Gender bender: Why we need to focus more on our boys

All of Mumbai has been in a flap for nearly three weeks now over the murders of Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandes, two young men who had apparently protested against a drunk youth falling on (or deliberately harassing) one of their (girl) friends on 20 October.

The drunk youth's friends then attacked Keenan and Reuben, killing one immediately, with the latter succumbing to injuries 13 days later. Four young men are in jail for these murders, and Mumbai is in a rage over such incidents of "eve-teasing". The chief minister wants to give the four men the death sentence for their crimes. Public marches and signature campaigns are being held in support of tougher laws to deal with the menace.

No one, though, is willing to touch on the core issue: the state of our boys.

Indian boys and young men everywhere are growing up wild, uncontrolled and without role models to look up to. 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.

India is not a good place to bring up girls. If you are not already 'offed' in the womb, you will face discrimination at home, in school and at work. And if you have still made it, you will be eve-teased in a godforsaken gully or given a rough time at home by in-laws or unsupportive male partners.

Despite all the cultural preferences for a boy, the real-life images boys and men see of themselves are largely negative. Reuters

But the difference: we know what our girls need. What we don't know is what our boys need. And that is really our biggest gender challenge.

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 do nothing, because it is not a problem that can be solved through official policies — though they can help. Doing something about boys means changing the fundamentals of man-woman 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. It's not the answer to the problem of 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. One example: the media makes it a point to tell us every year that girls outperformed boys at SSC or other exams. Boys making the grade are seldom mentioned. What is a schoolboy to make of this different way of treatment?

The media regularly overplays stories of rape, murder or sexual harassment, not with the idea of reporting it faithfully, but to show they are on the right side of history and political correctness. What message does this send to a sexually evolving male teenager? It can only mean more sense of guilt.

I also find it irritating to find men going around saying they are feminists – to overcompensate for the rotten deal women are getting in society. It's as if they are trying to say: don't look at me as a male, that much-despised half of the species. This again is a copout.

The real answer 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.

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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, 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.

Updated Date: Nov 09, 2011 18:58 PM

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