RNP’s Journey of Working with Young Men & Boys in India

Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies
6 min readMar 2, 2022


, Associate Director — Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies

Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, offered a valuable piece of advice when building out a new field of work — he said that one needed to build the rules and the tools of the field alongside an enabling narrative. In hindsight, Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies’ (RNP) work in including young men and boys in our collective journey to gender equity began with a talk that Ms Rohini Nilekeni did in October 2016 on The Plight of the Young Indian Man.

This talk spurred a range of conversations that the team at RNP was able to engage with to chart out an iterative path to building out this field of work. We began with a single multi-year grant to the Equal Community Foundation (ECF) in February 2017 to learn more about the space. ECF facilitated a “National Conversation: Barriers and Enablers to Engage Boys and Men Towards Gender Equality” in February 2018 that allowed us to craft an RFP process to engage with a diverse set of organisations working as a portfolio for us to learn alongside. As part of this learning process, we brought a learning partner and a documentation partner to help support each organisation, as well as support the portfolio and the field by building shared knowledge, tools and the language for this developing field. This work culminated in a new approach centered on curiosity and not certainty.

Then came THE VIRUS.

As with everything, 2020 dealt a blow to gender programs across the country. Even after teams began moving the programs online, deep concerns remained. Until that point, our understanding was that gender programs are by nature high touch and embedded. Could topics like sexuality, masculinity, femininity, the body and gender rights be tackled with participants in a virtual setting? The experience from field organisations confirmed that gender interventions were much harder to do digitally. Program participants dwindled owing to the strife COVID brought into their lives — people were locked in, with families, so personal space for girls and women became a challenge. Access to devices was another big issue. Violence within households increased. Livelihood shocks meant boys who earlier turned up for workshops, were now busy working whenever restrictions were lifted.

Despite that, field organisations found hopeful openings in unexpected places. In some instances, the prior effort of organising youth in communities paid off, with local youth coming forward to liaise with NGOs to deliver relief to communities. This in turn increased the trust between the NGO and the community which served well in allowing NGOs to continue gender-based programs digitally. In other instances, previously unexplored spaces opened up as a result of things going digital.

For instance, in July 2020, Uninhibited launched its Hello Saathi helpline for women and girls. By calling into the helpline, women and girls could address any concerns or clarify questions related to their sexual and reproductive health needs. The helpline was introduced to men and boys in 2021, where frontline health workers went door to door to create awareness about the helpline. While men were reluctant to engage face to face, and the initial uptake of the helpline was slow, today ~12000 men subscribe to the SRH IVRS education platform.

We heard many such stories in one-on-one conversations with partners and felt a need to bring all our partners together in one place. This way, a larger sense of these developments could emerge. In February 2021, we organised a private virtual gathering with all our partner organisations. The intent was to visibilise the peer network, exchange ideas, and discuss how different approaches and efforts might coalesce into a larger whole. To achieve this, we designed the virtual gathering with the following design principles:

  • RNP would be the space and not the content; we had no “idea” of our own that we wanted to share with everyone. Instead, the intent was to create an environment where everyone got a chance to share, and listen.
  • We wanted participants to partake in owning the convening so many sessions were designed and delivered by grantees with us providing backbone support (and at most, a unifying through-line/architecture for the convening).
  • Initially, we had many sessions of shorter duration planned; we swapped that for fewer topics but longer sessions. We also modified the structure of the sessions. We dropped the format of 20-minute whole-group, 20-minute break-out group, 20 minute sharing back in whole-group which was popular in zoom interactions. Instead, we opted for a dense 5-minute big group, 55-minute break out session. This felt costly, time-wise, but it paid off because groups got to the meat of any topic only in the 30th minute or so. In physical gatherings, people mingle with one another on the sidelines and ideas proliferate naturally. Virtual gatherings are the opposite. Connections need to be made deliberately, and insight generation takes back and forth which requires time.

The gathering allowed us to put our thoughts down in writing, and we published a landscape paper on the emerging field of work with boys and men in India. As a follow on, we captured the different approaches taken by field-based organisations and released an operating manual with the aim of making this knowledge available to anyone who wanted to (or was already) doing work in this area.

While we got a lot of traction on the landscape paper — two of our partner organisations secured funding from other sources as a result of it — the operating manual has not (to our knowledge) translated into curiosity about whether/how to include boys and men in gender empowerment work. Our sense is this is because of two things:

1. Organisational pivots need more than information (a manual). Interest needs to meet active support (financial and hand-holding) for any NGO to try something new/add something on. We are calling this the resource gap.

2. There remains some scepticism around the feasibility (and maybe desirability) to do programs for and with boys and men. We are calling this the narrative gap (which is held up by another gap: evidence).

Our intention is to actively engage with the ecosystem to understand how gender programs can be generously supported, but also whether a more integrated approach to gender empowerment — that which includes all genders, including men — can be explored and deployed at scale.

In 2022, we hope to work on all three fronts. Our intention is to actively engage with the ecosystem to understand how gender programs can be generously supported, but also whether a more integrated approach to gender empowerment — that which includes all genders, including men — can be explored and deployed at scale. On narrative, with inputs from many partners and others, we have produced a video that we hope establishes the why and how of working with boys and men from multiple perspectives. We are also in the process of concluding a research project that has closely looked at the programs of four partner organisations and distilled approaches that seem to be delivering against the intended results while articulating areas that need further examination.

It is known that the pandemic has pushed all kinds of progress back. The only way forward is to build together. If you have ideas for us, or you would like to engage with the work our partners and we do, please write to natasha@nilekaniphilanthropies.org