Changing Global Gender Norms Is Possible
What India can show the United States about how to disrupt rape culture.
The scope and intensity of last week’s world news was exhausting, maddening, and frustrating.
Exhausting because, yes, the United States—and, frankly, large parts of the world—was riveted by the hours of testimony about sexual assault from Christine Blasey Ford and the emotional, angry rebuttal from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, not to mention the stories of sexual assault, rape, and violence the hearings have triggered. But also exhausting because, though the United States dominates the headlines, North America is not alone in this very public conversation about sexual violence, assault, and gender.
India, too, was roiled in September by yet another brutal story of a young girl raped by a neighbor, the details of which are too horrific to detail here. It was not the country’s first such public reckoning: In 2012, the world mourned the brutal gang rape and murder of a medical student on a bus on the way home from the movies. But those are only the public stories. In India, four out of every 10 girls will experience sexual abuse during their teens, yet rape is grossly underreported.
Maddening because, in reporting on sexual assault, media channels, wherever they broadcast in the world, tend to dig deeply, and exclusively, into the case at hand. There is far too little attention to broader analysis on the range of masculine cultures in any one society or the manifestations of misogyny in different kinds of settings.
Frustrating because it doesn’t have to be this way.
Rape culture isn’t inevitable. Violence against women and girls is preventable. A number of promising efforts are attempting to transform gender norms and foster positive masculinities.
In India, most boys and girls grow up in an oppressive, patriarchal society. The danger of sexual assault of girls in public spaces is so great—in our 2012 survey for the United Nations Women’s Safe Cities project, we at the International Center for Research on Women found that 59 percent of women responding experienced incidents of sexual harassment or assault within the past six months—that many parents withdraw their daughters from school when they reach puberty to keep them both safe and to protect their virtue, ensuring they remain marriageable. This not only limits girls’ life options; it oppresses boys, too, by promoting a masculine identity that approves violence as an acceptable solution to challenges and tolerates violence, including sexual violence, against women.
For the past decade, we have been testing and replicating a curriculum called Gender Equity Movement in Schools, or GEMS, in India to fight gender discrimination and violence in schools. GEMS gives students an opportunity to explore gender norms in their own lives—at school, at home, and in the community. The program began with 45 schools in Mumbai in 2008 and has since expanded to 450 schools across India, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. GEMS uses classroom teaching, group discussion, and student-led activities to dismantle harmful gender norms and help students embrace more equitable norms, as well as learn a new set of social skills.
In the classroom, students have guided discussions about gender roles, such as discussing which jobs are gendered (e.g., police officer, cleaner, doctor, etc.) and why they remain restricted to one gender or the other. Students keep a workbook to write down their observations of the gender dynamics in their families or communities. These workbooks then have discussion guides for starting a conversation about gender and suggestions about how to promote gender equity at home or in their communities.
For one 14-year-old participant, Ranjan, it was clear that women doing household work weren’t valued the way men were for doing the same work outside the home. He himself was teased by the neighbors for helping his mother and sister with cooking and cleaning. “When men cook outside the house and get paid for it, why should they also not do household chores in their own homes?” he asked.
Students in the program come to understand that the gender norms that privilege boys and men over girls and women are complex and deeply entrenched. Efforts to change these norms must be wide-ranging and inclusive. The student-led activities in the curriculum therefore extend beyond the classroom, engaging the broader school community, parents, and community members. Students are asked to create posters and murals about gender equity for their schools and neighborhoods or hold student assemblies with games and skits. The impact has been impressive: Even teachers not in the program found that they were questioning their own gender attitudes after just hearing about GEMS. “Earlier, I would give students work that I thought was appropriate for their gender,” one teacher in Jharkhand said. “I don’t think that way anymore.”
The evidence that has come out of GEMS from those who have gone through the curriculum is incredibly heartening. Graduates of the program were 60 percent less likely to believe that harassing girls was “harmless fun.” Boys were nearly 30 percent more likely to intervene to stop violence that they witnessed at school or on the streets. “[Teasing] harms both boys and girls,” one GEMS participant said. “The boy will be harmed because he will learn bad things and he can do anything anywhere, and the girl will be harmed because someone will tease her saying she couldn’t do anything.”
Another boy noted the propensity of violence to beget violence: “If we are abusive or violent, there are younger children in school who would see this and think that the older boys are hitting, so we can too. Then violence spreads…It is better to nip it in the bud.”
Around the world, communities and organizations are trying similar efforts to disrupt patterns of discrimination and violence. CARE International rolled out one such program in Rwanda in early 2015 in partnership with local nongovernmental organizations and state-run schools. In this program, girls learn about financial literacy and reproductive health, while boys learn, among other things, the important role they have to stop and report violence and to support their classmates who may be targets for or survivors of violence. CARE’s project is currently running in 174 schools around the country. Reports show that boys who went through the program are changing attitudes in their homes as well: “There are girls that are prevented from coming to school,” a student named Robert told the BBC recently. “And it’s my responsibility to advise the parents that their daughter has equal rights to her brother. If her brother is studying, she has to study as well.”
In the United States, Promundo, the U.S. arm of a global consortium working for gender equity through men and boys, is working with high school students in Washington and Pittsburgh, using a similar approach to GEMS’s classroom and public elements. Peer discussions, art, and role-playing are employed to examine the harmful impacts of gender norms in order to promote healthier relationships and prevent violence and bullying.
The lessons we can draw from these programs are particularly relevant in light of the recent coverage from Washington and New Delhi.
First, change is hard. As children, we observe the adult world, assimilate those lessons, and begin to believe the inevitability of gender-based violence. When children and adolescents observe their older peers harassing their classmates and getting away with it, it sends a message that this behavior is acceptable. In this light, think of the prep school boys at the alcohol-fueled parties in the suburbs of Washington in the 1980s or the expression “Boys will be boys.” If you add violence into that mix of alcohol and peer pressure, this toxic trifecta can be truly dangerous.
It is wholly possible to disrupt cultures of violence and dismantle hierarchies of abuse and coercion, but it requires concentrated and multifaceted effort. We have the tools. Clearly, the time to act is now—in the United States, in India, in Rwanda, and around the world. We must now leverage the catalyzing drive of social movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp that address head on the silence that has held us back for so long. We’re impatient for a safer and more equitable world for us all. The time is now.
Sarah Degnan Kambou is the CEO of the International Center for Research on Women, a global research institute focused on gender equity and inclusion. @SarahDKambou