ECF mentors share the inside story

Working with boys and men to prevent gender-based violence is a relatively new approach. Even though it seems a mammoth challenge, our “Special Seven” team of mentors breaks it down into some practical, bite-sized steps. In a candid discussion, they highlight a few of the things that worked really well, challenges that cropped up, and solutions we developed.

ImageMentor interacting with volunteer leaders from Action for Equality Programme

Mentor interacting with volunteer leaders from Action for Equality Programme

Challenges faced and lessons learnt:

  1. Gender equality is not a priority within the communities we work in. Completing education, securing a job, earning a decent living, trying to get the family out of poverty, etc. is a priority. So, convincing boys and their parents to encourage participation is a constant challenge. Consistent dialogue is the only solution. When the Mentors face this continued resistance, they spend extra time with those parents to highlight the advantages of the programme for their sons and outline the positive behavioural changes they can expect to see. This effort has more often than not, turned the situation around!
  2. Keeping the boys engaged enough to come back each week is one of the biggest challenges we face. While the age group we work with (14-17) is the best in terms of being mouldable both in perspectives and behaviour, the attention span and interest levels need constant renewing.
  3. The content of the sessions and the method of delivery should be made extremely engaging for the participants. Lectures or one direction trainings, definitely do not work. Sessions must be designed based on the principle of activity based learning. We constantly update the content, the tools we use for delivery and our mentors’ facilitation skills, based on our experience in the communities. Our current curriculum is available on request and the next version will be ready for sharing by end of this year.
  4. Availability of space in the community to conduct the sessions has often been a challenge. Conducting the sessions in community owned venues has its own benefits but often these centres are being used for several activities. So, in every community we have now identified two or three alternative spaces. Mentors have built a strong rapport with community members that allows them to have options – to an extent where the parents have often offered their home as space for conducting sessions.
  5. Working with boys cannot happen in isolation. Understanding and involving the various influential groups within a community is important. Parents are one of the most influential of these groups. However, getting parents involved in the programme is a challenge. When we tried to break it down, it had mainly to do with the need to build trust amongst them towards the youngsters and us as an organisation; and finding a suitable time for all to meet and take action.

The mentors’ repertoire of practical tips:

  1. The best way to get the boys is to go where they hang out – at the playground, in the mitra mandals (youth groups) or other addas (hangout areas). We play a game of football or cricket with them, perhaps grab a chai and talk about general stuff. We cannot move ahead and talk about anything unless they begin to see us as a friend or even a brother.
  2. We have learnt to create the “safe space” these young impressionable boys are looking for – the place where they can express themselves without fear of being judged, the space where they can share their personal stories and struggles. In our experience, there is no substitute for this. This is one of the main reasons the boys keep coming back every week.
  3. ‘Building rapport’ is a big task but involves very simple things – call the boys up on their birthdays, chat over chai, listen to what they share, remember small details, hang out where they feel comfortable, give them the space they need and be as non-judgemental as you possibly can …in short build a relationship with them that they value.
  4. In order to keep the boys engaged, motivated and responsive, it is important to keep the tone, language and content of the sessions to be non-accusatory and open, which further emphasises the “safe space” concept that is used in all communication.
  5. It is extremely important for us to understand how the programme will benefit the boys. We need to understand and articulate that boys need to be part of the programme not for somebody else but for themselves – so that they can have happy and healthy relationships. Also, we need to make these benefits very tangible. When designing the curriculum and activities, we keep this mind.
  6. Sometimes when we face continued resistance from parents, we spend extra time with them, to highlight clearly the advantages of the course on their sons and outline the positive behavioural changes they can expect to see. One of the highlights that really scores a point is when we are able to pick out a particular real-life example of one of the boys they know and highlight the changes that are obvious in him. This effort has more often than not, turned the situation around!

The ECF Mentors are often called farishteys (angels from another world) by the boys and alumni in the communities. While this is true in many ways, the mentors are aware that each day and each initiative requires patience, time and effort; each boy who stands up and speaks out against gender based violence and discrimination is the sweet taste of victory!