Can we re-gender empowerment and equality of the sexes?

Johannah Reimer – WNN SOAPBOX

Kerala classroom
A classroom in Kerala, India shows young women sitting along with WNN reporter Johannah Reimer during her recent 2012 travels to the region. While they sit apart from the women, young men are also part of the class. Advocates say that equality of the sexes in India still has far to go to reach its goal, but the problems can be solved. Reimer suggests that men must be brought fully into the process in order for India’s society to ‘really’ change. Image: Johannah Reimer

(WNN) Kerala, INDIA: In the past two decades feminist advocacy and international development goals, policies, and funding have focused exclusively on women and girls as the best path towards sustainable development. Yet through this development focus, men’s perspectives and needs have been entirely evaded causing a rift in gender perception between the sexes. The notion of women as the world’s “greatest untapped resource” as stated by Michele Bachelet of UN Women, has in turn established a gender paradigm that in practice contradicts the common understanding and definition of ‘gender.’

In the international development arena the semantics of gender have evolved to defining only the female sex—whether it be through empowerment initiatives to bolster women’s opportunities, MDG 2 and 3, or ‘gender trainings’ intended to educate women of their rights and eradicate stereotypes that subordinate them.

But how does a women’s education or “empowerment” transfer to home life where gender values and gender role perceptions between a husband and wife are not in accord?

How does an ’empowered woman’ go home to an abusive husband?

Is this international development focus on women and girls truly strengthening their status in society or is it actually perpetuating more disharmony between men and women?

In Kerala, India’s most socially developed and literate state, gender tensions have reached a new high due to the widening gap of gender role perception between men and women. Women’s advocacy and gender programs are accelerating this setback by targeting “gender” issues but being selective in working only with women. These programs have helped to progress women’s views on gender, but at the cost of leaving men behind in their traditional views—undermining their needs and concerns.

“If you go to the villages, they’ve all been to the ‘gender training’, which has done a terrible thing. I am totally against gender training because what it has done is give the women a politically correct diction that has nothing to do with how they live,” says Dr. J Devika from the Center for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

One the major disgraces of gender trainings Dr. J Devika points out, is that rather than empowering women to become political agents, these programs are teaching them how they are equal to men and that society is pitched against them due to patriarchy. Yet their day-to-day realities make the transition from housewife to employee one that has had, and continues to have, serious and harmful backlash for women. Backlash comes in the form of domestic abuse, rape, sexual harassment, and psychological abuse from men whose views on gender are antiquated and have been bypassed in the gender paradigm’s quest to empower only women.

“We are seeing increasing threats such as rising violence against women, alcoholism, and rape. Whether its more reporting or not, the levels are high in absolute terms” Dr. J Devika told WNN.

The levels are so extraordinary, that Kerala’s crime rate is the highest in the country.

In 2010 is was more than double the national average. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) intimate partner violence (IPV), rape, molestation, and sexual harassment are increasing every year. Rape nearly doubled from 634 cases in 2010 to 1132 in 2011.

Cruelty by husbands and relatives with dowry violence is another point of contention between men and women rarely talked about in the international rush to empower women. In 2011 there were 5,377 cases, which was a steady increase from 4,797 in 2010, and 4,007 in 2009, naturally this figure does not take into account unreported cases.

Opposite of Kerala’s first place ranking on the Human Development Index (HDI) for 2011, these crimes are not the only flaring indicator that Kerala is off-track in its social development and quality of life. The suicide rate and alcohol consumption are the highest per capita in the country. These indicators shed light on a gender dimension that is prevalent in these ‘distressingly’ high rates. Seventy-four percent of all suicides in Kerala are by men, while men are also responsible for the increasing rapes, alcohol consumption and violence against women.

These crimes speak directly to the need for re-gendering empowerment initiatives in the region. As the data illuminates, men are suffering from a variety of social pressures. It is also evident that their well-being is integral to women’s well-being. What kind of service are we providing for a woman by ’empowering’ her if she is constantly at threat from her partner, workplace and/or society? If men remain excluded from gender and empowerment programs, then these crime rates will continue to increase, posing greater dangers and resistance to the women they seek to serve.

