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The role of fathers in Parenting for gender equality

Authors:
  • Promundo-US

Abstract

Fathers have a profound and lasting impact on their children’s development. Parents and caregivers are the most important providers of nurturing care for children, and while women have historically taken the role of principal caregivers, this document recognizes the need to support fathers and male caregivers to assume a central parenting role, together with the children’s mothers or female caregivers, as in practice, men’s involvement in childrearing although increasing, is still limited across the world. This paper first summarizes evidence showing how positive male engagement can contribute to children’s physical and mental health, better cognitive development and higher educational achievement, as well as have a profound impact on children’s future relationships as parents and partners, as well as promote gender inequitable relationships and power imbalances in decision-making within the household. Male engagement can contribute to preventing violence in their families. The paper then identifies the existing obstacles to men’s engagement as fathers; the fourth section provides examples of good practices and interventions that have addressed these constraints to engaging men. Finally, it offers conclusions, and research, policy and programmatic recommendations to promote the engagement of men in care giving as equitable, affectionate and non-violent fathers.
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The role of fathers in Parenting for
gender equality
Clara Alemann
1
, Aapta Garg
2
, & Kristina Vlahovicova
3
-
Promundo-US
Father–child relationships “be they positive,
negative or lacking, at any stage in the life of
the child, and in all cultural and ethnic
communities have profound and wide-ranging
impacts on children that last a lifetime”.
(Fatherhood Institute and MenCare)
1. Introduction
Fathers have a profound and lasting impact on their
children’s development. As stated in the Nurturing Care
Framework (World Health Organization, 2018), parents
and caregivers are the most important providers of
nurturing care for children, and while women have
historically taken the role of principal caregivers, this
strategic document recognizes the need to support
fathers and male caregivers to assume a central
parenting role, together with the children’s mothers or
female caregivers, as in practice, men’s involvement in
childrearing although increasing, is still limited across the
world. Several constraints and barriers exist to men’s
engagement as active and caring fathers in the lives of
their children at a normative, policy, community and
individual level. Globally, dominant restrictive gender
norms not only discourage men from becoming more
actively involved in caregiving and domestic
responsibilities, but also justify men’s violence and
control over both women and children (Heise et al.,
2019). Harmful norms that underpin patriarchal systems,
promote a version of masculinity based on family
headship and economic provision, control and the use of
violence to resolve conflicts including wife-beating and
corporal punishment of children (Heilman & Barker,
2018; The Prevention Collaborative, 2019). While
evidence demonstrates the significant impact of fathers
on children’s early development, parenting and caregiver
support programs primarily focus on mothers and female
caregivers based on the traditional sexual division of
labor and caregiving. Engaging men fully in their role as
nurturing caregivers and supportive partners alone is not
sufficient. It requires at its core that policies and
1
Director of Programs
2
Senior Program Officer
programs interacting with families actively promote
gender equality and challenge restrictive norms, so that
relationships, roles, institutional practices and services
can gradually evolve to create peaceful, non-violent and
equitable societies and contribute to achieve SDG 16.
Men’s positive engagement as fathers goes well beyond
them stepping in to perform childcare and domestic
tasks. This paper understands the concept of male
engagement as fathers to encompass their active
participation in protecting and promoting the health,
wellbeing and development of their partners and
children. It also involves them being emotionally
connected with their children and partners (even when
they may not be living together),including through
emotional, physical and financial support. It also means
that men take joint responsibility with their partner for
the workload -including unpaid care work, child rearing,
and paid work outside the home and foster a
respectful and caring co-parent or /and couple
relationship if living together; make informed decisions
with their partners and support their partner’s
autonomous decision-making; resolve conflicts in a
constructive and peaceful way and work to prevent
violence by promoting caring and respectful relationships
in the family (Plan International & Promundo-US, 2020).
