EMERGE Blog 5. The personal is political in women’s empowerment, for men too: Lessons in pro-feminist supportive action by men in rural Maharashtra

As the international community concerned with gender equality is gearing up to the 60th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York in mid-March, the priority theme this year is ‘women’s empowerment and its link to sustainable development’. Without going into detail on the plethora of those links, suffice it to say that they are found and experienced at individual and private levels (such as women’s access to clean water and decent sanitation facilities) as well as at public levels  (such as women’s participation in public politics and access to environmental resources).  At all levels, however, these links are mediated by men in different guises. 

The latter issue – men’s role in mediating (sometimes, blocking) women’s empowerment – broadly remains an under-explored gap in research and programming (Hamaus et al. 2015). As a small contribution to addressing that gap, I would like to share some lessons we learned from small groups of gender-activist men, in Solapur district of Maharashtra. These were lessons about relational interests and dynamics between men and women and how men can support women’s empowerment in local politics, by making their personal relationships political publically, as dissident men and women. The lessons have also been written up in a case study (Edström et al. 2015) on the approach, entitled Swapping the stick for a broom: Men supporting women in local politics in India’.

Women’s participation, leadership and decision-making in the public sphere continue to be suppressed in much of rural India. Cultural norms place women as subordinate to men, and prescribe their roles as confined to the domestic sphere. Understanding and supporting women’s pathways of empowerment within and between private and public life continues to be a feminist struggle for women’s rights and gender equality. In a field case study in July 2015 we explored how work with men can contribute to this process of change, and support women’s participation in public and political life. The work of the Samajhdar Jodidar project (meaning ‘understanding partner’) in rural Maharashtra, which is supported by the Centre for Health and Social Justice (CHSJ) and the Halo Medical Foundation (HMF), provides an interesting example of the roles that men can play in contributing to progressive social change on women’s public and political participation.

How does the approach work?

Men first work through consciousness-raising in small groups on their own understanding of unequal gender relations, and to transform their practices within their homes and intimate relationships. This provides a platform for social action in the wider community and enables trusting relationships to be built with women to work together to drive political change. The men emphasise the importance of supporting women both privately and publicly, to ‘make it visible’; for example, by putting property in shared names, sharing care duties and school runs, sweeping the front porch with a broom, or the men actively demonstrating support for women in village meetings. As part of the strategy, they have also used the law, under India’s political reservation quota system, to help women claim rights to representation in their local Panchayats (local government units) and transforming local level institutions from within. Aside from community awareness-raising, through community events and trainings, they have proactively campaigned with canvassing for female candidates, as well as engaged the powerful to speak up for women in politics; including challenging powerful elites, who had aimed to exclude women from the Panchayat (sometimes literally using sticks to beat the elected women and chase them away). Mr Shivanand Vittal Patil, one local male Panchayat member explained that:

“After the election, the group comes to support us and support the women. Yes, group members sensitised male Gram Panchayat members on women’s rights, in terms of the work, as well as about gender based discrimination and equality.”

So, what has changed?

Our research found that many men appear to have moved towards more gender equitable beliefs and practices and are indeed involved with supporting women in public life. More women are now claiming their space in local politics and are more able to be effective. In particular, there appears to be more effective implementation of the affirmative action systems to reserve seats for women and marginalised groups in politics, and the quality and outcomes of political processes were said to be more sensitive to community needs, including needs particularly felt by women and children (such as water and sanitation facilities and safer public spaces). More women are taking on public leadership roles, whilst there was also said to be greater gender equality within the households of the women elected, as well as of the men in the groups and in the communities more broadly.  Furthermore, group members have reportedly intervened and challenged elite men about women’s participation. As one female Head of Panchayat, Mrs Ambica Umakant Gadve, described described the support:

Male partners can help inform us on the issues, but they don’t decide which issues we discuss. [However] without male support women can’t progress. There was a lot of corruption by the male village leaders before’. 

There were challenges too

The work faces some ongoing challenges, especially from a broader patriarchal culture that disapproves of women’s public leadership. Consciousness-raising with men can be blocked by men’s own conflicted investment in male privilege, whilst some fear the ways their lives will change if women learn about laws and policies on gender equality. Limitations around caste, status and class come into play when men’s group members from lower middle and poor families have difficulties in working with, or being accepted by, established leaders or higher caste and wealthy elites.  However, crucially, caste or class solidarities and inequities also provide a basis for male-female alliances for gender justice, linked to broader social justice.

Key lessons learned

  • In order to challenge traditional norms of masculinity and divest from male privilege, personal change in individual men is needed.
  • This also means shifting gendered relationships and roles (e.g. in relation to domestic work and household decision making), so that men can improve their relationships and work with them toward equality and justice.
  • Be the change you seek – role models are crucial, for others to learn from.
  • Collective action and peer support between likeminded men is important, as is collaboration between women and men working toward the same goals.
  • When women and men come together in a shared analysis of intersecting issues of inequality (e.g. gender and caste-based inequalities), they can build shared commitments to a political struggle for social and gender justice.
  • Change is gradual, incremental and works in interconnected cycles. Sustained pressure is needed for women’s participation to fully take root.
  • Claims for gender justice and accountability should be anchored, where possible, in existing laws and policies.
  • Men can work with women to monitor and prevent the misuse of laws, showing solidarity and collectively taking action in ensuring accountability for gender equality.
  • It is important to also engage with men who oppose gender equality, considering their perspective and challenging them.
  • Ongoing open and supportive meetings are important to sustain energy and momentum.

So what?

The personal is political and vice versa.  Pathways of empowerment for women in public and political life must transform oppression and inequality in private as well in public domains, but this involves and is also true for men as well as for women. Where relationships – and the partners in them – are supportive of women’s public engagement and leadership, very real physical and mental barriers are broken down and their confidence and self belief is also strengthened. Men as gender equality activists and role models can play a crucial role in holding other men to account on this, including through model their values by openly sharing household responsibilities which enables women to participate fully in their new roles in public and political spheres, and by challenging misogyny in private and public.

Read more about the work of Samajhdar Jodidar in our EMERGE case study and story of change

February 2016

Jerker Edström

Research Fellow

A development social scientist and worker primarily focused on Gender and Development. Formerly a Director at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, overseeing NGO support programme development and methodological adaptation, such as the institutionalisation of participation.

Current interests include gender equality, men and masculinities, gender and sexuality related citizenship and policy, youth and HIV and AIDS.