Let’s talk about your Spoilt, Selfish and Slightly Dangerous Son

My child is all sunshine, goodness and hope. She is a girl. Your son on the other hand seems to be heading in a dangerous direction. To confirm this, simply turn on the television, read a newspaper or go to a cinema hall near you, as I did recently. Just before the film, a Mumbai policeman appeared larger-than-life on the multiplex screen to reassure girls that city police would keep them safe. This was very comforting. Then in the second part of this public service advertisement, he spoke to your sons and told them that boys were being watched and warned them that police were on the side of girls. This was rather concerning.

The advertisement was not a new one. But it took on special relevance because at the same time as I was doing an internet search, reading about how the police had diligently done a workshop to get their performance right, I also found a news item about another Mumbai police station involved in some of the worst kind of custodial violence—and it involved a child. A boy had been sexually abused in police custody, but we called this victim an adolescent, a minor, a juvenile. Instead of sparking outrage about a harmed child, the story disappeared under a heap of literature and messaging that single-mindedly assumes all boys to be entitled, pampered oppressors or offenders who need no more attention—unless it’s warnings and harsh punishment.

Not for a moment do I believe that India can afford to pause the conversation on girl safety, nor should any debate impinge on victim/survivor rights. Gender work must and will go on. However, it is worrying when we don’t acknowledge that children come in more than one gender and that boys’ safety is also a pressing issue. Dare I argue then that it is equally dangerous to be growing up a boy in this country where rigid definitions of masculinity could be just as oppressive as limitations for girls? Dare I challenge a Nobel Laureate and suggest that it may not be as preferable to be part of the group Amartya Sen calls the preferred sex. Especially considering son-preference has roots in the understanding that boys are assets with potential to earn and this pushes millions of children out of school and into the work force terribly early. Finally may I respectfully disagree with a popular columnist who recently wrote in a Mumbai paper, “From assault to rudeness, murder to misbehavior—it is all allowed because boys will be boys.” Are boys in India really all that privileged?

Ask parents of nine-year-olds (as I did) why they worry that sons spend more time in the library than on the football field, fight too gently, talk too softly or cry too loud. Ask a boy from the exclusive boarding school about the tradition of orientation rituals featuring physical and sexual violence. Ask the child in the slum who is kicked in the gut every time he comes home without earning enough. Ask the boy with the empty stomach bringing himself up because his parent believes that a thirteen year old can care for himself, or ask the one who works in the garbage dump amidst dog bites, disease, injury and beatings. They might tell you that it is incredibly tough growing up a boy and that failure to live up to expected male roles has brutal consequences. Boys will tell you stories about loss, pain, exploitation, coercion, violence – not all that different from girls. And government statistics will back them. A 2007 government survey found that more boys experience physical abuse than girls and when it comes to working children, 92% of those who face violence are boys. Sexual abuse with boys (as with girls) is reported to be staggeringly high in India at 52%, in fact a little higher than 47% in the case of girls. India also has the highest suicide rate in the world, with young boys and men being highly vulnerable as per the latest WHO report.

But the question is whether we will listen to boys and what they need. At the moment, discussion is narrowly focused on two male roles: Future providers—if boys are a potential labor force then all that counts is that they be prepared and skilled to earn. And their other role: Predators-in-waiting who must be neutralized early before they harm women. Undeniably these are important, but once again the child who experiences deep powerlessness or debilitating pressure is buried under the weight of assumptions and expectations.

And what happens when millions of individuals feel silenced, marginalized or brutalized? When daily reality tells them that it is near impossible to be the strong invincible protectors and providers that they are expected to be. Harvard-based medical anthropologist Kimberly Theidon’s work with child soldiers in the Congo and gangs in Latin America connects the combination of society’s expectation and male powerlessness to the expression of “hyper” masculinity—displays of physical strength, violence and aggression as the most important symbols of maleness to establish maleness, something that sounds familiar in the Indian context. But beyond such research, common sense tells us that that ignoring a whole gender cannot possibly be good for boys, girls or any society.

It will be Children’s Day soon and perhaps this would be the right time to celebrate all kinds of children, to reassert that the boy-child (it is telling that we never call him that) needs attention too, just as the girl-child does. It is urgent that media, parents, policy makers, police and public start a new conversation on boys. And to do this it is crucial that we stop questioning boys’ status as children-not just because it is discriminatory (ironic as that may be) but also because it is dangerous. Because denying boys a childhood excludes them from protection that is in fact the right of every child. As for the police, we are of course grateful that they are active about apprehending male perpetrators. But just as much, we need them to be effective and purposeful when it comes to protecting boys and keeping them safe because at least 50,000 boys go missing each year in this county, and 60% remain untraced. Let’s talk more about protection for boys because all children, regardless of gender have a right to be safe. Every day. Everywhere.

The author, Suparna Gupta, is the founder of Aangan, an Indian non-profit that works with children in dangerous situations like child trafficking, child marriage, hazardous work, violence and abuse. She is an Ashoka fellow and a Ford Mason fellow from Harvard Kennedy School