William Muir

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2016
This description of William Muir's work was prepared when William Muir was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016.


The traditional approach to tackle the problem of gender based discrimination has been to support women directly through various strategies of women’s empowerment, but Will believes that this strategy is incomplete as it fails to systematically engage adolescent boys and men, who he sees to be as critical stakeholders in the process of change.

The New Idea

Will is changing the way the community perceives gender by working on the mind-set, and attitude of adolescent boys towards women and then enabling them to become agents of change. Acting as role models in their communities, the young boys positively influence the thoughts of the other children in the wider community who have hitherto not been witness to a behaviour alternative for males other than that of a perpetrator or bystander to discrimination against women.

The crux of Will’s success lies in his curriculum - a combination of engagement hooks such as role plays, sustained discussions and debates, and action based events in the community. This curriculum includes a process of self-reflection and takes the boys through a journey of learning, leading them to see perceptions and issues of gender more sensitively, and to take some action-steps towards betterment in their communities. Once the boys complete the designed curriculum, Will makes them ambassadors of gender equity in their communities, wherein they spread their learning through a variety of platforms, from street theatre to survey-based research studies.

Will is breaking down the edifice of gender discrimination with a deep commitment to producing wide-spread behaviour change. He aims to use his work with communities in Pune as a model to convince other organizations and policy makers to include men and boys as part of their gender equity agenda.

The Problem

Harassment, discrimination and violence – gender mistreatment in all of its forms is only too familiar and the problem has been long standing. Many CSOs have been addressing this issue by attempting to empower women through sustained legal, financial, educational and vocational assistance. However, the pattern does not include parallel engagement with men, the actual perpetrators of violence against women. As a result, even as organisations try to empower the affected women, these women find it difficult to change their own lives because they end up coming back into an environment where the mind-sets of men have not been shifted. Statistics from the Institute of Health Management (IHMP) ascertain that households in which women seek to have a standing against discrimination often report higher instances of oppression. This arises from the fact that men seem to exhibit fiercer control when they have not been trained to cultivate the lens of gender equity

If this trend is allowed to continue, 180 million boys will learn that it is alright to abuse women. These boys are learning from men in their communities.70% of Indian men think it is alright to hit women under certain circumstances, and 37% of Indian men admit to having hit women (International Center for Research on Women 2011).

The existing work with men on this issue is largely fragmented and oratorical in nature, unlike the long-term transformative work being done with women. The research of IHMP also attests that while men adopt the language of gender equity and express symbolically equitable behaviour, such as “helping” at home with dishes or “allowing” their sisters to spend time on schoolwork, there is no enduring transformation in gender norms.

Will believes that he has identified the missing piece to the puzzle – the fact that communities are unaware as to how to go about altering the mind-sets of young men, from being perpetrators or apathetic bystanders to being able to influence the society they live in. Will is showing young boys in the community, an alternate course of behaviour in engaging with women, through his Action for Equality (AfE) curriculum. He is also investing in the process of gathering data that tracks the changes in the boys’ attitudes: a critical test for the effectiveness of his work, and also a contribution to the field of gender work.

The Strategy

Will’s approach covers three broad aspects – developing and documenting an effective model to engage men (alongside women) to fight gender violence, ensuring transformative changes in mind-sets of men, and creating effective public advocacy campaigns to get other CSOs and funders to start actively adopting this approach. Will’s focus is to engineer a system that can measure and ensure sustained transformative change in gender attitudes of men. He uses a three-pronged approach toward this objective. The first focuses on persistent engagement – the boys enrol in the AfE program and are taken through a 2-year module: Graduate Program (4 months), Alumni Program (4 months) and Leadership Program (1 year, monthly engagement). The second lays emphasis on providing comprehensive mentoring around gender bias to fully understand what it means to fundamentally question a gender norm (for example, from the perception that women are responsible for managing domestic chores or that encouraging men to “help” women with chores stimulates real change, to boys and men sharing responsibility for domestic chores). The third concentrates on developing a monitoring and evaluation (M&E) framework that helps capture the change in the attitudes of men.

Will’s ‘Action for Equality’ (AfE) program targets low-income urban slums wherein CSOs are already engaging women in different initiatives, but nobody is working with boys and men to change their mindsets towards gender equality. The 15-week long curriculum engages male adolescents (between 14-17 years) in their most formative and rebellious years. The boys are initially attracted to enter the program because they can talk about issues of gender and sexuality, such as exploring one’s own body, discrimination, patriarchy, violence, reproductive systems, that they have no other space to talk about. Their interest is sustained in the program because they have no other modes of entertainment, and the interactive nature of the workshops is more exciting than roaming the streets or watching television.

The curriculum is rooted in principles of active participation and skill-development to help boys recognise a problem, work out a solution and take action as opposed to just being a mere observer. Role plays and case studies are also an integral part of curriculum, as rigid masculinities and gender biases surface most intensely in times of emotional and financial duress, and role plays help mimic these situations. Through the role plays the boys learn an alternate course of action that are completely new to them. For example, while enacting a situation where the family is in financial debt, instead of the typical response they have observed in their father, of blaming it on their wife or hitting her, they learn to have a conversation about how they can work together to get out of the debt. At the end of each 15-week training, the boys take collective action to support women in their community. For example, gathering men and women in the community for a street play around different forms of violence against women (physical, emotional and financial) and steering a discussion around which of these forms of is prevalent within the community.