The pressures men face from all corners of society are often overlooked or misinterpreted. When WNN asked Kerala’s Department of Social Welfare what type of programs existed for men they responded, “nothing.”

A widely held assumption throughout the world is that men are already empowered and not in need of support. To help them transition from the ‘patriarchal and rigid’ gender paradigm, that gave preference and privilege to them there are options. But it takes understanding and partnership between genders.

“There is a problem of resistance here. Women are getting more empowered and men are not ready to face demands from the women’s side—so there is resistance.” says Mini Sukumar, a Women’s Studies professor at the University of Calicut, Kerala. “The problem is men are not familiar with the rights of women, nor are they being taught about them. Another problem is, the societal structures like the police and government are not familiar with the articulation of women’s rights. Women are going to the police station with cases of domestic violence and the people there are not sensitive to the issue. We have the law, we have the mechanisms for women, but even they are not sensitive about these issues,” Sukumar continued.

Men’s destructive behavior is in part due to their misinterpretation of gender, but it also stems from their own lack of empowerment and understanding of masculinity. In Kerala the common ideas of masculinity are ‘breadwinner and protector.’ Yet under this façade men are actually insecure, scared, and frustrated. This is a gender issue that reaches far beyond Kerala. It is also entrenched in fully developed countries, but often overlooked due to centuries of injustice for women.

“The only way to sensitize men and the social structures to women’s rights and gender everywhere, is for them to be directly involved,” adds Sukumar. When men are brought into gender dialogue then mutual understanding and empowerment can begin to flourish through families, communities and social structures.

But one of the obstacles to this is that men are still blamed and labeled as perpetrators while women are viewed as the ‘victims’ of patriarchy. This view ultimately misrepresents both men and women and only serves in perpetuating the cycle of blame and confusion.

“I do not believe men are in the least bit pressurized by society. They are free to do whatever and go wherever they want, they face absolutely no resistance or problems from society” stated Gayathri Krishna, a journalist in Kochi.

While men lack an understanding of women’s needs and concerns, women lack understanding and empathy toward the pressures and expectations men face everyday.

“In societies eyes we [men] exist for two reasons, to earn money and to please our families. If we do not do so we are failures…We are blamed for everything” says Sahjin Nair, a 27-year-old unemployed engineer.

We can continue to create and fund programs that empower women and girls, but the case of Kerala shows that empowerment programs and gender trainings will only boost the status of women – only if they also include men and boys.

Due to Kerala’s plethora of government programs for women through NGOs – Non-Government Organizations, women’s self-help groups and gender trainings, premarital workshops and female quotas for positions in local government, women are integrating themselves into the regions workforce. They are also moving into India’s political and decision-making spheres.

Yet there is a long way to go for ‘equality’ to exist. For women to be truly empowered in all spheres of life it will take an inclusive approach to gender, including men’s perspectives and voices. Spaces for inter-gender dialogue must become popular in the region to foster this kind of growth.

As Warren Farrell, author of “The Myth of Male Power” says, “When only one sex wins, both sexes lose.”

When men are excluded from gender-based programs, the case in Kerala shows that sexual harassment, rape, suicide and violence against women will only increase. It will take partnership to redefine the gender paradigm so it is both holistic and egalitarian. Women have suffered greatly and continue to suffer from patriarchy, but now the opportunity to transcend this legacy is at hand. Together, in partnership with men, women can cultivate a true and more empowered culture of equanimity.


Former WNN intern and human rights reporter, Johanna Reimer recently returned from Kerala, India where she traveled on a Kickstarter funded campaign to report on human rights and gender issues in the region. Last March 2012 she also represented WNN as a delegate for a United Nations conference during the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Reimer has also traveled to small Buddhist villages in Thailand to teach English, dance and paint murals in their schools. In Africa she witnessed untold suffering due to colonialism, corruption, poverty and disease. In rural Nicaragua  Johannah worked with NGOs, the Nicaraguan government, and local community to build a vocational school for illiterate children and adults. During this time she also taught art and English, and worked with locals to strengthen and expand a local women’s group. It was in these travels that culminated in giving birth to her humanitarian desire to dedicate her life to serving those less fortunate. Reimer is also a recent graduate with Peace Studies and Visual Arts at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.


©2012 WNN – Women News Network
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