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Why 2013 should be made the Year of the Boy Child

After the Delhi gangrape, it may not be a politically correct thing to say that India needs to focus on its boys. But this is what I am going to do: I believe 2013 should be declared the Year of the Indian Boy Child, a year in which we should focus on issues relating to boys, their parenting, their development, their real needs, and how they can be brought up better.

I know that in India the bias is favour of boys is already too apparent for us to think we need to give them even more attention. But I would like to ask a counter-question: are we really focusing on them after they are born, or merely letting them run wild, uncontrolled, under-parented and undisciplined, outsourcing their development to unknown peer groups and coaching classes?

India’s fundamental social problem today is our failure to bring up our boys right. The demographic advantage, where the sex ratio is still heavily skewed in favour of boys, is soon going to turn into a demographic disaster if we do not think of how boys are growing up in our society.

But about our boys, we know nothing. We don’t know the dreams they dream, we don’t know what they aspire for. AFP

It is easy to emphasise that the environment is difficult for girls. As parents we worry about the safety of girl children, fret about discrimination at home and in the workplace, and hope that they will find what they want in life. We get outraged when we read about female foeticide, or about molestation, or, horror of horrors, even rape. But we know what the solutions are and, in any case, we live with the hope that rape and molestation is something that won’t happen to our mothers, sisters and daughters.

More importantly, we know what girls need to succeed - safety, security, and a level field. But can we ensure this without dealing with the other side of the equation: boys.

Ask yourself: how many articles have your read anywhere in the world – and especially in India – about what our boys need? You may say that boys already have everything, so why should they be indulged some more?

This is uncharitable. The problem is not about resources, for boys always get more than their fair share of family investment. What they lack is an investment of parental time: in a still patriarchal society, where the father is still the main earner, parenting boys has been outsourced to mothers instead of being divided 50:50. As boys get older, parents outsource their development to schools; the schools, in turn, outsource their responsibilities to coaching classes (if you are in the upper classes), and so on. For the rest, there are seat and job reservations.

We have come to believe that our primary responsibility to our boys is to ensure that they are capable of earning and supporting themselves, and for this we are willing to overlook every other aspect of their physical and emotional development. We are willing to spend money, but not time on our boys. Is it any wonder that some of them turn out to be wife-beaters or molesters or even rapists?

As I have written earlier, not all boys grow up to be wife-beaters or eve-teasers or criminals, of course, but almost all of them will be uncomfortable and unadjusted in a world where women will increasingly get their due, where equality will be the norm, and where they have to reinvent themselves to compete with and yet complement the women in their lives.

The issues facing our girls are well-understood. We just have to remove the constraints and let them grow to their full potential. Official policies are moving in this direction – even if slowly. In most cases, we can throw incentives and penalties to solve the problem (rewards for putting girls in school, special pensions for poor people who have only daughters, heavy punishments for dowry, domestic violence, etc).

But about our boys, we know nothing. We don’t know the dreams they dream, we don’t know what they aspire for (beyond the obvious things they ask for), we don’t know what is going on in their heads. And this is not a problem that can be solved through official policies — though they can help. Doing something about boys means changing the fundamentals of parenting, spousal relationships and boys’ self-image – and this can happen only at our homes and in our schools, with official policies playing a supportive role.

Most well-to-do parents I know are concerned about how their boys will turn out, and prefer having girls instead. But this is really a copout. As someone who is father to two girls, I can tell you that you cannot help them in this world without understanding boys – for that is the world they are going to live in.

This is why it makes no sense for Manmohan Singh, Sushil Kumar Shinde and the Delhi Police Commissioner to claim that they understand what the Delhi protestors are angry about since they themselves have only daughters as children. The point is you cannot solve the problems women face without simultaneously solving the issues confronting our boys.

The short-term answer to women’s security may be better policing, or fast-track courts, or stricter punishment for rape, but the only real solution to women’s emancipation is male emancipation. And this means a focus on boys.

Let’s look at the world from a boy’s-eye-view to understand where I am coming from. Despite all the cultural preferences for a boy, the real-life images boys and men see of themselves are largely negative from a healthy developmental perspective.

How the father treats the mother is one important reference point. But even if this primary relationship is based on equality and respect, the school provides another reality check on skewed gender power equations. Given our Bollywood-oriented lives, how women are represented in films is also a major influence on boys. If a hero is shown behaving boorishly with the heroine, and it is still okay since he is the hero, what is the message getting across: that some forms of behaviour are acceptable?

How is it right for a Bollywood hero to whistle at or harass women when the rules are not the same for the trouble-makers we see in public places? Is it any surprise that even policemen don’t take women’s complaints seriously?

If you are a boy from one of the underprivileged sections, the mixed message problems get worse. Not only are you angry about your financial and livelihood shortcomings, but every girl coming into your view is a challenge to your manhood and lowly status.

The real answer thus is to focus on our boys’ growth needs. We owe it to our girls to make our boys better. And this means society — each one of us — must pay extraordinary attention to how boys need to be brought up, how they must be disciplined and encouraged, and what they need to know about how to treat the other half of humanity they have to grow up with.

What should we do? I don’t have all the answers, but some directional suggestions.

One, change must begin at home, with relationships within the family. Parents have to treat each other with respect. Where spousal relationships are weak, and fathers treat mothers without love and respect (and possibly vice-versa) and where mothers end up doting on their sons in an oedipal reflex action, we are playing with fire. Boys grow up more dependent on their mothers than daughters on their fathers – which complicates all the future relationships of men with women. If parents learn to respect one another, our boys and girls will learn that automatically.

Two, gender sensitisation must begin at home and continue in school. In most Indian families, gender sensitisation only seems to mean protecting girls from rough boys or favouring them. But gender sensitisation means much more: it means letting both genders know that they are equal, that both can aspire for the same things or different things, and that roles determined by gender are not fixed in life. In school, the same messages need to be re-emphasised.

Unfortunately, when most school teachers are women, what we mis-learn at home (that men and women have to expect different things in life) is continued in school. Schools need to change the gender balance of teachers, too. (I realise that there are more women teachers because of low pay and discrimination elsewhere in the job market, but the right balance is key to sending the message that roles for men and women are not preordained.)

Then, of course, there is proper sex education and knowledge.

Three, boys need different treatment. I am not an expert in assessing what exactly boys need to become sensible and sensitive men, but I am sure psychologists, social activists, parents and counsellors will know what is the right mix of activities and learning programmes for them when they grow up. This is something worth spending several seminars and symposiums on.

As I said before, I don’t have all the answers. Probably no one does. But one thing is clear: we have to focus on our boys for a better world.

2013 is the year to start setting this right by declaring it the Year of the Boy Child. We don’t need to go by what the UN has to say on this because for us this should be Priority No 1 as a society.

(Note: Parts of this article appeared in an earlier piece this author wrote last year)

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