In the urban slums of Bangladesh, the lives of adolescent boys and girls are embedded within a framework of uncertainties stemming from poverty, threats of eviction and livelihood insecurity. Their experience of adolescence is shaped by multiple risk factors such as, negligence regarding education, gang violence, drug abuse, unregulated and unauthorized access to internet and pornography and lack of sex education. When situated within these social, economic and political instabilities, the intensive experience of adolescence becomes far more challenging, impacting the development and wellbeing of boys and girls.
While program interventions and research initiatives have addressed the debilitating impact on women in urban slums, they have only recently taken into consideration the various issues of health and rights of adolescent boys and young men. However there remains a significant dearth of knowledge in understanding the experiences of adolescent boys. More specifically, what does it mean to be a man in an informal poor urban settlements, how do masculine identities constitute power and how does it shape the identities boys make for themselves?
As boys enter adolescence they form world views, sexual attitudes and anxieties surrounding the notion of an ‘ideal man’. In the context of the urban slum, the ideal masculinity is characterized by strong patriarchy. Financial stability, display of strength and sexual prowess, control over the lives and bodies of their wives/sisters, etc. are all regarded as signs of masculinity. Additionally, gender roles that are heavily reinforced by families and communities during adolescence often perpetuate risky forms of masculinities, pushing boys towards a reality that they may not be ready for – a reality in which choices and negotiations are made in constant fluidity between a spectrum of differing and often conflicting identities, power and aspirations.
A recent formative study by JPGSPH on factors leading to early child marriage among adolescent boys and young men illuminates the choices and negotiations that boys make in the face of persisting instabilities. One such case in point is Sohel*, a 20-year old boy living in Bhashantek and studying in a government college. Sohel is an active community worker for NGO programs that work to prevent violence against women. Given his strong social network, Sohel exerts considerable influence among his peer groups of political and NGO affiliations.
“If I walk on road and find anyone who is helpless, I feel very proud if I can help them. People often come up to me and ask questions, seeking information and advice. ”
Sohel embraces this aspect of his identity with pride and understands the power he holds within the community. He expresses concern over issues of drug abuse and domestic violence, and actively works to prevent them.
“If there is any incident (of sexual harassment/domestic violence), be it my relative or not, I try to make the right judgment and support the victims, taking them to the crisis center or hospital.”
He views authoritarianism and aggressiveness as undesirable masculine traits and through his work with the NGOs, he rejects these traits when challenging incidences of harassment and abuse.
“There was one incident where I had to quarrel with hospital and one stop crisis centre staff to get a woman treated…she had been beaten up horribly by her husband. When we reached the centre after 5pm, they said it was shut down; however I knew it is supposed to be open 24 hours. I got angry and started arguing with them. Only after telling them about the NGOs I work with, they began her treatment. Afterwards I helped her file a case.”
Interestingly, while Sohel attains recognition and power through actively defending gender rights; he has a strikingly opposite (and abusive) past. A love affair with a classmate during grade 9 which had a tumultuous ending, had brought about acts of the same violence he advocates against.
“Her father found out about our relationship and complained to the headmaster and I was caned very badly…Later on, I beat up her father on the streets one day. I had the whole gang with me. Then he filed a case against me, I threatened to kill him if he did not dismiss the case… After a few days I found her dancing on stage with a boy during a cultural program at school. I could not tolerate seeing that… so I went up on stage and slapped both of them.”
Despite Sohel’s active efforts to tackle violence in the public, it remains to be seen how much of his sense of responsibility translates into the private sphere. What becomes troublesome is that he considers his own violence as justifiable action when his dominance is threatened. This distinction between the public and private choices/attitudes regarding issues of harassment or abuse is paradoxical. The way Sohel responds to these events indicate an internal struggle to cope with conflicting ideologies and possibly an inability to recognize the micro incidences of injustice that dictate the ideology of ‘hegemonic masculinities’ within households and communities.
We tend to think that roles we learn – be it of gender, class or ethics – as rigid. The choices we make between who we are and what we do occur in a state of flux. What we find to be paradoxical or even unreasonable in Sohel’s judgments may be symptomatic of a far deeper struggle boys in urban slums experience in the face of persistent and often toxic ideas of what their masculinity should be – of what the man in them should do? Adolescent boys construct and position masculinities differently across different experiences, with variances being more striking between the personal and social notions of masculinity. Boys make their choices or mold their attitudes in pursuit of what they consider ‘desirable’ or ‘acceptable’ within particular social expectations, and any deviation from that run the risk of being seen as ‘weak’ or ‘not man enough’.
A better understanding of the politics of masculinity in urban slums can further clarify the linkages between the prevalence of early marriage, drug abuse and violence and the allocation of political, economic, and cultural power that shape choices and negotiations among the adolescent population. It can lead us to better answers of why, despite the dominant presence of program interventions and the spread of narratives of women empowerment, attitudes that perpetuate incidences of early marriage or stigma related to sexual harassment remain intact.
*Name has been changed for anonymity.
This blog was written by Ishrat Jahan, a Research Assistant at the Centre of Excellence for Gender, Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (CGSRHR) at BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health.