When his band of friends came to call Vinayak Sonar for an evening around the usual katta last year, his mother met them at the door. “Kaku, where is Vinayak?” asked the teenage boys. “He’s washing utensils and said he will come later.” The band of boys burst into muffled giggles. Vinayak’s story isn’t about protest marches or youth conferences, but it’s about a silent revolution that adolescent boys in Pune’s communities are a part of – of moving from the belief of ‘protecting women’ to making the world a more gender equitable space.
14-year-old Vinayak has just entered Class 10th and is struggling with network issues for accessing his studies. He actively misses school and is worried about when he’s going to meet his friends next. His sister, Dnyaneshwari Sonar, is 5 years old. His father works as an office assistant in a private bank and his mother runs a tailoring unit at home, which has survived them through tough times in the recent past.
Since 2019, Vinayak joins his peers in the Action for Equality programme (AfE) that runs once a week in Bhimtola, a low-income community, in Pune. “I used to miss classes often in the initial days as I was unfamiliar with the word ‘gender equity’ and what role it plays in my life. But my mentor, Sandeep Patil sir, started encouraging me and asking me questions. It was interesting because we spoke a lot about our life,” shared Vinayak.
The AfE programme is facilitated by a team of dedicated Programme Mentors of Equal Community Foundation in 20 communities across Pune, India. The programme is delivered at three levels supporting boys to bring about change at the individual, family, peer and community level.
Vinayak learnt about human rights; the most striking one being about how women often don’t get to exercise the right to leisure. “He slowly started taking up small chores at home so that his mother could get some time for herself. He started by folding his own bedsheets, washing his own inner clothes and washing his plate after meals,” shares Sandeep Patil, his mentor. “Moving steadily from his own responsibilities, Vinayak started embracing household responsibilities. He started washing the vessels at home and sweeping the floor.” In the densely packed Bhimtola community, men washing vessels is more of an exception than a norm. He found an interesting ally at home – his father. “After sharing his learnings about the right to leisure, his father started playing an active role in household chores – right from cleaning vegetables, making his own tea and cleaning the house while his wife worked.”
“What are human rights, really?” asks Vinayak. “For me, it is not about restricting women from going out or wearing the clothes of their choice to ‘protect them’. But it’s more about cooperating, taking responsibilities and having a dialogue with women where they are free to speak what they want! Not protection, but collaboration.”
Vinayak’s family has grown together as a unit. Owing to the harsh realities of the COVID-19 lockdown, work was difficult to come by as his community, Bhimtola was converted into a Containment Zone for close to three months. Proactively, Vinayak recycled his old empty notebook pages, used refills instead of new pens and also gave away his 9th standard textbooks to friends who needed it more.
He’s even started learning how to use a pressure cooker and make chapatis as his mother then gets more time to focus on tailoring. Vinayak has also employed his mobilizer skills and helped identify families which are especially vulnerable during the lockdown. He’s distributed ration and protective equipment kits in their neighbourhoods. He learnt tailoring from his mother, seemingly a ‘women’s job’. “I learnt how to sew ‘fall’ into sarees and how to do small repair work on clothes.” Seeing her son take up their jobs, customers expressed concern. However, Vinayak proves their concerns wrong by doing a good job with this mother.
Can one who sees gender disparity in their own lives look away from it in everyday relationships with their neighbourhoods, their communities, their extended families? Before COVID-19 hit the world, Vinayak and his friends were witness to daily experiences of their female peers about the work they had to do and their education. Building on these observations, their mentor, Sandeep Patil, helped them mold their thoughts into the form of a street play.
During Ganpati celebrations in 2019, amidst the lanes of Bhimtola, the adolescent boys performed a play on women’s right to mobility. But no one came! “It’s hard to have a dialogue with people who are keen on following their own belief-systems,” Vinayak recollects. Not ones to be disheartened, the boys went door to door, requesting everyone to join in. Upon their insistence, 70 to 80 neighbours turned up. As Vinayak and his friends talked about how women lost opportunities to play, work and roam around freely, there was a silence in the audience. Tough crowd!
But they got people thinking. Later, audience members approached him and his peers and expressed concerns about women’s safety and education. Vinayak and his friends engaged with them, sharing their learnings and experiences.
At 14, he’s taken definitive stands on household responsibilities and gender roles. His mother Chandrakala Sonar is proud of having a son who’s her ally at work and within their home as well. “When my five-year-old sister grows up, I would want her to have all the opportunities in the world, like I did. Maybe even more!”