The Campus Hero Cafe


The Campus Hero Cafe

Challenging masculinity to stop violence against women in Bangladesh

Violence against women and girls is pervasive throughout Bangladeshi society and takes many forms. The Campus Hero Café project aims to initiate social change to prevent such violence. The project aspires to trigger this change by making male adolescents reflect critically on what it implies to be a man.

That is where the title ‘Campus Hero’ comes from: the objective to de- and reconstruct the cultural notion of the male ‘hero’. A real hero, is the project team’s message, is brave enough to speak out when he witnesses acts of violence against women or girls. Critical and honest self-reflection is part and parcel of the SRHR education that the project aims to promote in Bangladesh.

Fertile soil of violence

Did you know? Anita Hardon is project leader of the SRHR-research project ‘Digital Sister’

‘In the mid 1990s, I was studying anthropology at Dhaka University. The illustrious professor Helal Uddin Khan Shamsul Arafin taught a class on the anthropology of women. I was so impressed that I decided to switch to Women’s Studies, where I became the first male student. Here, and also later while pursuing my PhD at the University of Amsterdam under the supervision of Professors Anita Hardon and Saskia Wieringa, I learned about the relationship between sexuality and masculinity – and how gender constructions are the fertile soil on which violence against women grows in our country.

These new academic insights were very painful to me on a personal level: I had to admit that my own mother was also a victim of some kind of violence. As the last boy of seven children, I had always been very close to my mum. Yet even I had had no genuine understanding of her life. She shouldered each and every domestic task in our household, but we never questioned how she was coping. In our society, women’s work is invisible. Yet it was exactly that arduous ‘invisible’ labour that slowly killed her.’

A real hero is brave enough to speak out when he witnesses acts of violence against women or girls
- Dr Syed Saikh Imtiaz

These are the words of Dr Syed Saikh Imtiaz, now associate professor at the Women and Gender Studies Department at Dhaka university. He is also co-founder of the Centre for Men and Masculinity Studies (CMMS), which is a member of the research consortium, together with Promundo-US, for The Campus Hero Café research project funded by NWO-WOTRO Science for Global Development in collaboration with the knowledge platform on SRHR, Share-Net International.

Addicted to porn

About 450 boys between the ages of 11 and 15 years - from thirty secondary schools across three rural districts in Bangladesh - participated in the first part of the research. Another 450 boys formed the control group.  They filled out a questionnaire about their knowledge of sex and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) that was developed in partnership with the research NGO Promundo that works globally to promote and study healthy masculinities. An unexpected outcome was the high exposure to pornography in this relatively young age group: 62 per cent of the school boys watch pornography regularly. They pay a small fee at a local cyber cafe to load the photos and videos onto their smartphones. What struck the researchers even more, is that 71 per cent admits the desire to molest a girl after having watched porn. Figures from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics suggest that these may not be mere phantasies: 73 per cent of girls and women from the age of 15 and above have experienced violence (physical, emotional, sexual or economic) at least once in their lifetime.

Imtiaz attributes these distressing facts to the deeply engrained taboo that surrounds sex and sexuality in Bangladeshi society, as in many parts of the world. The subject is out of bounds for parents and children. 27 per cent of the surveyed boys indicate that they get their knowledge about SRHR from watching porn, another 27 per cent ‘through peers’, and the remainder through internet and other unspecified sources. Is it surprising then, Imtiaz asks, that they develop such ‘toxic perceptions’ of masculinity?

Brave Men

Attitudes need to be turned around, Imtiaz is convinced. ‘Teachers and medical staff are only supposed to give information about sex and sexuality from a public health angle. However, this approach doesn’t answer to many of the questions that adolescent boys struggle with and cannot speak about.’ The research team therefore took a different approach: acknowledging the pleasure aspect of sex, they tried to engage the young men in honest and open discussions about gender, manhood and sexuality.

The first tool used to encourage self-reflective learning was the BraveMen diary on SRHR, developed by the CMMS. The assignments in this diary challenge the boys to rethink their gender norms, attitudes, and sexual behaviour. The first exercise is for the boys to join their mums in all her activities for one full day. Imtiaz: ‘Exactly as it happened to me twenty years ago, the sudden realisation of what motherhood really means on a day-to-day basis is a powerful eye-opener for most of them. This helped us to engage them in more intensive discussions on different forms of violence and their relationship with toxic masculinities’.

The BraveMen diary and the 225 follow-up discussions in fifteen schools, triggered all sorts of activism. The students organised bicycle rallies, a signature campaign to end violence against women and girls, flash mobs and street theatre. In one place, boys and girls rallied into the market place demanding an end to gender violence. Imtiaz: ‘Given how male-dominated such public spaces are, this counts as a true act of courage.’

