When the moderator of a panel discussion today at United Nations Headquarters in New York on how to end violence against women looked a little disappointedly at her virtually all-female audience, she called out: “Where are the men? Where are the men?”
Only a sprinkling of men could be found in the room, but among them was Bollywood actor-filmmaker-singer Farhan Akhtar.
Mr. Akhtar was there on behalf of the “Men Against Rape and Discrimination,” or MARD, a social campaign he launched two years in India “to make people think more positively” and work toward women’s empowerment in India and the need to end gender inequality.
He spoke about the inspiration for the initiative that came when someone he knew was sexually assaulted and then killed by a security guard in her own home. MARD, he said, is an acronym for his initiative but “mard” also means “man” in the Hindi language.
Recognized by the UN for his commitment to end violence against women and girls, Mr. Akhtar was appointed last year as a Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women, the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.
And as the first man to take on such a role for UN Women, which was created in 2010 under the leadership of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Bollywood celebrity also took on the role to serve as an advocate for the agency’s “HeForShe” campaign that encourages men and boys to be leaders in the gender equality movement, and commit to ending violence and discrimination against women.
“There is no wrong in the minds who have not been taught what is right,” Mr. Akhtar said about the importance of a “cultural change” and sensitization about violence against women, particularly among men.
Mr. Akhtar, in an interview this week with UN Radio, talked about the changing realities in India when it came to mind sets about gender equality, saying he was heartened by the thinking of the younger generation, which makes his home country one of the youngest in the world.
Describing a “clash of civilizations” being experienced in India, he explained that on one side you had the “patriarchal mind set” of people growing up with value systems that changed as the world changed “but their thinking didn’t,” and on the other side, “in stark contrast,” Indians under 25 years of age “mainly liberal,” who want “to import liberal values from other parts of the world.”
The “most heartening thing,” according to Mr. Akhtar, is the “level of volume on the discourse.”
“There was a time where you didn’t hear about what was going on in people’s homes,” he said in the interview. “Women were afraid to talk about if they were the victims of rape. More often than not stigma of rape attached to the victim than to the perpetrator.”
“I think those things have changed,” he said. “A lot of women have a lot more courage to speak about what’s happening with them.”
Mr. Akhtar also said he was encouraged by the support the MARD campaign was receiving from a wide range of people like sports celebrities back home, and not just his fans, of whom there are many.
“What we hope to do with the initiative is to make people think more positively about these things,” he said.