Nepal: How boys can learn to be better men

Bibek was helped to challenge the attitudes he had learned from his father and from society

“Even I used to think like that before.” 

Bibek (pictured above), age 15, from Accham, Nepal, unwittingly grew up to accept the behaviour and attitudes of his father, and of society at large. His early memories, he says, are of his father coming home drunk, and beating up his mother. He used to shiver in fear and listen to his mother cry and call out for help. “But no one came,” says Bibek.

The everyday ordeal of violence became a normal affair. Bibek grew to think that it was okay for a man to treat a woman like the way his father treated his mother – with spite, anger, hatred, and abuse. He says:

Once I asked my father why he used to treat my mother so badly. He looked at me with his drunken eyes, and said, ‘that is how you become a marda (a real man)’. And I believed him.

This belief was reinforced by his friends, who also told him of violence in their family. Listening to them normalised the occurrence of violence as a socially accepted practice and behaviour. Along with his friends, Bibek started mistreating the girls in the school, telling rude jokes, vandalising the walls with sexual content, and at times, ganging up on them to make them feel uncomfortable. He says:

Their discomfort became a means of entertainment for us. We were known as the bad boys in school, and no one wanted to be associated with us. But I realised my mistake when I took part in the Rupantaran (Transformation) sessions.

Rupantaran is part of a CARE Nepal project to support adolescents (ages 10 to 19) to learn about and challenge their assumptions and behaviours, and to gain the confidence and skills to challenge social norms. Bibek says:

In the first session of Rupantaran, the facilitator asked us if we had witnessed violence at our house or communities. Most of us raised our hands. Then, the facilitator asked the reason behind this act. I answered that women were clumsy, they didn’t take decisions, they often burnt food and neglected household duties, and a marda (a man) had to be violent to discipline them.

The facilitator then asked the boys to unpack the word marda (man). Everyone said the same thing: a man had to be strong, unaffected by emotions, be able to take the lead, and – crucially – shouldn’t act like a woman. Bibek says:

That’s when the facilitator probed and asked if women and men had different rights, aspirations, and dreams. We were all confused. The facilitator then started discussing rights, equality and equity, linking it with dreams, aspirations, and rights.

Bibek and his friends realised that women and girls had similar needs, dreams and aspirations to boys and men. However, the patriarchal society curbed their mobility and dreams, and forced them to live a life of fear and violence. Suddenly, Bibek started seeing things differently:

I realised that, as a boy, I was entitled to so much power that I was blinded by a superiority complex. I started critically analysing and reflecting on my behaviour, and felt guilty of my treatment towards my mother and the girls in my class.

The discussions in the Rupantaran sessions around toxic masculinity served as an eye-opener for Bibek and the other boys, and triggered self-reflections, which strengthened empathy and respect for the women and girls in the community. Bibek says:

My mother never complained of the ill-treatment that she had to undergo. But through the Rupantaran sessions, I realised that I had to support her and be there for her. That’s when I decided that I would try to help my mother break the cycle of violence.

One day when my father was sober, I told him that I had decided to start drinking. He was shocked. I told him that I had to be a man, and I too would like to drink, and become violent like my father. My father remained quiet. Subtly I had made him realise that his behaviour was having an adverse effect in my life, and endangering my well-being.

Bibek started discussing with his mother and father what he had learned at the Rupantaran sessions:

I started helping out with the household chores, and started discussing the notions of masculinity, laws related to gender-based violence, personal hygiene. My mother had so many questions, and I was thrilled because through these sharing I was also mending relations with my mother, and in turn sensitising both my parents about what was wrong and right.

Today, Bibek is a strong advocate of women and girls’ rights in his community. He is also the school representative in the School Management Committee, and fiercely advocates for better safety, security, and hygiene facilities in school. Under his leadership, the school has also implemented various outreach engagement campaigns to sensitise people about domestic violence and rights. He says:

We still have a long way to go, but I am confident that if boys become sensitive towards the needs of women and girls then we can definitely establish a world of equality.

Group of school children in Nepal
Bibek (left) and other participants in the CARE school project

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The SAFE Justice project

The Rupantaran sessions were part of CARE’s SAFE Justice project in Nepal.

Access to justice is a major issue for the poorest and most marginalised groups in Nepal. Informal barriers include deeply entrenched norms and practices in Nepali society such as patriarchal family values, cultural norms, public gender discrimination, and caste-based social orders. Poverty, discriminatory implementation of legal provisions, under-representation of women and marginalised groups in the judicial service, physical distance to service providers specifically courts, and a lack of awareness of legal avenues are also major obstacles. CARE’s Strengthening Access to Fair and Equitable Justice (SAFE Justice) project has been working to build trust between poor and marginalised communities particularly women and girls and formal and informal justice service providers, in order to enable marginalised populations to access fair and equitable justice.

The SAFE Justice project was funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and implemented in five districts in Nepal (Gorkha, Dhading, Sindhupalchowk, Accham and Bajura) between October 2016 and September 2019, as part of the DFID-funded Integrated Programme for Strengthening Security and Justice in Nepal.

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