The second section of this paper highlights evidence
showing how positive male engagement can contribute
to children’s physical and mental health, better cognitive
development and higher educational achievement, as
well as have a profound impact on children’s future
relationships as parents and partners. Moreover, positive
male engagement can also contribute to their female
partner’s emotional well-being, help redress gender
inequitable relationships and power imbalances in
decision-making within the household and is essential for
women’s participation in the labor market. Male
engagement can contribute to preventing violence in
their families and ultimately, contribute to more
equitable and peaceful societies. The third section
identifies the existing obstacles to men’s engagement as
fathers; the fourth section provides examples of good
practices and interventions that have addressed these
constraints to engaging men through an intentional
focus on promoting gender equality and the
transformation of restrictive gender norms, and have
proved effective in enhancing children’s, female partners
3
Research Officer
2
and families’ well-being. Finally, in the fifth and sixth
section, the paper offers conclusions, and research,
policy and programmatic recommendations to promote
the engagement of men in caregiving as equitable,
affectionate and non-violent fathers.
2. The importance of fathers in parenting
education
Over the last four decades, efforts by researchers and
practitioners have contributed to increase the body of
evidence that improved the conceptualization and
understanding of the myriad ways fathers can positively
impact the health and wellbeing of children. Though
most of the research is from the Global North, it has
become clear that fathers can and do distinctly
contribute to foundational components for children’s
growth and development including nutrition and safety,
early learning and responsive care (WHO, 2018). Fathers’
positive engagement in their children’s upbringing has
been linked to children’s improved physical and mental
health, better cognitive development and educational
achievement, improved peer relations and capacity for
empathy, fewer behavioral problems (in boys) and
psychological problems (in girls), higher self-esteem and
life satisfaction, lower rates of depression, fear and self-
doubt into adulthood, lower rates of criminality and
substance abuse, and more openness to critically
examining traditional gendered roles (Levtov et al.,
2015). There are direct and indirect hypothesized
pathways through which fathers (both residential and
non-residential) impact child development (Cabrera et
al., 2000). They can directly contribute to enhanced child
development outcomes such as cognitive, language, and
socio-emotional skills through stimulation, nurturing
interactions as well as through providing nutritious meals
and promoting their development and health. They can
also impact child outcomes by affecting the quality of the
home environment through modeling equitable co-
parenting partnerships, engaging in joint decision-making
and responsibility for domestic work, and through
positive and non-violent conflict resolution.
Fathers play a critical role in children’s physical and
mental health and wellbeing, particularly in the early
years. Fathers active and engaged involvement in
childrearing through responsive care and stimulation has
demonstrated positive outcomes in early learning and
cognition, as well as socio-emotional development
(Baker, 2017; Bronte-Tinkew et al., 2008; Cabrera &
Tamis-Lemonda, 2013; Henry et al., 2020; Jeong et al.,
2016; Jeong et al., 2017; Jia et al., 2012; Lamb, 2004;
Roggman et al., 2007). Fathers promotion of early
learning, language and literacy also has an enormous
impact on the developmental trajectory of children,
determining their school readiness and achievement
from early education through adulthood (Downer et al.,
2008; Duursma, 2004; Jeynes, 2015; McWayne et al.,
2013; Saracho, 2007; Tamis-Lemonda et al., 2013). In
later years, qualitative and correlational studies have
found that father involvement plays a role in promoting
healthy nutrition and exercise in children (Garfield et al.,
2012) as well as in protecting children’s mental health
against psychological maladjustment and distress
(particularly in girls) throughout adolescence and into
adulthood (Allgood et al., 2012; Flouri & Buchanan,
2003). Father involvement has also been linked to
improved peer relations and higher self-esteem and life
satisfaction, lower rates of depression, fear and self-
doubt (Alloy et al., 2001; Burgess, 2006; Levtov et al.,
2015).
