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The Place Where Boys Don't Even Know Their Sisters' Birthdays

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Photo: Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images.
The conversation started with a simple question: how do you celebrate your birthday?

Go drink beers with friends, enjoy some cake, they answered. And the birthdays of their friends? Again, cake, beer, gifts.

But when asked about the birthdays of their sisters, the men, ages 19 to 20, didn't have as much to offer. Most had never given their sister a gift. Out of 38 men in the room, 35 didn't even know their own sister's date of birth.

"We asked them: 'You know your birthday and you are celebrating your birthday. You know your friends' birthday and you are celebrating their birthday. So how do you think your sister is feeling about her birthday?'" Yogesh Vaishnav, the man who was leading the discussion, recalled. "At the end of this workshop, everyone decided they would celebrate their sister's birthday and give them a gift."

The exchange was part of a program run by Vikalp Sansthan, an organization cofounded by Vaishnav that works to end discrimination, inequality, and violence in the Indian state of Rajasthan.

Promoting gender equality is a major part of the mission of the group, which receives funding from a number of major international organizations, including the American Jewish World Service. But in addition to educating and supporting women and girls — an approach taken by many nonprofits working to improve gender equality — Vikalp Sansthan has launched a unique initiative aimed at boys and men.

"If we want peaceful, healthy and equal-based society, we have to work with both genders," Usha Choudhary, another cofounder, told Refinery29 in a Skype interview. "It is very important to empower girls and women and, at the same time, very important to sensitize men and boys. Through this process, they will grow together and respect each other."
The program has a presence in more than a dozen villages across Rajasthan, a deeply traditional and patriarchal region bordering Pakistan. The state has one of India's highest rates of marriage among girls ages 10 to 14, according to statistics cited by Vikalp Sansthan. Many girls and women there face discrimination, domestic violence, and no access to education. The subpar treatment starts at birth, the group says, with baby girls given names like Mafi (Sorry) or Dhapu (Enough).

"If you have a girl, people say there’s a stone in your stomach," one woman explains in a video about the program produced by Oxfam India.

Putting an end to discrimination that's so deep rooted in a community — and getting boys and men on board —is not an easy task.

"Women and girls are going through these situations so they will easily understand and they will mobilize easily," Choudhary said. "But men and boys are not facing all these things, so it's sometimes very difficult [for them] to join the groups and the discussion. Boys have the pressures of livelihood and education and all these things, so their families ask, 'Why are you going to this meeting? Why are you wasting your time when you should focus on your education, you should focus on your other things.'"
Vikalp Sansthan has tried to counter those sentiments by emphasizing to boys and men the ways treating women badly impacts their own lives.

"If you are angry [with your wife] and you go to your job, you'll also be angry with your friends, with your colleagues... you'll have one, two, three [cigarettes] at one time," Vaishnav said.

Supporting education and opportunities for their wives and sisters, he explained, can improve things for the entire family.

"She is also important," he said. "She has some dreams and your [dream] and her dream are going together. Then it will actually benefit you, your life, your children."

And the approach appears to be gaining some ground. Choudhary and Vaishnav estimate that their work has helped prevent 8,000 child marriages and given 10,000 girls access to education.

"It's small, small steps," Vaishnav said. "But we are working toward an equal society."
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