From Protecting Women to Collaborating with them

A young man looks at his life with a new lens

We require a key ally to shift from the popularly accepted notion of ‘protecting women’ to fundamentally changing the world around us to make it safer for women: young men. Sachin Balkunde, is one such thoughtful 19-year-old who has been having difficult dialogues about gender-based violence and discrimination with himself and his peers for the last 5 years.

A young man, Sachin Balkunde along with pursuing his education, used to work as a tele-calling executive for a banking service. Everyone in Sachin’s house works to make ends meet – while his mother works as a domestic worker, his brother stays close to the factory he works in on the outskirts of Pune. His younger sister is studying. After college hours, Sachin also provides sports coaching at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Sports Ground in Super Indira Nagar, Pune. Apart from work and college, Sachin makes time to attend weekly sessions of the Action for Equality Programme (AfE), launched by Equal Community Foundation (ECF) in 20 of Pune’s low-income communities. Boys in the programme work with their mentors to reflect on and act upon gender-based violence and discrimination. The activities are fun, where boys meet their peers and an inspiring mentor. Self-reflection about centuries-old beliefs and attitudes is a tough ask. But young men, like Sachin, often rise up to the occasion.

Over a period of time, the young men in the programme start viewing all the sites in their lives with a keen gendered lens. “It was no different in sports,” says Sachin. Deeply ingrained discriminatory attitudes towards gender started becoming evident to him. “One day, for a football match, we split all the students equally in teams. While boys and girls played together for the same team, I noticed that boys from opposing teams kept playing between themselves. The ball never got passed to girls, and they were really struggling to get a go at the sport,” Sachin recalls.
“However, at one point, I decided to halt the game and asked the players to split themselves into an all-girls and all-boys team. That evening they played seven matches, and the girls’ team won 6 of them, hands down!” he laughs. “It was a good moment for boys to realize that the female players they played with had serious potential too.” As a coach, Sachin has tried to support the girls he coaches with equal opportunities to prove their mettle.

Developing the ability to have an open dialogue with the women in your life is a key step in establishing mutually respectful relationships at home. “When his mother comes home from after a long day of work, he asks her about her day,” says Ramesh Kokate, Sachin’s AfE mentor. “As a boy, he’s one of the rare exceptions in his community who takes care of his own chores – cooking, folding clothes and washing dishes. He shares an open, honest relationship with his sister. He also helps her study and is a good friend to her. Most importantly, Sachin’s mother is aware of the dialogue he’s having about equitable gender relationships. She’s also an active supporter of the programme.”

Sachin shares about how he slowly became sensitized to the realities of sexual harassment and violence during dialogues with his mentor. Sexual harassment wasn’t a demon that was too far away from home. Sachin lives in a neighborhood where neighbors often exchange their day-to-day stories. One such evening he heard about how a few young girls in the neighborhood were being sexually harassed by boys on their way to school and college. “The boys used to pull their dupattas or call them names as the girls passed by. As a boy, I know that this is exactly what men talk to each other every day. This is considered ‘fun’, but after gaining insights on gender, I realize that this is extremely hurtful to women. Sometimes, they’re forced to get married or discontinue their education,” Sachin reflects.

“These are difficult to have conversations. I met the families of both the boys and the girls. I told the boys that this behavior wasn’t okay, they were really hurting someone’s feelings and taking away someone’s rights to feel safe.” The boys reluctantly stopped harassing the girls. More importantly, the girls step out with confidence now. “The larger problem hasn’t ended yet. I need to keep having these conversations in my area, reach out to more people. It is really difficult to tell your peers that you don’t find anything funny in hurting someone’s feelings. Your friends will ask you what’s wrong with you!”

But, Sachin, like most other young men in the programme is slowly having difficult conversations about protection vs collaboration in his life. He’s encouraged the boys to also join the Action for Equality programme where his perceptions about gender were first challenged. “I hope more men are able to have these conversations with themselves.” Sachin regularly stages street plays about sexual harassment and household responsibilities in his area.

During Ganpati, Sachin participates in the Dhol-Tasha pathak (band) in his area. A traditionally male-dominant space, his pathak also has seen girls playing heavy dhols and tashas and walking several miles while performing in the last few years. “It’s nice to have girls on the team too! Younger girls are also keen on joining now.”

As the response to COVID-19 wreaks havoc in his community, his job has halted for a while. However, he’s finding great joy in teaching children in his community whatever he can, as they struggle with internet connection for online classes. During the harshest times, Sachin was also a key member of the ration-distribution exercise that ECF took up with Saad Foundation in Pune’s most vulnerable communities. As a known and trusted leader in the community, he was able to identify the houses which needed the most immediate attention and was on the frontlines to ensure no one slept hungry.

As the world celebrated Rakshabandhan this month, perhaps it’s also time that we stop trying to protect girls from a harsh world. When responsible and approachable young men like Sachin start challenging gender in their own lives, one can hope that the world becomes more welcoming for women to be themselves!

Rucha Satoor, Maharashtra