Engaging men and boys to achieve gender equality
Nov 2014 26

United Nations High Level Meeting on Youth

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.

Photo: Young people in Mau, Uttar Pradesh come together to discuss Sex Ed recommendations for policy makers.

What did we do?

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.

What has the response been?

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.

Photo: Reflections in progress

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.

What is success?

Photo: A policy consultation with young people in Hyderbad, Andhra Pradhesh


  • Integrating spaces for young men and young women– It is critical to still keep a safe and an equal space for both sexes to clarify concepts – but to have young women challenging young men – is also changing the power dynamic and how it works. It would be prudent to integrate into these spaces that there are many young people’s whose sexual orientation and gender identities do not fit neatly outlined gender boxes, and that addressing the needs of LGBTQ young people, in the context of power, violence and access to information is a critical part of this dialogue. Young people do not live isolated lives and it is critical to have individual and collective spaces that build safety as a binding factor at community levels.


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.

Photographer: Rachit S Barak – Speaking up for gender equality

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.”

  • Training adults – teachers, religious leaders, parents and community members on the importance of challenging male privilege – The rhetoric currently globally, on how critical it is to engage young people in a meaningful way often doesn’t look at how critical it also is not to isolate young people from their communities. We need to give young people the tools and language to negotiate these relationships so that they can challenge and change traditional gender roles in their societies. It doesn’t help when we empower young people with information but cannot help them work through situations of conflict or stress with family and care givers, in our trainings with them. Aahung, a Karachi-based non-governmental organization that has been working to improve the sexual health of men, women, and adolescents since 1995, does this, advocating with individuals within policy and educational systems, so as to look at a systemic change that also creates gender equal and equitable policy in the first place.


  • Using diverse mediums of expression and being innovative – Theatre, dance and music are three of the most successful ways in which we have communicated with young people and they have worked with each other. Apart from the obvious, that art (both visual and performing) makes it easier to work with a diverse group of young people who may not have similar linguistic skills or cultural experiences. We now have boys leading local campaigns that advocate for women’s rights and they work as peer educators in their own communities. It is easier, we’ve found, to reach out to boys in communities than it is to single them out in school or formal settings. The YP Foundation’s programmes have flourished, using these strategies.


  • Increasing awareness on HIV and STI prevention, addressing homophobia and the context and impact of both gender based violence and violence against women – there is a level of critical analysis that needs to be built into dialogues with young boys and men so that they can examine the impact of violence in their own lives and in the lives of women and girls around them. The need to eliminate violence against women needs to be internalized and boys need to make a conscious decision not to inherit and adopt patriarchal attitudes.


  • Promote youth led work in this area and encourage youth-adult partnerships – Sharing good practises and strong programmes has always strengthened a movement and in that spirit, excellent programmes like ones run by the Center for Health and Social Justice and Men’s Action for Stopping Violence against Women (MASVAW) in India were initiated in 2002. A statewide movement in Uttar Pradesh, this campaign with men and boys promote gender equality, and advocates for equal rights and a violence free world for women. Similarly, Sonke Gender Justice Network in South Africa has popularized the adage – that one man can. Stop violence, reduce HIV and empower women.


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 isGirls’ 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:

  • Psycho-social and emotional aspects
  • Sexuality
  • Promotion of equity
  • Overcoming stigma and discrimination and promoting human rights
  • How to protect and promote one’s health

Photographer: Rachit S Barak: Recommendations for Policy Makers from young people in Uttar Pradesh


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

1 Comment

  1. Ushinor Majumdar says:

    The entire effort seems massive and my congratulations to you and your team for having completed this mammoth task.

    Following are a few comments, which I put down in the form of points after a preliminary look.

    1. *The mental health issue*: I think the mental health issue needs to be addressed with greater detail. Though most of the violence seems to be due to socio-cultural reasons such as gender, however, issues such as the difference between violence and consent and the disintegrating lines thereof are more of mental health issues that need to be figured into syllabus, in the absence of an efficient and well-capacitated mental health issues addressable system.

    2. *Universality*: Since I am not privy to the spectrum of the actual consultations, the observations seem to be a little lost on addressing beyond an urban/semi-urban setting. Of course that is my limited personal view and the topic is open to interpretation, but I think, heavy-duty customization based on community standards (in various categories such as caste, ethnicity) may be a good idea. For example,

    3. *Fun*: Kudos on the use of theater and music as a means of efficient communication. Small personal experience: It was through a play which I saw at age 13 that I learnt about AIDS, HIV (difference between the two), communicability of the disease and the responsibility that is attached to keep self and others protected from it.

    4. *Adult Training*: I agree with what you have written on this. As an example, I have observed that in my own home, two informed women and an open-minded man in my family have made all the difference to my approach towards gender equality and therefore has an impact directly on my understanding of sex, AIDS, violence and so on. Though adult training may be difficult especially in a rural setting, educating siblings may be a good way to start for the government.

    5. *Convergence*: Convergence of STIs. A girl’s sexual reproductive health is probably open to huge risks from non-HIV infections such as mononucleosis, HPVs, UTI, PCOS and the predisposition that one creates for the other.

    6. *Testing and Certification: *This I believe is a very good practice. Get yourself tested and certified. As a finale to all of what you have written and some stuff that I said and taking into account changing of mindsets etc, a direct manifestation can be observed in a partners’ willingness to have themselves fro a full range of STIs (bacterial, viral or fungial: HPVs, mono, HIV, Hepatitis, etc)

    Thanks for your great work and good luck for everything else you are working with.

Leave a Comment