By Faiza Elmasry – In many societies, fathers are thought of as disciplinarians and providers. But now there’s a global fatherhood campaign to encourage fathers to increase their participation in their children lives.
South Africa is one of the 17 countries where the Men Care Campaign is underway. It was launched there in 2011, the same year Jean-Marie Mkurunziza’s wife was pregnant with their first daughter. Mkurunziza learned a lot from the campaign, which he joined as a facilitator, leading group meetings.
“We normally meet once a week,” he said. “We go to clinics and also in the community, inviting the expectant fathers to be part of this group and take responsibility in their family.”
Part of this responsibility, he says, is helping wives with home chores.
“We give them homework, to go home and do something special, which they had never done before; washing or cleaning the house, or cleaning the dishes,” he said. “Last week, one of my team members came with his wife, who is currently about to give birth. The wife was very happy.”
Men Care Campaign co-coordinator Vidar Vetterfalk from Sweden had a similar experience. The Vetterfalks adopted two children; a boy and a girl from South Africa, where they currently live. He says the group teaches men how to share the responsibility in child caregiving.
“I attended a father’s group while we were waiting for our first child,” he said. “Me and my wife, we did that, every second night we took care of the child so at least one of us had slept in the morning.”
Spreading the word
Fathers’ groups now exist in many parts of South Africa and neighboring countries. It’s also present in other areas, including South America, Asia and Europe.
“We know that 80 percent of the world’s men will be fathers at some point in their lives,” said Gary Barker, Washington office director of Promundo, a global non-profit organization that co-sponsors the campaign, along with a number of women’s rights organizations, some governments and UN agencies.
To get the best results, according to Barker, men should be involved in prenatal care.
“We’re trying to get them inside the clinic, get the health workers to see men as allies in this process, because research also shows if we engage men from that moment, they feel like, ‘Wait, the world expects me to be involved in my child’s life for the long term even if they are not with their partners later on,’” he said.
The father’s group is just one aspect of the campaign. For greater outreach, local campaign partners take the message to the media using films, public service announcements and posters.
“Men who report a closer relationship with their children, who get involved in daily care, report that they’ve got better mental health,” Barker said. “They are less likely to be involved in delinquency or crime. They are less likely to abuse alcohol. We have data from Sweden that they actually live longer. Sons who see their fathers do this are more likely to grow up and themselves respect women’s rights and believe in gender equality. And they’re also less likely to use violence against their partners and also less likely to use violence against their partners.”
Advocating for change
Policy advocacy is another aspect of the campaign, says co-coordinator Jane Kato-Wallace, who is currently in Jakarta, Indonesia.
“We encourage local partners to take on issues such as maternity leave, for example, or friendly work place policies for men that encourage bigger, larger structural changes both in private and public sector,” she said.
In each society, the campaign takes a different approach, tailoring its message to each culture.
“For example, in Indonesia,” she said, “it’s a culture that’s very much influenced by religion, 95 percent Muslims, conservative. What our partners are trying to do at this point is really try to engage the religious leaders within these communities that can serve as allies in getting men and women and children much more involved in the campaign and try to create more equitable societies.”
In many places, she says, fathers seem to be eager. In Sri Lanka, for example, a local Christian group started a pilot program to encourage fathers to spend more time with their kids, being more involved with their health care and education.
“Men became so interested in that they ended up bringing their other friends to get information, to talk about fatherhood,” Kato-Wallace said. “It’s turning into a kind of national movement to a certain extent.”