Someone had intervened in a child marriage, someone else had initiated a group exercise to create ‘Safety in the Workplace’ policies for women in his organisation and someone else was running a rehabilitation space for stray animals. We would get to hear these stories from our programme mentors, so we thought it would be a good idea to bring some of the earliest graduates of our Action for Equality programme together for a reunion to learn about their journeys first hand.

They were grown young men, now.  It had been many years since they had attended Action for Equality (AfE) sessions as wide-eyed 14 and 15 year olds. As we sat back and watched them communicate and interact with each other, we were struck by the remarkable young men that these boys had grown into. Fourteen of them sat around a table and facilitated a discussion among themselves. They spoke in clear and confident language, they were respectful and supportive towards each other but they also disagreed – firmly, yet politely. It was not surprising then to learn that many of them had participated actively in activities like public speaking, debate and drama in their schools and colleges.

They talked about the pressures they faced to start contributing to the household income and their conscious decisions not to give up on their education. Most of them were pursuing higher education while holding down steady jobs. It was evident that coming from low-income households, these young men faced more than the regular pressure of being male bread-winners, for them it was also about the survival of their families. And it was heartening to see how they had tried to balance their aspirations to study further with the needs of their families.  Amol has been working in a sports gear retailer while pursuing his BA in Psychology, Milind is now a credit manager at a bank, Somnath has taken over the family fruit vending business, Anand is pursuing a Mechanical Engineering degree, Akshay is preparing for public service exams and Sourabh is pursuing higher studies in Hotel Management.

They discussed how they have been able to put their knowledge on gender and human rights into practice on a daily basis in their peer groups, families, colleges and workspaces. Each one has been an active advocate of women’s rights in their families, communities and workspaces having consistently challenged menstrual taboos and restrictions to girl’s rights to education and access to public spaces. Some went a step further by mobilising child line resources in another part of the state and standing up to village goons to prevent a child marriage, another led an initiative in his workspace to create a platform for female staff to voice their safety-related concerns and formulate a policy around this issue and a third has set up a small outfit to rescue and rehabilitate stray animals. The orientation towards social justice and a calling to take action resonated strongly within the group.

They proudly shared how their interactions with female friends and colleagues are so markedly different from their peers. There were stories where they were approached by women and girls in their families and communities for support or simply for discussions on gender or human rights issues. They felt proud to be able to create safe spaces for women and girls around them; to be comfortable and respectful in these interactions;  and to be capable and confident of discussing gender and human rights issues.

This was a moment of pride for our entire team, but it also gave us a more nuanced understanding of the path that AfE sets young boys on.  What we understood from their experiences is that the actual value of Action for Equality as an intervention is the intervention itself. Action for Equality has certainly succeeded in inculcating knowledge and skills on gender and human rights, which in turn enables boys to inculcate equitable attitudes and behaviour, but  interestingly, the programme also provides a unique space for adolescent boys to reflect inward and discover the best possible version of themselves.

Written by Christina Furtado and Rhea Banerjee