Kolkata:  Globe-trotting in his efforts to engage men and boys in efforts to prevent gender-based violence, an American public speaker and educator believes the US can replicate India’s innovative ways to address the problem.

Ben Atherton-Zeman, a spokesperson for the NGO National Organization for Men Against Sexism, is now on his maiden India sojourn.

“I think the US has a lot to learn from India. Indian feminists and Indian advocates against gender-based violence are doing so many things in innovative ways that I have only learnt in the last few days, ” Atherton-Zaman, who works as a prevention educator for rape crisis centres, domestic violence programmes and state coalitions, told IANS.

“I am looking forward to bringing home those lessons that I have been privileged to share what we do with the Indian NGOs,” he said, adding he was “impressed” by the way theatre is being channeled to spread awareness in this country.

On his India tour, Atherton-Zeman brought his acclaimed single-man play “Voices of Men”.

The play – an offshoot of his love for improvisational comedy – uses humour (in a sensitive approach) and celebrity male voice impersonations (such as Kermit The Frog) to express ideas on issues of gender violence.

It has been performed across the world and translated into many languages. It is now set to be translated into Telegu by a Hyderabad-based youth theatre group with “an urban Hyderabadi spin” to it.

“I am mostly here trying to draw attention to the work that has already been done by Indian NGOs and mostly Indian women, to stop gender-based violence, to stop men’s violence against women,” the 48-year old said.

In Kolkata, Atherton-Zeman met survivors of gender-based violence at Jeevika Development Society, a community-based NGO in West  Bengal dealing with women’s rights.

“I met a lot of survivors… it was absolutely horrific that some of these women are so young and they were kind to share their experiences with an American stranger. So I feel I understand the problem more because of their bravery,” he said.

Prior to his Kolkata visit, Atherton-Zeman was in Hyderabad where he spoke to members of the Telengana-based NGO My Choices that seeks to end domestic violence.

“He was most startled by the statistics of violence in India, particularly the instances of dowry and child marriages,” Hannah Norling, an American born, raised in Hyderabad and heading the marketing and social media unit of the NGO, told IANS over the phone.

“What is phenomenally most interesting about him is that he is a man who wants other men to stand up against gender atrocities. We are talking about possible collaborations when he comes back,” she added.

Atherton-Zeman, an advisory board member for Britain’s White Ribbon Campaign that encourages men to take more responsibility in violence prevention, has interacted at military bases, colleges, high schools, public theatres, conferences, houses of worship and juvenile detention facilities.

Having travelled through 45 US states and 10 other countries like the Czech Republic, South Africa, Nepal, Canada, Turkey and Britain for international conferences and performances, Atherton-Zeman believes the root cause is similar-gender inequality.

The amicable performer, who labels himself as a “recovering sexist”, found himself wanting to be a “part of solution and not the problem” after he learned in his college days about his girlfriend being raped.

Since then, he has embarked on a mission to listen more to survivors and egging-on other men to do so and in the process attempted to debunk knee-jerk reactions to physical abuse.

“Most men remain silent… it’s time to end that silence so that we can stop gender based violence against girls and women and also stop sexual violence and domestic violence against men and boys,” he pointed out.

(Sahana Ghosh can be contacted at sahana.g@ians.in)

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