Fathers have a significant role in the ways children are
disciplined in the home. Experiencing harsh punishment
at the hands of fathers is strongly linked to negative
outcomes across the lifespan. Children who suffer
physical and emotional violence by a parent or caregiver
see their physical and mental health negatively impacted
well into adulthood (Know Violence in Childhood, 2017;
UNICEF, 2014). But, even though mothers can and do
use harsh forms of punishment as well, fathers’ use of
harsh punishment has been discretely linked to negative
outcomes across the lifespan and therefore their
significant role in preventing it should be underscored. In
particular, fathers use of harsh verbal and physical
discipline has been associated with later behavioral
problems such as child aggression particularly in boys,
even if they make regular use of positive discipline
techniques as well (Chang et al., 2003; McKee et al.,
2007). Conversely, the reduction in the use of harsh
discipline by fathers has been linked to the improvement
of child early learning, cognitive and socioemotional
development (Palm & Fagan, 2008; Sarkadi et al., 2008).
Men’s use of violence against women also affects
children’s development in the short and long term. Child
exposure to intimate partner violence can have long-
term health and social consequences similar to those of
child abuse and neglect (Guedes et al., 2016). Children
who witness violence in the home are at risk for trauma
formation, as well as lags in learning and performance in
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school, difficulties in developing empathy, controlling
aggression, interacting with others, and engaging in
healthy parentchild relationships (Brancalhone et al.,
2004; Dyson 1990; Holt et al., 2008; Margolin &
Vickerman, 2007; Promundo & Sonke Gender Justice,
2018; Strom et al, 2013). These effects can be
compounded, as different forms of violence in the home
co-occur. Violence against children and intimate partner
violence share common risk factors and are sustained by
similar social norms that condone violent discipline (wife-
beating and corporal punishment) and promote
masculinities centered on power and control (Holt et al.,
2008; Nami et al., 2017; Steinhaus et al., 2019;
Vlahovicova et al., 2019).
The role of fathers in educating children through non-
violent parenting has a profound impact on children’s
future relationships as parents and partners. While data
from multiple countries indicates that the exposure to
violence in childhood, either as a victim or as a witness to
violence against their mother, increases the likelihood
that a child will grow up to experience or perpetrate
violence in their future relationships (Contreras et al.,
2012; Fleming et al., 2015; Fulu et al., 2013; Fulu et al.,
2017); positive parental relationships and fathers
modeling of respect, non-violence and care, has also
been found to interrupt this intergenerational
transmission of violence (Van der Gaag et al, 2019).
Representative household survey data from many
countries highlights a pattern in which men who have
witnessed their fathers be actively involved in housework
and unpaid care work while growing up are much more
likely to do the same as adults, kick starting lasting cycles
of healthy relationships and caregiving (Kato-Wallace et
al., 2014; Levtov et al., 2015). Beyond the effects on boys
and young men, modeling of gender equitable
relationships among parents in the household has been
associated with girls' more ambitious career aspirations
and participation in the labor market (Croft et al., 2014).
Father involvement in parenting and unpaid care work is
not only positive for children’s development and more
equitable gender socialization, but it is also beneficial to
women’s health and economic empowerment. While
evidence is still limited, father involvement during
pregnancy has been correlated with mother’s increased
likelihood to receive first trimester prenatal care, better
nutrition and rest, skilled birth attendance and postnatal
care; as well as with reductions in prematurity, infant
mortality, and postpartum depression (Alio et al., 2011a,
2011b; Comrie-Thompson et al., 2015; Davis et al., 2012;
Swan et al., 2019; Teitler, 2001; Yargawa & Leonardi-Bee,
2015). Mothers who feel supported by their children’s
fathers suffer less parenting stress and feel less
overburdened; they parent more positively and have
higher life satisfaction (Swan & Doyle, 2019). Engaging
men as fathers in the perinatal period also offers an
opportunity to address power imbalances in gender
relations and decision-making that continue to hinder
women’s access to health and improve couple relations
(Abosse et al., 2010). Furthermore, through becoming
involved, men learn new ways of relating to their
partners and families that diverge from their traditional
gender roles, taking on roles that enable women to
pursue their education or participate in the labor market
(Doyle et al., 2014). While worthwhile in its own right,
women’s participation in paid work or having access to
income can reduce household financial stress, increase
expenditure on children’s health and wellbeing, increase
her agency and decision-making and has been shown to
have macro-economic impacts at a global scale (Bastagli
et al., 2016; Buller et al., 2018; Millan et al. 2019; Ostry
et al., 2018; Woetzel et al., 2015).
