India has over 230 million boys below the age of 18: what does it mean for them to “be a man” today? What behavior makes them respected versus disdained? How is this directly connected with their behavior towards women? Is a man “less masculine” if he takes on non-traditional gender roles and respects her in all areas of life? How does he learn about relationships?
The time to deconstruct the different forms of masculinities present in society and create a safe space for boys and young men to discover and express themselves is now.
In the last few decades, conversations around gender equality and gender justice have come to the forefront of public discourse around the world. We are a far cry away from reaching gender parity, however, efforts in this direction are promising.
“Gender” continues to be associated primarily with women, and few people and organizations are reaching out to men to achieve gender equality. Conversations on male sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are restricted to contraception and issues of consent, overlooking the need for a deeper understanding of men’s needs and perspectives as a prerequisite for men to support women achieving sexual and reproductive health and rights.
This is not surprising, given the limited self-reflection and public discourse on what it means to “be a man”. Globally, it continues to be dominated by a traditional, patriarchal, heterosexual conception of masculinity. This conception is especially felt in India. Just like girls, boys too are taught to adopt specific behaviors from a young age: be strong, tough, fearless, un-emotional. This is reiterated at home, at school, in the media, and by family members and friends.
Men as Protectors
In recent years, there is a conscious acknowledgment that male engagement is crucial to combat both gender inequality and gender-based violence. However, their image and role continues to be that of “protectors” and aiding the well-being of women, rather than recognizing that men have their own unique needs and vulnerabilities that need to be addressed.
Men as Equal Stakeholders
Men need to be viewed as equal stakeholders in the achievement of gender equality. For this to happen, we need to consistently include them in conversations on gender and understand their perspectives on women, gender-based violence, and sexual and reproductive health and rights.
It is also important to engage with men from an early age while their ideas, attitudes, and beliefs are taking shape. A 5-country study by the International Centre for Research on Women found that sexually violent behaviors begin to appear during men’s youth, and men who hold attitudes of male privilege and entitlement are more likely to perpetrate rape.
Understanding Young Men and Their Ideas of Masculinity
In order to effectively engage with young men, it is important to understand their ideas and perspectives on masculinity. “Men” cannot be classified as a homogenous group. Male privilege and expressions of masculinity can vary based on socio-economic background, sexuality, geographic location, age-group, etc.
The YP Foundation did a research project on men, masculinities, and SRHR in Uttar Pradesh, exploring the intersections between gender, sexuality, caste, class, and religion in relation to masculinity. They also studied the role and impact of social media on the expression of masculinity. Survey participants expressed immense pressure to conform to traditional gender norms and sexual expressions online. They routinely consumed unverified data and facts circulated through social media, much of which is drawn from everyday manifestations of masculinity. Further, it was found that caste-consciousness has deepened among young men due to (sometimes involuntary or silent) participation in caste-based groups on platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp.
Quilt.AI, in collaboration with the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, conducted research on similar themes, but with the Internet as our research and insights source. We set out to first understand online content platforms, touchpoints, and communication cues that resonate with male adolescents in North India. We also sought to understand their views and perceptions on the usage of contraception, safe sex behavior, consent gender equity, decision-making in intimate relationships, and gender-based violence. We looked at both public social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, as well as private platforms such as Google Search and YouTube.
After crunching close to 600,000 articles (blogs, forums, and news consumed), 1.4 million videos (from platforms such as YouTube and TikTok), 162 million Google searches, and running it through our proprietary Culture AI tools, we found interesting trends:
The boys displayed a strong sense of group identity, ‘brotherhood’ loyalty, caste pride, and masculine nationalism through personalized content (like a selfie or personal pictures) accompanied by quotes, captions, or symbols of caste or group identity.
They engaged in a high level of virtual eve-teasing and misogynist remarks through posting lewd comments, ‘liking’ clickbait content, etc.
When it comes to sexual health, they mostly searched for condom information and sales, making up about 0.1% of all search terms. Further, health makes up slightly less than 1% of Internet searches, and search terms indicate a reactive view towards physical health.
We further layered this data with results from an online survey we conducted with over 4000 boys, which included questions such as “Where would you like your sister to work?” and “Where would you like your girlfriend to work?” to understand the boys’ perspectives and biases, as well as 1000 chemists, to understand condom purchase patterns. Broadly speaking, we found that the perceptions, biases, and power structures that exist offline are replicated online.
Engaging Young Men (Offline & Online)
A 2012 UNICEF Report Card on Adolescents found that 57% of male adolescents (15–19 years) justify violence against women. Another report by UN Women (APAC) states that 50% of men will use physical violence and approx. 58 million of these men have raped or will grow up to rape. And yet, fewer than 5% of organizations of the 100 organizations in India that are working to end violence against women surveyed by ECF engage with men (some of these include The YP Foundation, Centre for Health and Social Justice, Halo Medical Foundation, MAVA, etc.).
There are multiple dimensions to male engagement, the most important ones being improving access to accurate information, behavior-change interventions, school-based programs, and encouraging vulnerability and help-seeking behavior.
India’s expanding internet user base (expected to reach 636 million by 2012) demonstrates that it is futile to view “online” and “offline” life as separate, and the attitudes and behaviors of young men need to be influenced online as well.
Triggering Behaviour Change Through Digital Marketing
At Quilt.AI, we studied the digital ecosystem to gain a deeper understanding of the perceptions and behavior of adolescent boys online. Based on this, we devised behavior change strategies, or ‘nudges’, for online interventions to influence their attitudes and behavior towards safe sex, objectification of women, and an overall reduction of misogyny and entitlement.
We did this by redirecting search engine traffic by showing ads with information on sexual and reproductive health every time they searched for information related to sex, girls, women, contraception, and thus, redirected their searches to more reliable information.
We also displayed ads with targeted messaging pertaining to sexual and reproductive health and gender equality on video platforms.
Finally, we did a real estate “takeover” of timelines, wherein we dropped content in the form of videos and messages on sexual and reproductive health and gender equality with custom audiences of male adolescents on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. This included videos, memes, messages, etc., curated based on our understanding of their online behavior.
While the project is still ongoing and it’s too early to share results on the digital interventions, we can already see increased participation of boys in gender-equitable content and reduced engagement with misogynistic content on social platforms.
The data and insights gathered through our study prove that we need to reach and engage with boys where they are- on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube- and ‘nudge’ them towards progressive and respectful attitudes towards girls and women. They need to be shown accurate information when they search online and surrounded by positive, affirming content on their role in families, communities, and society as equal, loving, and respectful partners, brothers, and fathers.
For far too long, we have seen the internet as only a site for misogyny and violence. However, it is also a site where we can bring about change- at a scale and speed that was not possible before.
Together with offline interventions, the potential to change the narrative and create a more gender-just society is massive. But in order to do that, we need to act now.
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