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Insights and Analysis

The Gender Lab Boys Program

September 11, 2019

By Jane Sloane

From 2018 to 2019, 2,500 boys from 61 schools in Mumbai, Indore, and Delhi, India, took a journey to redefine masculinity and stand up to gender-based violence. The Gender Lab Boys Program is the brainchild of cofounders Akshat Singhal and Ayushi Banerji, strong believers in the power of collective action who say they are out to change a patriarchal society, one boy at a time. Engaging boys, they say, can disrupt discriminatory social norms and the abuses of power that lead to violence against women.

A 2018 study by Thomson Reuters Foundation found that India was the most dangerous place in the world for women, with high rates of sexual violence, human trafficking for domestic work, forced labor, forced marriage, and sexual slavery. It was also the most dangerous country in the world for cultural traditions that threaten women, the survey found, citing acid attacks, female genital mutilation, child marriage, and physical abuse.

The Gender Lab Boys Program. Photo: The Blue Ribbon Movement

The Gender Lab for Boys is working to change attitudes, beliefs and behavior by engaging boys in conversations and advocacy projects to increase their awareness and encourage action.

I was recently in Mumbai with Asia Foundation colleagues Diya Nag, from Delhi, and Binayak Basnyat, from Nepal, to meet Akshat and members of the Gender Lab team and learn more about their approach and curriculum. It was clear that the trainers shared a kinetic connection with the students that allowed difficult questions and conversations to surface, even about awkward issues.

The Gender Lab Boys Program describes its vision as “empowering adolescents to question existing gender narratives through critical and meaningful engagement with their communities.” In plainer language, Akshat calls it “breaking fixed notions of masculinity.”

In The Gender Lab, the boys collaborated to address issues including bullying and cyber-bullying, domestic violence, sexual harassment, verbal violence, gender discrimination, and portrayals of women and men in the media. They went out into their communities to further discuss these issues, and their collective outreach directly affected over 10,000 people in the community, with many thousands more reached through the reverberating influence of this work.

Gender Lab boys

Founders Singhal and Banerji believe men and boys are a powerful untapped resource who can become influential allies for women and girls. The Gender Lab reaches boys at a critical time in their lives—the preteen and teenage years—to show them how gender equality benefits everyone, and to awaken in them their ability to empower women and girls. Through the Lab, they recognize that they often have power and privilege, and therefore the ability to change existing norms and ideas about gender and masculinity. They can challenge patriarchal beliefs and practices and, later in life, institutions and structures that continue to perpetuate inequality.

The curriculum includes something called “genderbread,” a tool for teaching about gender identity and expression. It encourages critical thinking and asking questions about accepted norms and actions. What role does a man play in building a nation? What is the role of a woman? Is gender a choice? Where are the conflicts of gender and sex? What is a traditional or modern mindset? How is violence made a part of our lives? In the age of social media and the political rise of the Strong Man, the ability to be reflective, alert, and curious and to critique issues like these is rare.

Boys drawing what violence looks like

Akshat speaks of his own journey to shed stereotypical thinking: “Even I have my own box, and I want to help others break out of the box.”

On the second day of our visit, we met more of the staff at the Gender Lab office in Dahisar West, as well as some of the Gender Lab fellows, who support program outreach. From there we traveled to the Lokhandwala Foundation School, in Kandivali East, to meet the principal and observe a follow-up session with the boys. Then we went on to meet the principal and students of the Cosmos School, in Borivali East.

The projects, designed and implemented by boys and taken into their communities, included surveys on everyday sexism, interviews with local police about domestic violence, and poster and social media campaigns to address bullying. They also involved a poll on who can be a leader, and a household survey on the gender division of labor. Other projects focused on confronting sexual harassment (talking to police and courthouse staff, conducting workshops, producing campaign materials), producing a video on cyberbullying, reading the Domestic Violence Act, and placing a signboard outside a police station that says, “Stop Domestic Violence.” Another group conducted an inquiry into the problems women face, including access to education, child marriage, sati (widow burning), and the unequal division of labor.

Boys in planning mode

There’s an electric energy in the room when the boys are talking among themselves about issues and projects, and when they present their work to us, the creativity of their ideas and execution is striking. It’s creative collaboration and leadership in action.

On our third day, teachers and parents joined a follow-up session with the boys. They formed groups to discuss the impact of The Gender Lab on boys’ behavior, and what they could see as the long-term influence of the program. One of the fathers, who had taken time off work to attend, spoke of how he hoped that basic stereotypes like blue-for-boys and pink-for-girls would end with his generation. The boys were bursting with ideas for other actions that would make a difference, and they tripped over themselves to get the words out. Start a mini-Gender Lab! Refresher workshops! Have gender clubs from the fifth grade! Make The Gender Lab a part of the curriculum!

Father and son at The Gender Lab

A few days later, I was speaking at a conference in Chennai, and I mentioned to those present that I had just come from experiencing the Gender Lab Boys Program. After the talk, I was approached by two men from Afghanistan who expressed interest in piloting the Gender Lab for Boys there. These boys are engaging in a powerful movement that is chipping away at the violence, stigma, and stereotypes that pervade so much of society. There was reason for hope.

This video is a glimpse of the The Gender Lab Boys Program. The program was initiated by The Blue Ribbon Movement and supported by The Asia Foundation.Gender Lab for Boys cofounder Akshat Singhal is a 2019 Asia Foundation Development Fellow. Meet some of the 2019 Development Fellows in this video.

Jane Sloane is senior director of The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation. 


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