3. Barriers and constraints
Despite the promising evidence, men’s potential to
contribute in positive ways as fathers and caregivers is
not being fully realized. Several barriers, including
restrictive gender norms and expectations, the absence
of enabling policy environments, and exclusion from key
services prevent them from sharing caregiving
responsibilities and becoming more involved. It is
imperative to apply a gender analysis both to understand
what sustains these barriers as well as to formulate
solutions to address them.
Restrictive gender norms and expectations drive
inequities in the division of work within the household.
Definitions about how men and women should behave,
as partners and parents, remain deeply entrenched in
most societies. Restrictive gender norms include
expectations around men being the financial provider,
the authoritative head of the family in charge of
decision-making. Women, meanwhile, are expected to
be caretakers and responsible for the health and
wellbeing of the children (Heise et al, 2019). Beyond
individually held ideas, socially shared beliefs are
reflected in and continuously reinforce patterns of
gendered division of labor and caregiving (Plan
International & Promundo-US, 2020). Promundo and
other practitioners have recurrently found that adopting
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equitable behaviors can be challenging when social
norms in the groups of reference remain unchanged:
while some men may support women’s agency or work
outside the home, they may worry about losing respect
from their community if their wife earns more than him;
while women may worry about social censure and being
labeled as poor mothers should their husband take on
childcare (Promundo, 2018).
The normalization of these biases also influences the
ways in which parenting and caregiver support
interventions and policies are designed and targeted,
perpetuating these divides. Maternal and child health as
well as parenting interventions are primarily designed,
targeted and delivered to women, often under the
assumption that fathers are ill-equipped, incapable of or
not interested in taking care of children (Hawkins &
Dollahite, 1997; Maxwell et al. 2012). A global review of
parenting programs shows that the large majority
undervalues co-parenting compared with mothering, and
there is a dearth of robust evaluations that measure
father participation or their specific impact on child or
family outcomes (Panter-Brick, 2014). The scientific
evidence contests this belief -fathers, both biological and
non-biological, have been shown to experience
neurological changes akin to mothers’ as a result of
childrearing, including increases in oxytocin and
activation in empathy-related neural pathways (Yogman,
1982; Yogman et al. 1983; Feldman, 2003; Gettler et al.,
2011; Perini et al., 2012; Feldman et al., 2010; Abraham
& Feldman, 2018); which then translate to active
behavioral engagement in children’s care and stimulation
(Feldman et al. 2010; Gordon et al., 2010; Weisman et
al., 2014).
At the family level, rigid gender socialization, lack of
exposure to childrearing from an earlier age and absence
of male caregiver role models can act as lasting barriers
to father involvement (Plan International & Promundo-
US, 2020). From an early age, boys learn through the
socialization process how they are expected to behave
based on their gender. As adults, they tend to reproduce
these patterns within their own families, by remaining
emotionally distant or absent, or by teaching their own
sons to be “real men” at the expense of modelling
compassion, honesty, and vulnerability (Barker et al.,
2012; Barker et al., 2020; Levtov et al., 2015). While
normative environments might still be conservative, they
are often in stark contrast with personal attitudes held
by fathers, who express more gender equitable views
that the norms on their communities would suggest
(Levtov et al., 2018; Vlahovicova et al., 2019). Much data
shows that men desire to be actively involved in the lives
of their children, even as they may reflect that they don’t
always know how (Heilman et al., 2018; Levtov et al.,
2015). Seeing models of male caregiving while growing-
up promotes men’s involvement in care as adults and
encourages a virtuous cycle of care.
