"Wanted: men who believe that wives are not for beating." That notice, inserted in the Indian Express by columnist C Y Gopinath, brought a surprising 205 responses from men in and around Mumbai. The youngest was in Class Nine and the oldest was 63 years old. Gopinath, who was working on an article on domestic violence, wondered why the situation had not improved significantly despite the emergence of so many women's groups over the years, says Harish Sadani, one of the founding members of Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA), formed in Mumbai 1993 by some of the men who responded to Gopinath's notice.
Nine years later, MAVA is going strong, with members who include businessmen, students and retired bank officials. Run entirely by volunteers, it is funded by individual donations, the occasional fund-raising program, sale of an annual publication and the interest from a corpus. The organization is also trying to set up a drop-in centre, for which they are looking for help raising resources.
Says Sadani, who has a Master's Degree in Social Work from the Tata Institute of Social Science and who runs the social work activities of a multinational company, "The root cause of domestic violence is men's attitude." Tackling this is a slow process and requires extensive work: with men. "There are few forums specifically for men to oppose violence against women," he adds.
At the time MAVA was launched, most women's organizations did not see the need to involve men, adds Sadani, but today MAVA collaborates with a number of women's organizations.
MAVA's main activity is counseling couples. Its help-line, staffed by both male and female volunteers, has received calls from about 300 people over the last nine years. "Three-fourths of them related to domestic violence," says Sadani. "And 95 of these were from women."
"We take down the complainant's statement in writing, then ask the other side to respond," says Sadani. "We tell the man that his wife has not complained to us, she has only asked for help. We want domestic harmony, we are not siding with anyone. In most cases, the man will listen," say MAVA volunteers, who avoid confrontation.
Sadani argues that this approach is more productive. "When a woman goes to a women's group, her viewpoint is their priority. But professional counselors must listen to both sides. You are not going to change the situation unless you listen to both the sides. Of course, when necessary, we advocate harsh measures, legal action and so on," he says.
Counseling by men has other advantages too. Says PK Naik, MAVA activist and the organization's treasurer, "Men are more likely to talk to other men about personal issues than they would to women."
Of the approximately 210 women who have complained of domestic violence, Sadani estimates that counseling has helped 40 to 45 per cent of the time. "We also have a panel of lawyers to whom we refer people if necessary, but we can't follow things up."
Advocate Ketaki Jaykar, who specializes in marital law, has not taken up any cases referred by MAVA, but emphasizes the importance of men's support in domestic disputes. "When the court sees family support from men, it becomes much easier to get favorable orders."
"Actually it is impossible to tell how successful we are," admits Naik. "Seven out of 10 people don't want to put their complaints down in writing, and don't call back." Even if they do, a solution is a long way away. "Perpetrators of violence know it is wrong, but it is difficult to get them to change. The 'success' rate is low, as it is for all such efforts, but we assume that things have worked out if the person doesn't come back," he adds.
Adds Swapan Purkayastha, another member of MAVA, "We try to find out how the victim can change the situation at home and draw the abuser to counselling to enable a change in behaviour."
If such tactics sound too conciliatory, activists emphasize that their first response to a complaint of violence is to advise a medical check-up and to document injuries. They also give suggestions on how to respond to future attacks. "Women who are abused must become friendly with the neighbors so that they can get support and next time they must raise an alarm so that the neighbors respond," says Naik. Women are also advised to file a police complaint after informing the other party. Stresses Purkayastha, "Violence must be opposed in such a way that the abuser knows it is wrong."
In addition to such 'curative' actions, MAVA also sees the importance of 'preventive' programs of gender sensitization in order to tackle the problem at its root. For instance, in 1995, when collegian Dipti Khanna had acid thrown on her face for spurning a boy's advances, MAVA conducted a public discussion on violence against women. In addition, volunteers also raised Rs 75,000 (1US$= Rs 48) from a cross-section of people, including inmates of the Nashik Jail towards Dipti's plastic surgery.
Since 1996, MAVA has published 'Diwali issues' of a men's magazine in collaboration with the Pune-based 'Purush Uvach' (Men Speak). In this annual magazine in Marathi, progressive men from various walks of life speak on gender issues.
In a joint program with the women's group Akshara, MAVA ran a 'wall-newspaper' in four Mumbai colleges, discussing issues ranging from violence to the significance of fasting for women. Sadani recalls that young boys watching one of their street plays felt men had a right to beat their wives. "This is a disturbing trend among youth," he says.
In keeping with its belief in changing social attitudes, on the International Women's Day this year, MAVA organized a public discussion among health groups, women's activists and government officials on the issue of gender pre-selection and sex-determination leading to abortions of female fetuses.
Encouragingly, the need for awareness-raising work was also articulated among youth. "We had male students asking for discussions. They know certain things are wrong, but don't know how to begin talking about them and changing the situation."
Support from MAVA has also come from women activists. Nandita Gandhi of Akshara, a Mumbai-based women's documentation centre, notes that it is very important to have a men's organization acting and speaking against violence against women: "Men can take up issues of masculinity from a different point of view."
MAVA also refers cases to women's organizations and vice versa. Says Sudha Kulkarni of Mahila Dakshata Samiti, a women's organization, "We also call upon MAVA if we feel we need a man to speak to another man and convince him."
Adds she, "Their voice is particularly important with the growth of groups like the Purush Hakk Surakshan Samiti (PHSS, or Committee to Protect Men's Rights), which has campaigned against Section 498A, which has provided relief to many women victims of domestic violence. Organizations like MAVA are needed to counter the philosophy of PHSS. Men are needed to refute their charges. It helps the women's movement in general."
If more men in the MAVA mould come forward, the status of women may just begin to improve.
MAVA can be contacted through Harish Sadani, 12 A Parishram Building, 1st floor, Bhandar Lane, Lady Jamshedji Road, Mahim, Mumbai 400 016; (022) 436 0631, email@example.com.