Sometimes when you want to fix a problem, you just need to go at it from a new direction. That’s the philosophy behind the Equal Community Foundation in Pune, India.
One woman who has benefited from their work, Gauri Shendge, says: “If men harass us on street our parents tell us to look down, ignore it or take a different route. I like your approach – you ask the men to stop harassing us.”
Set up in 2009 and now working in 20 urban slums in the state, the organisation aims to change attitudes towards women from the ground through mentoring up says fund-raiser Jan Ali.
Ali, from Croom in Co Limerick but living in India for almost 20 years, says the mentoring provided to young men is what makes this approach different.
“The people we’re working with live in close proximity to each other, if women know there is a place to go with a problem then the word spreads. The mentoring helps other men to get involved,” she says.
Violence against women has been described by the UN as “perhaps the most widespread and socially tolerated of human rights violations”.
The NGO provides counseling and gender-training programmes with a coaching programme that lasts several months, and Ali says you can really notice the difference in how men and women relate following the courses.
“Women say men are harassing them much less. Women are quite vocal here but they are discriminated against, it’s part of the way things are but that is changing,” she says.
A spokeswoman for the charity says it’s estimated less than five per cent of organisations working in this area engage with men.
She says: “Years of development work has happened with women and yet it is not delivering the desired effect. (So we can) achieve gender equality we need to work with men and women.”
Their main focus is the Action for Equality plan. This is aimed at boys aged between 14 and 17 who are given mentors and placed on programmes involving film, work-based training and gender-awareness sessions. Each boy is encouraged to take personal action to prevent violence against women, whether this is physical, verbal or another form of discrimination.
Their hope, the spokeswoman says, is that the boys will in turn become mentors and break the pattern of discrimination.
Surveys carried out by group show that 47 per cent of the women connected in some way to the ‘graduates’ reported “a significant reduction in incidents of violence and discrimination”.
And Ali stresses that it’s not all bad news. She says while women in Ireland can take a level of equality for granted, that Indian women fight harder to be heard and it is working.
“More and more women are taking public roles here. There are two main political roles in Pune and in the last city elections a woman was elected to one of them,” she says.
But she does admit when she takes visitors on a tour of the area - with her dog Guinness - she shows them the rolling pin traditionally given to brides on their wedding day.
“This is to show that her place is in her kitchen. That always gets a good reaction from Irish women,” Ali says.
Separately UN Women and Delhi-based youth group collective, Commutiny, this month launched a website – Must Bol – with similar aims.
“Women need to admit the violence meted out towards them, and fight back,” said Kuber Sharma, a Must Bol coordinator. “We believe that a man should be able to proudly say that he is a homemaker. Societal pressures on men often force them to be an earning and independent entity”.