“I’m from Kathmandu, last year we had a group of women climbing Mount Everest, which we supported. But why challenge male stereotypes, why do women have to climb Mount Everest? Why are we again repeating the same stereotypes, why can’t we respect nature as it is and why take all those masculine traits?” Those were a few questions posed to a panelist at the Sub-Regional Conference on Deconstructing Masculinity, organised by the Asian Development Bank together with MenEngage Alliance Sri Lanka, at the Taj Samudra last week.
The panelist was Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, the first Sri Lankan to summit the world’s highest mountain. Her response garnered resounding applause from the audience, a group of professionals, academics, students and activists working towards a common goal of gender equality and social inclusivity. For Jayanthi, climbing Mount Everest was a dream since childhood, a dream she never thought would come true, she explained. “My ambition wasn’t to become the first anything, really. I definitely didn’t conquer this mountain. The word conquer itself is a very masculine term. I’ve learned that you cannot conquer nature, but we can conquer ourselves. I kept thinking why was it, that I was allowed to go to the top, and why not my climbing partner. Because, as a man, he was seen as a failure when he came back. Then someone from Nepal told me, the mountain chooses you, you do not choose the mountain. For some reason the mountain chose me and it’s been amazing,” she responded.
Jayanthi decided to connect her life-changing experience to her work as a women’s rights activist with over 15 years of experience, adding that she didn’t summit a mountain to prove anything. In recognition of her achievement however, Jayanthi was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for Women’s Rights by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Working as an independent consultant, she is now co-leading a global outcome on the prevention of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) on behalf of CARE international. “Today, in a culture where people tell us, only boys are first, I’m telling people that if women are given access to rights and opportunities, we can achieve our dreams and goals,” Jayanthi said.” I must say that challenging gender stereotypes is a bigger mountain than Everest. So keep climbing that big mountain,” she added.
“For centuries ‘He for She’ is what we had. We need a campaign that says He for Himself, and other Men. Not He for She”
Over two days, professionals from diverse sectors came together at the sub-regional conference to dig deeper into the concept of masculinity, male engagement and their relation to gender equality and social inclusion. Building on a session which explored policy research and initiatives designed to address social norms and behaviours related to harmful and oppressive masculinity, Jayanthi chose the platform to reflect on lessons learnt from interventions practiced in Sri Lanka.
In one programme titled ‘Happy Families’ she noted, the idea was to have a couples curriculum, where both men and women or the couple would partake in a training session, about household money management, gender roles in the family. An unforeseen outcome however was that the term ‘Happy Families’ undid years of progress achieved in addressing GBV.
“Even if there’s violence in the home, it reinforces the idea that as a woman, it is particularly your responsibility to make sure that your family is always happy, and you put up with that violence. That’s a stereotype and when we use the term ‘happy families’, we’re actually empowering the men and preventing women from being able to report the violence,” she observed.
“In another programme household money management was used as an entry point, because that was easier than talking about gender equality,” Jayanthi recalled, adding that it is difficult to speak about gender equality and patriarchy, when they are perceived as western concepts. “But that led to behavioural change only and not to cognitive changes, nor attitudinal changes. It was easier to use this entry point, but how do you make sure that the entry point doesn’t become the outcome?” she questioned.
She also cautioned that when engaging men and boys, there are certain risks programme designers have to be aware of. “When using male champions, in the broader picture, there are slippages that can happen. Moral policing, for example, gives more power to patriarchal stereotypes, which is problematic. For instance, the He for She campaign -- even though I mean no offense to anyone here -- poses the question, Why He for She?” Jayanthi said, quoting prominent Women’s Right Activist Kamila Bhasin. “Because for centuries He for She is what we had. We need a campaign that says He for Himself, and other men. Not He for She,” she stressed.
“They’ve told me Kapila, don’t talk about sex, or anything controversial. So we used different platforms and media to challenge patriarchy.”
How does our work get translated to the ground level, to the communities we work in? How do we make sure we’re not undoing the work of women’s movements that had been happening for decades? How do we compliment our work in such a way that we are aligned on the same goals? She asked the audience in a sobering call to reality. “Working with men and boys has its own risks and we need to be aware of those cracks, to avoid them and negotiate in such a way that we can ensure equality and prevent gender based violence for everyone.”
Agents of change
Masculinities are reproduced through different organisational and institutional practices. They are also reproduced through social interactions, ideals, myths and through representations of behaviours and emotions. An intriguing panel discussion dissecting how media reproduces such masculinities featured academics and activists, sharing their experiences of how media can influence the construction of negative masculinities. Founder of Voices of Humans, an organisation dedicated to promote a genderless society, Kapila Rasnayaka said that negative masculinities can be illustrated through a combination of structure, rhythm and tempo in media.”Masculinity can be emphasized even with colour. Soft colours such as pink are used to portray women as opposed to strong, masculine colours used for men. We absorb these stuff and imitate these social roles,” he explained.
Rasnayaka further elaborated on the intricacies of gender socialization, as a process by which society learns a culture’s gender-related rules, norms, and expectations. Unbeknownst to ourselves, we absorb these ideas, argued Rasnayaka, making us agents of gender socialisation. “When media portrays masculine and feminine counterparts, we absorb these ideas and then imitate that sort of character (in real life). Be it our father, mother, husband, wife or our grandparents, they want to be that character,” he explained, illustrating the vital role media plays in changing these norms.
“Without media we can’t talk about gender socialisation. Advertisements, tele-drama, print media and social media, they have social characters, from where we learn our gender roles. We need to deconstruct what we absorb from media and see that men can cry, men can play with toys, men can be emotional, they can wear pink, even share their power,” he opined.
“If women are given access to rights and opportunities, we can achieve our dreams and goals”
Rasnayake went on to share his experiences of using different kinds of platforms to deconstruct these norms. “I used social media as a platform, where my first video titled ‘kota saaya’ had 300,000 views the first week. I think it’s the title about a short skirt which prompted people to watch the video. Because they are curious about short skirts, sex and that kind of thing. My third or fourth video was about why people watch porn. Because porn as an industry has a very bad image, which enforces people towards practicing violent behaviours in sexuality. This too had 200,000 views and I realised that video is a beautiful platform to talk about these issues,” he said, adding that on numerous occasions he was discouraged from approaching these subjects via mainstream media. “They’ve told me, Kapila, don’t talk about sex, or anything controversial. So we used different platforms and media to challenge patriarchy.”
The two day conference was an intriguing discussion amongst key stakeholders, discussing actions that can be prioritised to engage societies to become more gender equitable. The conference concluded with participants critically evaluating the current work on male engagement and suggesting points of action to initiate interventions and advocacy efforts.