July 2011, New York
Recently, The YP Foundation conducted 12 consultations for the National AIDS Control Organization in India, in partnership with Plan India, consulting young people for recommendations to best address HIV prevention education. We did this with 280 young girls and boys from 5 states and in one community center, I got asked a question by 21 year old young man in a group discussion that really struck me. “Is sex an illness? Do we get sick from it? What’s the difference between HIV and sex?” Recently, a 19 year old boy who is a peer educator with us asked another question, he said -
‘How do you identify the difference between consent and violence if you don’t know what sexuality is? If I don’t know how to recognize what is acceptable and normal within me, if I can’t accept and celebrate the differences in myself, how do I know how to reach out for help, when I do need it and whom to go to?’
In India, 78% of young people under the age of 20 do not know how to have safe sex. What is of key concern is the lack of safe spaces for young people at the community level to address concerns and access evidence based, non-discriminatory, comprehensive information, that encourages boys to question their privilege, their assigned gender roles and masculinity and act in ways that are responsive to respecting women and girls’ human rights, particularly in the realm of sexuality in order to achieve gender equality.
Founded 9 years ago, Project 19, also known now as ‘Know Your Body, Know Your Rights‘ (KYBKYR), is a youth led and -run peer education, capacity building and advocacy programme at The YP Foundation that works with young people in communities and with policy makers to address gender equality, violence against women, sexual rights and reproductive health. Through training young people in communities on the principles of human rights and gender equality, we have reached over 1500 – 3000 young people each year, focusing on building skills in understanding and negotiating relationships, questioning power, acting with consent, the negotiation of safe sex and respecting sexual and reproductive choice.
Although male participants were initially most interested in factual/biological information (e.g., the human body, sex, HIV), over time we found that sessions on gender-related attitudes, sexual violence, and power dynamics between men and women eliticited the most interest. Most male participants could relate these conversations and participated with examples from their own lives, which is a key component to ensuring that peer education and information dissemination actually result in behaviour change. When asked about the impact of participation at a later stage in the programme, majority of young men noted that the sessions had changed their understanding of love and sexuality and taught them to question notions of masculinity.
Integrating boys and girls into skillfully facilitated safe spaces has proven critical to examining gender and power relations between them. This does, more often than not, lead to a full understanding of gender equality and helps boys internalize principles to examine their own behaviors, challenge those of others that are sexist, towards being respectful in relationships.
The process has to be personal, for it to resonate with young men and boys. So the challenge is not just how they engage in gender justice and gender equality but also whether they have the tools to take this conversation home to challenge their own elders or caregivers. Often, in more traditional, conservative and/or religious societies, there is a backlash to this that needs to be taken into consideration.
Additionally, there is a lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services that respect diversity, provide confidentiality and a quality of care – mostly because these don’t exist at ground level and youth friendly health services (YFSE) don’t integrate comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) into their services. This is important, because what young men and boys need is evidence based, scientific information that is available freely in out-of-school, community settings. This challenges an environment that young men are brought up in, where more often than not, there are community attitudes that teach men and boys that it is wrong to admit they have fears or questions regarding their bodies.
The key feedback we get in communities is how many men and boys are struggling with the expectations and aspirations of being what is called ‘a real man’, a stereotypical, largely mythical cultural figure that expresses limited emotions, is handsome, strong, muscular, and virile. We noticed an increase in the number of growth hormones and supplement drugs that young men experiment with and access, the pressure to be in sexually active relationships with women that is considered to be a cultural sign of virility and the lack of understanding of sexual rights, particularly women’s sexual rights. With an approximate 150 boys we’ve engaged as peer educators, we’ve noticed a diametric change at the end of a 1-year participation programme.
The key feedback we receive is that they are able to challenge the ‘shame and embarrassment’ that is perceived and experienced and that they are able to freely ‘talk about issues of sexuality and bodily integrity and rights’, particularly with male peers. Boys also discover that the insecurity they experience is something that is a common and real experience and that they are not alone. The kinds of attitudes that change are reflected in the feedback that we receive in the programme from young boys below:
“Men don’t always have to decide what kind of sex a couple will have. Consent can be sexy and I didn’t realize that before, there’s less pressure for a man too that way.”
“I used to think that being a mother was a natural instinct for a girl. Now I think a couple should decide together if they want to have children.”
“Who knew that other boys also got bullied like I did? You always think that the response to feeling insecure is violence, I never knew before this how to use words.”
In the same spirit, simply focusing on men and boys and spending majority of our programmatic funding there, on the hope that men and boys take lead or charge in their communities and that their attitudes will trickle down to women and girls who live with them – creates a lopsided strategy. One where the male gender is educated and empowered, in a position where they usually experience a higher level of privilege than women. Women and girls need to have equity in their lives and communities – be on equal footing, so to speak – to challenge the very same hierarchies that hold them down.
Where is the money in gender equality for women and girls? What percentage of your programme – should you have or support one – supports women and girls versus men and boys as beneficiaries? Where are young women and girls in our communities – are they speaking up, are they empowered to participate? It is undoubtedly difficult, but necessary to reflect and work on these questions.
Lastly, programmatically, engaging adolescent boys and young men successfully needs to capitalize on the age group it’s working with – starting from as young as 6 years old – address gender equality through sexuality education using a life cycle approach. It takes years to challenge and change behaviour and it begins with when we are young and still learning what gender neutral and rights based behaviour is. Girls’ Power Initiative in Nigeria has been leading some of this change since 1993.
A comprehensive package that can address gender equality provides five critical elements that address:
Achieving gender equality asks for investing in and engaging men and boys, yes. However, this cannot and should not replace investments in girls and women’s empowerment. CSE provides the effective opportunity of working with both young men and women jointly.
To end with a voice that isn’t mine, but is of a young man back home who I’m proud of -
“I could have never spoken to girls about issues like wet dreams before I never thought that a girl would be able to help me answer these questions. I guess our bodies are normal things; we just aren’t brought up to feel that way. No one questions why my father is considered to be the head of the household and why even in subtle ways my sister and I are treated differently. We get used to the power that comes from violence; we internalize and accept it. I think in my generation we need to work with girls like my sister and change that.”
Ishita Chaudhry, is the founder and CEO of The YP Foundation and an Ashoka Fellow. She shared these views at the High Level Meeting on Youth recently in July 2011 in New York at the UN Headquarters, speaking on a panel co-organized by UNICEF and UNFPA.
Header: Photographer: Rachit S Barak