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Challenging gender roles in Tamil Nadu

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Eleanor Davis
WVoN co-editor 

“Boys are the centre of the universe” spouts a confident 11th standard male student at Sri Venkateswara Matriculation in Chennai, the capital of India’s southern state, Tamil Nadu.

“Men invented most things: the bulb, the fan” he continues, the classroom’s own fans providing little relief during this heated debate over gender equality.

But his female colleagues don’t let him get away with it. Standing tall in front of the segregated class one girl gets up and says:

“That’s because they don’t allow girls to learn anything, they keep them in the kitchen.” She is supported by her neighbour: “in some families women earn more than men, some women are head of the household.”

An unusual topic of conversation in the conservative south of India – where women are covered from the neck down, schools girls of all ages wear pigtails whilst men parade around in lunghis – a piece of cloth, wrapped around at the waist and hoisted up, like a short skirt.

It’s about time to address this unmissable gender gap between men and women, boys and girls which can be seen in the street and in the home alike. Restless Development, the youth-led development agency is doing just that.

As part of the International Citizenship Service Programme, headed by the UK government department for international development (DfID), Brits under the age of 24 have been delivering Life Skills lessons as part of a broader development project taking place across India.

Amongst lessons on HIV, substance abuse, sexual health and marriage, Chloe Fielding, 21, from Bristol has been addressing gender roles with her students:

“Girls always say they don’t have enough freedom, they are unsure of the laws here, one girl told me she wanted to become a pilot but couldn’t, because she was a girl.”

After the initial debate, Chloe encourages the young group to discuss the difference between gender and sex – to create an understanding of the social construction of gender, complete with restrictive dress codes and segregated roles.

“These lessons are fun and interactive and they give girls a chance to voice their opinions in a culture in which women stay at home and don’t have much of a voice. It also gives boys the chance to hear girl’s opinions on their lack of freedom.”

But outside the school gates holds a worrying picture for these intelligent young women. Dowry, now illegal but still a social norm, means that a girl’s parents are still expected to pay or offer expensive gifts to her prospective husband.

Once married she then leaves her family household to become the housewife to her husband and carer to her mother-in-law, thus making her financially redundant to her own family – a tradition which results in gross amounts of female infanticide.

Venture outside of Chennai, a bustling city and the situation worsens, according to Dinesh, a national volunteer for Restless Development, India:

“In rural areas, male domination is very high. Women are seen to give pleasure, to cook, wash shirts and do household things” he says, having delivered a gender awareness programme in rural government schools and local communities.

“Domestic violence is also a part of Dowry; when the wife’s family is not giving the Dowry in time the wife gets physically harassed and gets beatings from her husband” a scenario that goes on in both rural and urban India, he says.

Yet there are signs of change, in the cities at least, and with more awareness raising, Dinesh is hopeful:

“Nowadays it’s become normal to see women pilots, women auto drivers, women bus conductors – in every field from local markets to technology, ample of women are working alongside men.”

With NGOs such as Restless Development opening up the issue of gender equality, young people are starting to question what has always been the norm. What’s more they are taking to the streets of their local communities and slums to open up the discussion further.

Opportunities are opening up – reservations for women’s employment (33% in government jobs), access to universities and NGO efforts to encourage gender equality. Yet in a country which harbours such rich traditions, linked with strong religious roots it remains to be seen whether cultural norms will allow Indian women to take them.

To apply for the International Citizenship Service visit DfID.

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