NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When feminist Kamla Bhasin had her first child and began introducing her daughter to books, she was horrified to find that sexist messaging was rampant in children’s literature.
Concerned at the prospect of her daughter growing up believing in the stereotypical roles of men as providers and women as homemakers, Bhasin began making up her own rhymes - a collection of which was published at the time.
Thirty-five years on, not much has changed, says Bhasin, as children’s literature in India continues to perpetuate rather than challenge the traditional view of men and women.
“At that time, I found most books about men and boys were about their brave deeds, adventures, aspirations and ambitions. They were usually shown as brave, fearless and independent-minded,” Bhasin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The few books featuring girls however showed them in traditional roles of daughters, wives, mothers and housekeepers. They were depicted as weak, fearful and dependent. Unfortunately, this has not changed much in today’s world.”
With increased research showing how adult attitudes and behaviour are shaped by their experiences as children, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) has republished Bhasin’s book in the hope it will plant the seeds of gender equality in the minds of children.
“Housework is Everyone’s Work: Rhymes for just and happy families” features 20 rhymes which provide an alternative narrative - depicting fathers doing housework and changing nappies and women playing cricket and going out to work.
For example, a verse in the rhyme “It’s Sunday” reads: “Father’s like a busy bee, making us hot cups of tea. Mother sits and reads the news, now and then she gives her views.” The rhyme is accompanied by an illustration of the mother reading a newspaper as the smiling father stands with two cups of tea.
Another rhyme “Mama Dearest Mama” says: “Mama’s back, Mama’s back, she’s brought me books and toys. She’ll tell me lots of stories of distant girls and boys”. The illustration shows a sari clad women with a briefcase being greeted by her daughter.
Bhasin said since more women are going out to work and joining men in the role of breadwinners, it was important men also share the work at home such as child care and cooking.
“Indian families are still very patriarchal,” Bhasin said on the sidelines of the MenEngage Conference, a gathering of gender rights groups who work with boys and men to end inequalities.
“If children do not learn to treat girls and women with respect within the families, they are not likely to respect women outside either.”
Bhasin, 68, who founded the women’s rights organisation, Jagori, said there was a desperate need for books showing girls and women in different roles and men and women doing equal housework and care of children.
“My book is a small effort,” Bhasin said.
“It’s hard to compete when most advertising and films children are bombarded with are princess movies where girls have to be saved by boys, or Bollywood where women are either sexualised or domesticated.”
Reporting by Nita Bhalla; editing by Alex Whiting