NEW DELHI — Nearly two decades after the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, voices calling for inclusion of men and boys in the fight for gender equality and an end to violence against women have grown louder. In India, rigid patriarchal norms, which tip the gender balance firmly in favor of men, have severely restricted this positive discourse of change. Even today, a majority of Indian women are forced to accept male dominance.
A new study, “Masculinity, Intimate Partner Violence and Son Preference in India,” by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the International Center for Research on Women, in Washington, looks at how the average Indian male interprets the idea of masculinity, how it shapes his interactions with women and increases his desire for sons. The study explores two areas that are particularly important in the Indian context: intimate partner violence and son preference. It’s a well-established fact that Indian women experience intense social and familial pressure to produce sons and the failure to do so increases the threat of violence and abandonment in marriage.
Not all men think, feel or respond in the same way, which is why the study employs an innovative masculinity index to measure the degree of behavioral inflexibility, based on the levels of control men practice in intimate relationships and in their attitudes toward gender equality. Frederika Meijer, the UNFPA representative in India describes the goal: “Gendered ideas of masculinity and childhood experiences are significant contributing factors behind men using violence. This research identifies alternative expressions of masculinity. . . . It identifies triggers that could enable them to become change agents in addressing gender discrimination.”
Judging from the telling responses of the 9,205 men interviewed for the study, the average Indian male is convinced that masculinity is all about acting tough, freely exercising his privilege to lay down the rules in personal relationships and, above all, to control women. Here are some findings:
* One in three men surveyed did not allow his wife to wear clothes of her choice;
* Sixty-six percent of men believed that they had “a greater say than their wife/partner in the important decisions that affect us”;
* Seventy-five percent of men expected their partners to instantly agree to having sex. More than 50 percent did not expect their partners to use contraceptives without their permission.
The study shows a high prevalence of intimate partner violence in India. Around two out of five men from the seven study states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab and Haryana were found to be “rigidly masculine” in their attitude and behavior, saying women should be neither seen nor heard. Sixty percent admitted to using violence to assert their dominance over their partner if she tried to step out of her traditional roles. More than half — 52 percent — of the 3,158 women surveyed talked about experiencing some form of violence during their lifetime, with 38 percent suffering physical violence, like being kicked, beaten, slapped, choked and burned, and 35 percent subjected to emotional violence, including insults, intimidation and threats.
If men with discriminatory gender views are more inclined toward physically abusing their partner, they are also more likely to want sons, the study found. Male children are central to Indian families, as they stand to inherit property, carry on the family lineage and participate in specific religious rituals.
India’s level of discrimination against girls is among the highest in the world, and is demonstrated through the heinous practice of sex selection (and aborting female fetuses). The latest 2011 census found that India’s sex ratio among children has dropped from 927 girls per 1,000 boys to an all-time low of 918.
The study catalogs economic stress as a major trigger for both violence against women and the desire for sons. A crisis that threatens their position as primary providers prompts them to lash out. It also reinforces their belief that more male children can guarantee better financial security.
Childhood experiences are also formative. The more that male children witness their fathers exercising influence at home the less likely that they are to develop gender equitable attitudes. Ravi Verma, regional director of the International Center for Research on Women-Asia, says: “The findings of the study are extremely clear on lasting impact of childhood experiences. It is high time we begin to seriously think how we wish to bring up our boys and also present ourselves as adults to younger ones within the families.”
This article was adapted from one that appeared in Women’s Feature Service, in New Delhi.