The 15-week long program ends in a graduation ceremony where the boys present their learnings to the crowd gathered and take a pledge of positive action towards ending gender discrimination within the community. The graduates are then engaged in a weekly Alumni Program to use platforms to promote gender equality (such as street theatre, surveys, media coverage and more.) For instance, to help men empathize with street sexual harassment and abuse, all participants are tasked with conducting a survey to identify how many women in their own communities have faced street sexual harassment. Graduates at the action events provide recommendations to resolve the issue and pledge support. William runs his 15-week long ‘Action for Equality’ (AfE) programs in 20 different communities in the city of Pune.

Will nurtures the most active young boys from the Graduate program through the next level Leadership Program. Through weekly sessions the knowledge about gender norms, their new gender equal approach and skills to take action are enhanced. In addition, they are taught new skills like negotiation, communication and dialogue facilitation, which enhances their capacity to lead change in their communities to make them gender equal. For example, in seven of the communities, the young boys in the Leadership Program have formed Community Committees of parents and local leaders and are facilitating a dialogue to identify problems and relevant solutions to address the issue of violence and discrimination against women.

Will’s curriculum is delivered by young men between the age of 23 to 33 years, who play the role of mentors and come from the same socio-economic background as the ones being taught. Accomplished proponents, such as activists and academicians, train the mentors by building their capacity to innovate on the AfE curriculum. Will has also developed a mentor tracking tool that gauges the ability of the mentors to deliver the curriculum in a way that is non-instructional, and participatory, thus paving the way for the mentees to openly bring out sensitive issues, such as peer pressure. Additionally, a senior staff member is appointed to help monitor each mentor’s growth.

Will has also developed the first comprehensive tool to measure mindshift change towards gender equality. This is done on the Gender Equitable Men (GEM) scale by conducting surveys with the families of boys (mothers, sisters and fathers) and holding focussed group discussions within communities. The surveys collect information using simple questions that ensure accuracy in reporting and serve as critical indicators of rigid masculinities, such as, asking sisters the number of times they get slapped by their brother or asking mothers whether their son seeks their opinion on important matters. The GEM scale was developed in collaboration with Population Council/Horizons and Promundo to directly measure attitudes towards gender norms and has been widely applied in countries such as Brazil, China, Kenya, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Will’s addition to this is a spiral model that traces the trajectory of men over six stages (Blind/Pre-contemplation, Contemplation, Action, Maintenance and Further Reflection) of attitudes.

The final component of his approach is advocacy. The core aim of this component is to build public consensus on the issue and get ‘buy-in’ from other CSO & funding organizations to ultimately increase the economic resources, leading to a rise in the number of individuals and organisations that start working closely with men on gender based issues. Will has been successful in moving forward with his aim, as large corporate houses and organizations have begun approaching him to conduct gender training sessions for men.

So far, 3500 youg boys have gone through Will’s program. The Alumni programme has 1000 young men enrolled while the leadership program has 116 active participants. Stories of impact range from boys asking their fathers to limit alcohol intake to advocating equal education, healthcare and social status for women in their families and communities. The boys also show a stark 85% reduction in instances of verbal and physical abuse. The GEM scale measuring attitudinal changes, shows that 50% of the participants in 2013-2014 changed their attitudes from Gender Inequitable to Low Gender Equitable attitudes, and the other 50% went from Gender Inequitable to Moderately Gender Equitable attitudes (on a four point scale of Gender Inequitable-Less Gender Inequitable-Moderately Gender Equitable-Gender Equitable).

Will is now designing a plan to scale drastically by 2018 through strategic partnerships with CSOs, incubation centres and institutional investors. He aims to use his organization’s model as proof of concept in order to bring awareness and convince peer CSOs to adopt his model. Will has begun the first leg of expansion in West Bengal where he is training 12 partner organisations working in 60 communities in using the AfE modules to work with young boys. Will and his team are carefully delineating selection criteria for partner organisations to ensure alignment and a successful roll out in West Bengal, marking the beginning of what, in the long term, he envisions to be a new pattern for citizen sector work.

The Person

Will spent most of his childhood in the United Kingdom. He fondly looks back at his schooling period as a time that instilled the strong values of social justice. He remembers constantly looking out for meaningful ways to contribute to society, and it was then that his headmaster and housemaster urged him to take up volunteering seriously. After schooling, he pursued degrees in environmental studies, completing both an under-graduate and a post-graduate degree in the field. Post-collegiate phase, Will worked as a strategy consultant doing CSR consulting for environmental based issues. It was during this time that he moved to India.

In India, he volunteered at the Dharavi slum in Mumbai. There he saw a woman being beaten up badly by her husband and when he approached the police to register a case, he was advised to simply pacify the woman and then send her back home. Shocked by the incident he witnessed, Will had the urge to do something about it. He decided to quit his job and start Solar Cinema, an organization that uses cinema as a medium to subtly code important social messages to the people in rural areas of India and capture the imagination of men. He set up a team, and designed moving-cinemas, cinemas that would keep travelling from one village to another. It was during this experience that Will recognized that the adolescent men lacked respect not only for their own selves, but also for their peers. He noticed that these men had no window of opportunity to learn about equitable behaviour and hence, felt like they had no role to play in "women's issues". Having grown up in an environment that encouraged gender equitable behaviour, Will was startled with these observations. He quickly realized that these young men had an interest in speaking about women's issues, but did not have anyone to particularly speak to about it.

Will identifies himself as a problem-solver who always wanted to “do something impactful” and it is herein, in the intricate labyrinths of gender biases and rigid masculinities that Will found his big problem. He immediately began putting together his insights from his time working on Solar Cinema to lay the foundation of Equal Community Foundation, with a vision to reduce violence and discrimination against women.