultural change. We have a moment now where the shame and fear have shifted from the victims to the side of abusers and perpetrators of sexual violence, who have to face the consequences of their unacceptable behaviour in many cases and criminal acts in others.
The all-powerful are no longer the untouchable who can enjoy impunity with peace of mind. Their ability to buy silence and cover-up is being questioned and their power of intimidation is starting to evaporate.
We have a moment where the complacence of others and the indifference of our institutions are no longer accepted without challenge. Blaming the victim can no longer be the automatic response to sexual violence.
This is a transformative moment, a liberating and an empowering moment. By speaking out at this scale, women are shaking centuries-old established discriminatory norms which normalise, accept and justify sexual violence against women and have constrained women in well-defined roles of inferiority and subordination.
This is what is so significant about the moment. It is no longer just about individuals, it is about society. It is not about so-called morals and honour, it is about women’s rights as human rights. It is the system of the concentration of power and domination that is being challenged.
Making it a truly global movement
We need to maintain the momentum to make it a truly global movement which reaches all the women and girls in places where breaking silence on violence against women is still taboo and where women have little resort to justice and no choice other than carrying the burden of shame and blame. It is in these places, far away from the spotlights of international media, that the voices of women need to be heard and must be heard.
History has also taught us that full equality for women everywhere will continue to be a long struggle. Every step forward in the direction of women’s independence and equality has encountered push-backs from an alliance of conservative forces. It has been 70 years since women’s right to equality was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and nearly 40 years since a ground-breaking comprehensive international treaty on women’s rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, came into existence.
Waiting for another hundred years to achieve equality is unacceptable, as is rolling back our hard fought gains.
The existence of law and policy in combating sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence is important but not sufficient. Equality between women and men is a struggle of humanity, a struggle for both men and women. In the face of sexual violence and discrimination, everyone is concerned and everyone needs to act.
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