Moving people away from negative and socially regressive ways of thinking is a complex process that requires time and patience. It involves education as well as individual and institutional engagement.

In December last year, the gang rape and subsequent death of a physiotherapy student on a Delhi bus sparked widespread outrage and anger in the country. It resulted in the passing of a long debated law to curb violence and harassment directed at women.

The tragic incident also starkly highlighted the need for changing a certain kind of mindset – a collective outlook that seems to sanction bullying, violence or other ways to keep women subjugated.

This, of course, is more easily said than done. Mindset change is not like tweaking a dish on the dinner table or swapping the components of a person’s attire. A particular mindset is associated with a large number of viewpoints, many cultivated from birth. These are not easy to shift because of the degree to which they are entrenched and ingrained.

When we talk about the male mindset, we have to first clarify which aspect we are referring to. In recent times, the primary facet of this mindset has concerned women and sadly, has proven to be largely unfavourable to them. To make an impact on such deep-rooted attitudes, we have to chip away at them, slowly but patiently.

Formal education is, of course, a big part of the solution. Beyond delivering the fundamentals of learning, schools play a very important role in introducing young people to progressive ideas and new ways of thinking about the society in which they live. Over time, these ideas will also become the basis for their social stance and conduct.

But this sort of shift may take a generation or two for us to witness. Are there things we can do, in the near term, to spread awareness and to make people – particularly men – question long-held values and beliefs?

There are; but progress in this area tends to be slow because we have to first work painstakingly at the individual level before we can hope to influence attitudes at a societal level.

In the conversations that social workers and organisations have with young men, it is necessary to first acknowledge their views. We then probe them in a way that exposes any innate chauvinism. Lastly, we attempt to shake them from their rigid positions by challenging their biases. Why, for example, do they view women as socially inferior? Why is the man the de facto dominant partner in a marriage? Why do they feel that a woman who does not wear traditional attire outside the home is seeking attention from men?

The next step is for these men to consider what they would change in their behavior to reflect the shifts in outlook. Would they stop making demeaning remarks at female passers-by? Would they be more supportive of the goals and aspirations of the women in their lives – their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters?

The biggest barrier in this behavioral shift involves money. When asked if they would be willing to consider a more equitable distribution of wealth for female members in their families, many men – particularly those from traditionally patriarchal communities of the country – balk.

Most people, of course, believe that the most difficult aspect of this process is moving men to change. However, bolstering the confidence of women and urging them to be more assertive is equally challenging – especially given decades of cultural conditioning regarding their reduced status and role. To overcome this, social workers have to be active and diligent in order to inform women of their rights and to arm them with tools to fight injustice and coercion.

These exercises convey to individuals that gender equality permeates so many different aspects of our lives – from views and treatment of women to education and inheritance. The hope is that smaller attitudinal shifts will add up to crack and eventually break down the rigid positions that have endured for so long within sections of our society.

Institutions – the media, government organisations, public and private sector agencies – jointly represent the biggest enabling force in this area. Without institutional support, the work of a million social reform groups will amount to little more than a drop in the bucket. Whether the changes are small – standardising the use of the prefix ‘Ms’ on official forms rather than the traditional ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’, for example – or big, the power of institutions will help muscle them through.

And, at the risk of making this sound like an animal training exercise, we do have to consider the impact of positive reinforcement on the process. We actively discuss punishment to deter crimes against women but don’t do enough to reward progressive actions and behavior – encouraging a daughter to be financially independent instead of getting her married early, for example – in this area.

Social reformers have their work cut out for them – lobbying for, facilitating and tracking small movements in overall attitudes. You can’t operate in this field if you are not an optimist because the stories that you hear on a daily basis can be dark and disheartening. Still, there are positive trends and good reasons to believe that we are on the right track and that change IS happening – one influenced individual at a time.

Nandita Gandhi is a co-director of the Akshara Centre, a...