Communication design as an agent in creating gender equality in India

This paper was presented at the DRS 2014 conference in Umea, Sweden. You can download the full paper here.


Developing from the field of behavior change through design, this study investigated if communication design is an effective tool in changing cultural behaviors and perceptions of gender in India. Previous studies on gender violence campaigns (Gadornski, 2001; Murphy, 2009; Kostick et al., 2011) suggest utilising men and traditional gender stereotypes are effective in creating behavior change. Yet there exists a gap on specific cultural roles and changing ingrained behaviors.

This study focuses on the necessary recognition of cultural traditions and behaviours that must precede any design activity within an epistemological setting. Developing communication strategy within sensitive and complex social issues must be created in full recognition of cultural inflections on patriarchy and sociological insights.

I conducted two stages of investigation. First, male Indian participants were interviewed about gender equality in India. Second, participants completed self documentation kits, which focused on perceptions of gender. Insights indicated the term gender equality was misunderstood with many believing India was very much an equal society for men and women.

I argue that the findings from this study can position a communication campaign that is culturally relevant, can tackle gender violence from an insider perspective, and can promote behavior change within the Indian context.



Motivation for this research was born out of a trip to India, where I was present in Delhi at the time of the 2012 Delhi rape case. The worldwide coverage and overwhelming reaction in India to this violent attack promoted Indians as progressive on the issue of gender violence and wanting both policy and behavioral change. Numerous accounts were documented internationally around the appalling attitudes amongst Indian men around gender violence with all sources heralding the need for large-scale change for gender equality. In one account, a young Indian man recited to a journalist: “Rape is a big, big problem. It starts with the woman. They drive the man fucking crazy. When the girls look sexy and the boys can’t control themselves, they are going to rape. It happens” (Chamberlin, 2013, para. 1).

During my experiences working with SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action) in Mumbai I was presented with many stories from women as victims of gender violence. I was involved in an arts exchange program from Melbourne Australia working with these women and their children from Dharavi, a large slum in Mumbai. The research presented in this paper followed on from my time in India and was conducted in Australia.

Gender equality implies a society in which women and men enjoy the same opportunities, outcomes, rights, and obligations in all spheres of life. Yet this implies equality is defined equally in all implications of culture and social tradition. Patterns of gender in India are the outcomes of social forces and relationships and it is these intrinsic cultural behaviours that need to be explored to use communication design as an agent in changing behaviour.

In India, as in many other countries, gender inequity and abuse against females are socially accepted and women’s subordinated status and inequalities are reflected in almost every sphere in Indian society, beginning before birth and continuing through women’s lives (Hausmann, Tyson & Zahdid, 2010). Son preference and sex ratio at birth of males (the higher number of boys born relative to girls) continues to increase in many states in the country; dowry is still widely practiced, and child marriage (although illegal) still takes place. In 2010, the World Economic Forum released its Global Gender Gap report, in which India ranked at 112 out of a total of 134 countries (Hausmann, Tyson & Zahdid, 2010, p.63). The report measured the difference in how men and women in each country had access to resources and opportunities. Rita Banerji (2010, para 1) describes this disparity faced by India’s women as fueled by an unrestrained misogyny.

Ethical questions arise with the differentiation of gender equality in India from equality in the west. Suma Chitnis in ‘Feminism in India’ describes that unlike the west where individuality and personal freedom are emphasized, Indians cherish values like submission to superiors, self-denial and sublimating the individual ego. Previous research has shown that Indian women have a general “disapproval of [the western] feminist anger” (Chitnis, 2004, pp. 8-10). However the public outcry following the 2012 Delhi rape case implies that traditional notions of gender in India are shifting, especially how masculine and feminine empowerment is expressed.

The majority of campaigns focused on gender violence or the promotion of gender equality are focused around women’s empowerment, or women as victim. Less discussion is around actively engaging men, yet it is the behaviour of men, and the social forces that drive those behaviours, that are at the root of preventing gender violence. While the term gender has often been a code for women, its use needs also to recognise men as gendered. Men, as the main perpetrators of gender violence are more important to target to alter their behaviour as they are directly involved in the maintenance of gender inequalitites.

Results from studies on gender violence campaigns included the use of tradition stereotypes of gender being more effective in creating behavior change than non-traditional stereotypes (Gadomski, Tripp, Wolff, Lewis & Jenkins, 2001, pp. 270-274). In addition, promoting positive aspects of gender equality, such as empathy, is more effective than showing men as batterers, aggressive or perpetrators and women as victims (Murphy, 2009, p. 118). Studies found promoting equality to men is more effective in changing behavior and reducing gender based violence than promoting equality to women (Kostick, Schensul, Singh, Pelto & Saggurtu, 2011). The key findings from secondary research focused on gender and formed the backbone of this research – that of the focus on men to change behaviour.

From a policy approach, studies have shown men can change their gender related attitudes in relatively short periods of time. Furthermore they offer an understanding of what strategies are most effective, such as those that include using positive and affirmative messages, ecological approaches and ongoing monitoring and evaluation (World Health Organisation, 2010). However, most programs are devoid of any communication design strategies, have been small in scale and have not been taken up or integrated into government policies or large institutions. As Chowdhury and Parnaik (2010) describe;

Whatever may be the legal and policy initiative, male cooperation and understanding would be pivotal in understanding women’s equality and empowerment. Providing support, cooperation, assistance, and above all the consent of male population to achieve gender equality is not only difficult but also very far from reality. Thus, engaging and empowering the male population can make this hard task simpler and quicker as well. (p. 455)

Research from a policy level reported groups that promote healthy masculinities and gender justice are open to attack as being unpatriotic, or even as agents of Western cultural depravity (Sahayog, 2008, p.15). Additionally, there is a problematic thread of Indian cultural nationalism that calls for a sense of militant aggressive masculinity in the name of honor, defense and security of the self.

Current policy approaches to engaging men and boys in achieving gender equality fail to include reference to any form of communication design. There is a missing link between recommendations from organisations such as WHO, Promundo, International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) and the UN, with the design sector. Often “campaigns” are mentioned as a viable solution to create behavior change, but there is no discussion of these outcomes using communication design as an agent of change. According to Margaret Greene (ICRW, 2007):

[W]e can all think of million examples where if we provide men with a little more information, a few more skills, and a bit of encouragement, they themselves can be far more supportive, communicative and caring for their sexual partners and family members. It is not rocket science, and it is not happening on a significant scale. (p. 1)

There is an overwhelming call for more research on the areas of masculinities within modern India, yet the focus of this research seeks to understand how we can best use design to tackle the missing dialogue around male behaviour change in relation to gender violence and how best to develop a communication design strategy created in full recognition of intrinsic gender perceptions. This pre-design research describes the necessary analysis that must precede the design activity, developing a strategy, which utilises a culturally based approach. This strategy would in turn, provide further insights once deployed and analysed.