The lack of an enabling institutional culture and
supportive work environment deter men from taking
larger childcare responsibilities. In addition to individual
beliefs on gendered household roles, promoting men’s
involvement in parenting and caregiving require
supportive and enabling work environments. Yet many
do not perceive or receive support at the level of their
work environment or society, for men’s deeper
involvement in the lives of their children. Findings from
Promundo’s Helping Dads Care Research project
conducted in the UK, U.S, Canada, Japan, Argentina, and
the Netherlands, showed that when asked about who in
their circles of influence would be most restrictive about
fathers’ involvement in childcare, many fathers said their
immediate managers were the ones they expected to be
most obstructive (Van der Gaag et al., 2019). As these
findings demonstrate, many fathers fear workplace
stigma if they prioritize (or even balance) childcare
responsibilities with professional responsibilities.
Parental leave is one of the most visible markers of
employer and government support for men’s caregiving,
but it is often insufficient to allow men to take time off
from work. Parental leave policies vary widely from
country to country and are provided to formal, salary-
based employees leaving out a broad-based segment of
parents -the unemployed, freelancers, those who work
in the informal sector and in subsistence agriculture
(UNICEF, 2019). In addition, while leave for mothers is
largely codified and provided as a benefit, only a handful
of countries provide paid leave for fathers, and even if
they do, it is short and insufficiently remunerated.
According to the International Labour Organization in
2014, only 79 countries offered any paternity leave -and
paid in 71 countries. In half of these countries, the leave
is less than three weeks (Addati et al. 2014). Due to the
insufficient compensation and short period of time
covered by parental leave policies, fathers are less likely
to take the leave they are entitled to, as they are often
the main income earners in their families. In a multi-
country survey to better understand barriers to men’s
uptake of leave, many fathers reported taking little to no
leave at all after the birth or adoption of their child, and
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fewer than half reported taking the full amount of time
that they are entitled to (See Table 1; van der Gaag et al.
2019). While paternity leave is necessary, it's not
sufficient on its own to immediately change long-term,
shared social norms and behaviors.
Table 1: Percentage of fathers who took no time
off and who took the full amount of time they
were allocated under country’s policies
Source: State of the World Fathers 2019.
Lastly, the exclusion of men from key social services and
health systems works against father engagement. In
most countries and health systems, men are passively
(and sometimes actively) excluded from child and family
services -including maternal, newborn, child health
services, early childhood development and social
protection services - and often overlooked by
professionals and practitioners for a range of reasons
(Greene et al., 2019). These include the belief that these
spaces and issues are women’s domain, that facilities are
not equipped to accommodate men’s presence during
birth, and that a fear of men's involvement would
negatively interfere in women’s freedom to make
choices or access care. Such deficiencies on the “supply
side” of services lead to reduced demand for them from
men themselves: the services are seen as “women’s
business” and the few men who do attend them often
feel shy, intimidated and out of place.
4. Good practice: interventions to engage
fathers in improving the quality of
family relationships and child
development
A few programs have proven promising in engaging men
as active fathers, demonstrating a range of positive
outcomes. These include improvement in the quality of
the father-child relationship, increase in men’s time
spent caring for children and performing domestic
household tasks, reductions in men's use of violent
discipline methods against children and intimate partner
violence, and shifts toward more gender equitable
relationships among parents. Parenting programs (see
The Prevention Collaborative, 2019) that seek to engage
fathers explicitly, combined with a gender-
transformative approach have found compelling
evidence of impact on improving parent-child and family
relationships. The following selected interventions from
the Global South have been able to show impact in
addressing outcomes related to couple, parent-child and
family relationships and wellbeing by leveraging fathers
as active agents in the education and development of
their children, alongside their female partners.
