MUMBAI, India — Standing before a classroom packed with teenagers, Yojana Salunke begins her weekly one-hour lesson on a subject which many experts say is crucial to helping India address one of its biggest challenges: gender inequality.
“Hands up all those girls who have to do housework before or after school?” Salunke asks, as every pig-tailed girl in the dilapidated state-run school classroom raises their hands.
“And how many boys help their mothers with the chores?” she continues, looking around the room trying to spot the few boys who have lifted their hands.
The girls laugh and accuse the boys of being lazy, while the boys retort that there is no need to do domestic work as their mothers and sisters do it all. A heated debate ensues.
As India grapples to stem rising violence against women, activists say classes like these—which confront traditional gender roles and challenge sexism amongst the youth—are key to changing attitudes and curbing widespread gender abuse.
“The lessons are interesting. We talk about how boys and girls are equal as human beings, but how we treat girls differently,” said Shakir Parvez Shaikh, 15, a student at the Shahaji Nagar Municipal Hindi School in Mumbai’s Cheeta Camp area.
“For example, girls are not allowed to play cricket or watch as much television as boys because they have to do housework or because it is not safe outside for them. I didn’t realize before… I think it’s unfair.”
Barrage of Threats
From female feticide, child marriage and dowry killings to rape and domestic violence, Indian girls and women face a barrage of threats, say experts, largely because of age-old patriarchal attitudes that view them as inferior to men.
A massive wave of public protests after the fatal gang rape of a woman on a Delhi bus in December 2012 jolted many in the world’s second most populous country out of apathy and forced the government to enact stiffer penalties on gender crimes.
Since then, voracious reporting by the media, campaigns by the government and programs by civil society groups have brought greater public awareness of women’s rights and emboldened victims to come forward and register abuses.
There were 309,546 reports of crimes against women in India in 2013, a 26.7 percent jump from 2012, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, including rape, kidnap, sexual harassment, trafficking, and cruelty by husbands and relatives.
But violence is not the only problem. Women also face less visible forms of discrimination with little say over their lives and lacking access to finance, land, inheritance, education, employment, healthcare and nutrition.
The World Economic Forum 2014 Global Gender Gap Index ranked India as 114 out of 142 countries—based on how women fared against men when it came to economic participation and opportunities, educational attainment and health and survival.
India had the biggest difference between women and men in average minutes spent per day on unpaid work—a gap of 300 minutes, said the report—while working women earned on average US$1,980 annually compared to men earning $8,087.
During to a visit to India this month, International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christine Lagarde said the gender disparity in the labor sector was a “huge missed opportunity.”
She cited a study putting India’s female participation at 33 percent of the workforce against a global average of 50 percent.
The Mindset Challenge
While activists have welcomed harsher punishments for gender crimes and moves to improve security, they stress authorities and society must address inequality at a deeper level with adult attitudes and behavior often shaped by childhood experiences.
“If today’s boys are taught to question gender abuse now, they are less likely to be violent when they become men tomorrow,” said Ravi Verma, Asia director at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).
“And if girls are taught to speak out now, they will be less likely to endure it as adults.”
A survey by the UN Population Fund and the ICRW last November found that six out of 10 Indian men admitted violence against their partners, with men who experienced or witnessed discrimination as children more likely to be abusive.
Although not part of India’s formal education curriculum, organizations such as the ICRW have been working with government schools in states such as Maharashtra and Jharkhand to introduce gender classes like those at the Shahaji Nagar Municipal School.
Working with 12- to 14-year-olds in more than 12,000 schools, teachers use a range of activities from role play, games and group assignments to spark discussions about discrimination.
For example, the teens act out and discuss familiar scenes in their lives, such as when a daughter is given less food than her brother, or a husband beats his wife for not cooking his dinner, or a girl is harassed by boys in the street.
In the cramped one-roomed homes lining the narrow lanes of Cheeta Camp’s slums where many of the students live, girls say the classes have boosted their confidence to speak out.
“Before I never used to say anything when a boy in the neighborhood used to make negative comments as I walked past on my way to and from school. But after the classes, I confronted him and told my mother and she went and spoke to him,” said 15-year-old Princy Dhananjay Gupta, who wants to become a teacher.
Researchers admit the two-year program may not be enough to turn around deep-rooted views over the lower status of women, but say it may plant the seeds of change in the next generation.
Many students seem to agree.
“If you look at my grandfather and great grandfather, they never thought men and women were equal,” said aspiring cricketer Shaikh Mohsin Mohammad Anis, 15, who also lives in Cheeta Camp.
“But I have learnt this and now I will teach my children about equality and that’s how things will change.”