Slum kids confront

opinion March 27, 2015 01:00

By Nita Bhalla

2,013 Viewed

Sexism as India grapples with abuse of women

Standing before a classroom packed with teenagers, Yojana Salunke begins her weekly one-hour lesson on a subject experts say is crucial to helping India address one of its biggest challenges – gender inequality.

“Hands up all those girls who have to do housework before or after school?” Salunke asks, as every pig-tailed girl in the dilapidated state-run school classroom raises their hands.

“And how many boys help their mothers with the chores?” she continues, looking around the room trying to spot the few boys who have lifted their hands.

The girls laugh and accuse the boys of being lazy, while the boys retort that there is no need to do domestic work as their mothers and sisters do it all. A heated debate ensues.

As India grapples to stem rising violence against women, activists say classes like these – which confront traditional gender roles and challenge sexism amongst the youth – are key to changing attitudes and curbing widespread gender abuse.

“The lessons are interesting. We talk about how boys and girls are equal as human beings, but how we treat girls differently,” says Shakir Parvez Shaikh, 15, a student at the Shahaji Nagar Municipal Hindi School in Mumbai’s Cheeta Camp area.

“For example, girls are not allowed to play cricket or watch as much television as boys because they have to do housework or because it is not safe outside for them. I didn’t realise before ... I think it’s unfair.”

Barrage of threats

From female foeticide, child marriage and dowry killings to rape and domestic violence, Indian girls and women face a barrage of threats, say experts, largely because of age-old patriarchal attitudes that view them as inferior to men.

A massive wave of public protests after the fatal gang rape of a woman on a Delhi bus in December 2012 jolted many in the world’s second most populous country out of apathy and forced the government to enact stiffer penalties on gender crimes.

Since then, voracious reporting by the media, campaigns by the government and programmes by civil society groups have brought greater public awareness of women’s rights and emboldened victims to come forward and register abuses.

There were 309,546 reports of crimes against women in India in 2013, a 26.7 per cent jump from 2012, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, including rape, kidnap, sexual harassment, trafficking, and cruelty by husbands and relatives.

But violence is not the only problem. Women also face less visible forms of discrimination with little say over their lives and lacking access to finance, land, inheritance, education, employment, healthcare and nutrition.

The World Economic Forum 2014 Global Gender Gap Index ranked India as 114 out of 142 countries – based on how women fared against men when it came to economic participation and opportunities, educational attainment and health and survival.

During to a visit to India this month, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde said the gender disparity in the labour sector was a “huge missed opportunity”. She cited a study putting India’s female participation at 33 per cent of the workforce against a global average of 50 per cent.

The mindset challenge

While activists have welcomed harsher punishments for gender crimes and moves to improve security, they stress authorities and society must address inequality at a deeper level with adult attitudes and behaviour often shaped by childhood experiences.

“If today’s boys are taught to question gender abuse now, they are less likely to be violent when they become men tomorrow,” says Ravi Verma, Asia director at the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW).

“And if girls are taught to speak out now, they will be less likely to endure it as adults.”

A survey by the UN Population Fund and the ICRW last November found that six out of 10 Indian men admitted violence against their partners.

Although not part of India’s formal education curriculum, organisations such as the ICRW have been working with government schools to introduce gender classes like those at the Shahaji Nagar Municipal School.

Working with 12- to 14-year-olds in over 12,000 schools, teachers use a range of activities from role play, games and group assignments to spark discussions about discrimination.

In the cramped one-roomed homes lining the narrow lanes of Cheeta Camp’s slums where many of the students live, girls say the classes have boosted their confidence to speak out.

“Before I never used to say anything when a boy in the neighbourhood used to make negative comments as I walked past on my way to and from school. But after the classes, I confronted him and told my mother and she went and spoke to him,” says 15-year-old Princy Dhananjay Gupta, who wants to become a teacher.