Challenger Uncle app

The team noticed, however, that the students remained hesitant to speak openly about the more sensitive topics relating to sex. They therefore developed an Android app to give the boys anonymous access to information on sexuality issues. It was named ‘Challenger Mamu’, referring to the tradition in Bengali culture where the youngest uncle (mamu) is the one person that boys can turn to with their questions on sex and sexuality. The app proved a big success. Within six months, 3,500 questions were asked on the app, and answered by a group of experts from gender studies, psychology and public health. The researchers analysed the questions and distinguished nine topics occupying the young users: the use of Facebook, pornography, masturbation, mood swings, bodily growth, attraction to girls, wet dreams, menstruation, and phallus size and shape.

Knowledge Fair

‘The biggest challenge for the project,’ says Imtiaz, ‘was to bring students, parents and guardians, teachers and school committee members together under one roof to encourage inter-generational dialogue on sexuality issues.’ SRHR Knowledge Fairs were organised at the participating schools. During Campus Hero Café Guardian sessions, the questions asked on the Uncle Manu app were displayed – anonymously - on screens to trigger discussion. The performance of the Challenger Mamu Puppet Show served the same purpose. A young male puppet asked the most important questions selected from the app to his puppet uncle, who answered his queries with great humour. The hilarious performance helped students and their parents in the audience over the threshold to start a more open conversation.

Preliminary impact

The interventions in the fifteen schools had an impact on the adolescent boys. The end-line survey revealed more ‘gender equitable attitudes and perceptions’ among the 450 students of the intervention group. For instance, 9 per cent instead of 56 per cent of the boys think that men should take the ultimate family decisions. 19 per cent instead of 57 per cent thought of fulfilling their sexual desires by force, and 11 per cent compared to the initial 71 per cent of the boys admitted to wishing to molest a girl after watching porn.

Reality show

The project’s ambitions reached beyond the participating schools. A TV show was designed and broadcast on the Bengali channel named Desh TV. Following the project logic, the purpose was to challenge existing masculinities and patriarchal attitudes that permit violence against women to continue. During the thirteen episodes of the Shahoshider Golpo, or ‘The Story of the Braves’, a colourful mix of guests – celebrities, students and ordinary men and women - were invited to share how they had broken through gender boundaries or planned to fight violence against women and girls. One of the stars of the show was Prasnejit Kumar Roy, a student of the University of Rajshahi, who went on hunger strike after a male friend was stabbed by fellow students when he tried to protect a girl at the campus from harassment. Roy’s protest, which was also directed at the university authority that was reluctant to punish the perpetrators, inspired thousands of students in Rajshahi city to stand up against all sort of oppression and discrimination against girls and women. All thirteen episodes of the show have been uploaded on YouTube.

Raising parents

Breaking the taboo on sex as pleasure is the way forward according to Imtiaz if you want to make young men part of the solution to stop violence against women. ‘To achieve this, we must allow and encourage adolescents to ask the real questions on their minds – and give them scientific and honest answers.’

Sexuality is one of the key generational conflict issues

There are two key learnings that he wants to share. First, it is too early to include this kind of SRHR education in conventional school curricula. Only few teachers are willing to give sex education, let alone sex education that addresses hegemonic masculinities and acknowledges sex as pleasure. Instead, Imtiaz suggests taking advantage of the digital era. Even in the rural districts where the project was implemented, around 85 per cent of the boys has access to mobile phones. Giving them free access to an app like Challenger Mamu could have an enormous impact in terms of increasing their knowledge of SRHR and changing attitudes along the way.

Secondly, the project revealed the total lack of experience of parents and guardians to engage in positive influencing. They either avoid the issue of sex altogether, or scold and punish their children for shameful behaviour. Imtiaz considers it a compliment to the project that parents have started approaching the CMMS for advice. Sexuality is one of the key generational conflict issues, Imtiaz says. ‘The target group of our project, adolescent boys, have no one to talk to. Yet they are open to change! We must seize that opportunity and invest in this generation so that they will be different parents. And so that their children can enjoy their rights to have healthy, gender equitable and violence-free emotional and sexual relationships.’

The end?!?

The project came to an end in July 2018. But the work of the CMMS and its partners continues. The success of the Campus Hero Café project did not go unnoticed. UNDP has funded CMMS to extend the the BraveMen Campaign to fifty schools across the country. CMMS, together with Promundo-US, will also continue to work to disseminate the results of the Campus Hero Café project at the national and international levels.

This project is funded within the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights research programme of WOTRO Science for Global Development. The programme develops calls for proposals on thematic areas and knowledge gaps identified by the Knowledge Platform for SRHR, Share-Net International, which is initiated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

Text: Ellen Lammers