It’s evening rush hour at a street market in the city of Pune, India. Fifteen-year-old flower seller Aniket Sathe is in his element — bargaining with customers, catching up with friends who drop by. They gossip about school, check out the motorbikes whizzing past and dream up crazy schemes. Like, what if they could get ahold of the balloons that the lady next to Aniket is selling?
Aniket points to a nearby building and grins. “If we took as many balloons as would fit in there and tied them to your hand you could fly in sky,” he says.
But lately all the fun Aniket is having in the market is making him feel a little sorry for his older sister.
“She can’t come here,” he says. “Every day she has work to do at home.”
That’s a new insight for Aniket. The division of labor in his family — he sells flowers in the market, his sister is stuck at home washing clothes and cooking dinner — is something he never thought to question. That is, until recently, when he joined an unusual class.
Getting the Boys on Board
The class is run by a nonprofit group and meets every Wednesday. The night we stop by, 10 boys stand in an empty shop donated for community activities. They’re playing Simon Says.
The games are just a hook to get the boys in the door. Soon the teacher, Suhas Kamble, is sitting the boys down in a circle for tonight’s lesson. He starts with some questions about the traditional roles for husbands and wives.
“Who rules in the house?” Kamble asks.
“The man,” answers Aniket.
“Who makes all the decisions?” continues Kamble.
“The man,” says Aniket.
“So the woman is at the bottom and whatever the man says, she has to listen to,” concludes Kamble. “She can never argue with the man or disagree.”
Kamble then explains that this is just one of many ways the culture works against women in India. It’s a point Kamble makes often. The non-profit that sponsors this class — the Equal Community Foundation – has an ambitious mission: Persuade India’s boys to help end discrimination against India’s girls. India consistently ranks among the world’s worst countries for women, with high rates of sexual violence and domestic abuse. Plenty of Indians are trying to fix this through programs to empower girls. But the staff at the Equal Community Foundation say that’s not enough. You need to get the boys on board. too.
Aniket and the other boys in this class seem receptive. They nod earnestly virtually every time Kamble speaks. But Kamble has got his work cut out for him. So many other places these boys go — home, school, the street — they’re picking up a different message: that girls should be subservient; that they’re fundamentally inferior.
After class we ask the boys a question. What makes a good sister?
A 15-year-old named Prashant Hatangale tells us, “She should prepare food for me when we get home from school.”
Next up is 13-year-old Krushna Sathe. “She shouldn’t be flashy,” he says. “She should wear modest clothes, traditional clothes.”
And what does our flower seller, Aniket, think?
“She should not stay outside long,” he says. “And she shouldn’t be chatting with boys.”
Basically, he’s describing his older sister.
Not My Job
It’s morning in Aniket’s neighborhood, a maze of metal shacks. He’s sitting on the family’s one bed. He’s in his school uniform. His older sister Aishwarya, who is 16, wears a traditional tunic and pants. She dropped out of school this year after failing one of the subjects on a national exam.
She’s helping their mother prepare a breakfast of spiced rice and groundnuts. Rekha Sathe gives her daughter a smile.
“She’s a very good cook,” Rekha says. “She’s better than me.”
We ask Rekha how old Aishwarya was when Rekha first taught her how to cook.
“Ten years old,” says Rekha.
She didn’t teach Aniket. She explains that her daughter needs to know how to cook for one important reason: “My expectation for her is that she find a good husband with a good job and a nice home.”
So Rekha has been carefully training Aishwarya for married life.
“When she goes to her new home, if somebody comes home from work, she should offer them water and make them tea. She should serve food,” Rekha says. “I should not get any complaints [from her in-laws] that she is not behaving properly.”
Aishwarya listens to all this without objection. She doesn’t oppose her mother’s plans for her. Still, she says she does want her brother to pitch in on the chores. But when she’d ask him for help, Aniket would say, “Not my job.”
“He was so arrogant,” says Aishwarya. “I used to get mad at him and I used to fight with him. I would ask him why do you talk like that?”
He’d make fun of her skin tone — say she was too dark, and tell their younger sister she was fat.
Then one day, Aishwarya says, she found Aniket cleaning the house.
“Suddenly, when I’d ask him to do something, he would do it. I asked the teacher, ‘What are you teaching him?'”
It turned out one of the assignments was to try a chore your sister normally does. But Aniket says what really spurred him to re-consider his attitude was a class discussion during which Kamble showed the boys some poems and pictures.
“The girls were doing all the work at home while the boys were allowed to go fly kites,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘That’s like me and my sister. What would it feel like if I stopped doing everything for one day and only sat at home? That’s how my sister must feel,’ and that’s why I started doing work at home.”
Aishwarya says Aniket is now a changed boy. He listens to her. He pitches in when she asks. And he’s stopped the teasing. He’s … nice.
The Cool Girl
The sun has set over the flower stand, and the talk between Aniket and his pals has turned to romance. A short kid in a yellow shirt plucks a slip of paper from his pocket and shows it to Aniket.
It’s a love note from a girl at school. The kid wants to know, how do I get a message back to her? Aniket’s got lots of advice.
“Listen,” he says, “leave it under her desk. But stick it there with chewing gum. Otherwise it could fly off and another girl could find it and tell the teacher.”
Aniket is not speaking from experience. He says he himself is not exactly smooth with the ladies. Take this girl whose family runs a nearby fruit stand. Her parents let her hang out there until late. She wears a polo shirt and pants. She walks where she likes, banters with the boys. She’s not traditional. Aniket watches as she wanders from stall to stall, helping the vendors make change, blow up balloons.
“I don’t talk to her,” he says.
He’s too shy.
But does he like her?
“Yeah,” he says. “Of course!”