The Responsible Engaged and Loving (REAL) Fathers
Initiative works with first-time fathers of children ages 1-
3 years old combining a mentorship and group education
approach. This program delivers a curriculum that
promotes the positive child discipline, caregiving, gender
equity and communication. Through modeling of
alternative methods to harsh punishment and enhance
couple communication, the program aims to reduce
rates of child maltreatment and intimate partner
violence (Ashburn et al., 2017). As demonstrated earlier,
these are critical risk factors that can limit children from
developing to their full potential, affect their mental
health and future relationships, including the likelihood
of perpetrating or experiencing violence (The Prevention
Collaborative, 2019). Its community level component
works to reinforce these messages through disseminate
images (posters) depicting men’s involvement and
positive parenting to promote an environment
supportive of individual fathers’ newly adopted
behaviors. Results of an experimental evaluation showed
a significant reduction in father’s self-reported use of
harsh punishment, with fathers who gained exposure to
the mentoring sessions being two times more likely to
use positive discipline methods (Ashburn et al., 2017;
The Prevention Collaborative, 2019) and to spend more
time in activities such as play with their children. They
were also more likely to report feeling confident about
managing their child’s behavior without resorting to
harsh punishment, and were more likely than fathers
who did not participate in the program to disagree with
corporal punishment. (Asburn et al., 2017).
Program P (for “Pai”, meaning “father” in Portuguese) is
an evidence-based father-centered program that aims to
promote an environment of care through the prevention
of violence. The model engages fathers alongside their
partners, to become more involved, gender-equitable
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and non-violent partners and caregivers. The program
has been adapted and implemented to date in over
eighteen countries. More recent adaptations to address
early child development include modules to favor early
stimulation, parental responsiveness, knowledge of
developmental milestones, and positive discipline. The
Program P model is based on an socio-ecological
framework and aims to 1) address health systems and
other institutions to promote more targeted
engagement of fathers; 2) work with couples in a multi-
session group education setting to examine the impacts
of harmful gender norms on relations, and work towards
healthy equitable households; 3) develop community
campaigns that help create supportive environments for
these new norms. In a RCT evaluation of Bandebereho
(an adaptation of Program P implemented in Rwanda),
79% of women and 67% of men in the control group
reported using physical punishment against their
children, compared to 68% of women and 58% of men in
the intervention group; and around 40% were less likely
to use violence against their partners; and spent about
55 minutes more a day involved in caregiving and
household tasks than those in the control group 21
months after the intervention (Doyle et al., 2018). These
promising evaluation results have led to active
government support and institutionalization for both
REAL Father’s Initiatives and Bandebereho through
relevant government line ministries and institutions and
are currently being scaled-up to benefit large swaths of
the country’s population (Duch et al., 2019).
Fatherhood and caregiver support programs such as
REAL Fathers (Uganda) and Bandebereho (Rwanda), as
well as Sugira Muryango (Rwanda) (Betancourt et al.,
2020), and others that are not explicitly targeted at
fathers but parents -and therefore engaging men with
less success- such as Masayang Pamilya Para Sa Batang
(Philippines) (Alampay et al., 2018; Doha International
Family Institute & Qatar Foundation, 2018), or Nadie es
Perfecto (Chile) (Carneiro et al., 2019) demonstrate that
parenting programs can be integrated into existing public
sector service delivery platforms and wide reaching
programs, such as health, child protection or social
protection (cash transfer programs), early childhood
development or livelihood programs (Duch et al., 2019,
Carneiro et al., 2019). Parenting programs thus present
the opportunity of benefitting a large sector of the
population and promote population level changes that
can contribute to healthy, equitable and caring
relationships by transforming restrictive gender norms,
strengthening caregivers’ skills and self-efficacy as
parents, including their ability to resolve conflicts and
manage child behavior problems through effective, age-
appropriate, nonviolent discipline strategies.
The integration of evidence-based parenting programs in
public social sector services in low and middle income
countries faces multiple challenges in contexts of limited
human and financial resources. Among the main
difficulties encountered are: ensuring that program
content and approach is feasible and adapted to the
cultural and operational context of how social services
are delivered, securing adequate funds to implement
programs at scale and recruit government personnel that
can be trained in gender transformative and early
childhood approaches that won’t turn over frequently.
Links to complementary interventions and support are
often necessary to address other factors of adversity
contributing to family well-being such as economic
deprivation, violence in the family, parental mental
health or substance abuse issues.
Social and Behavior Change Communication Campaigns
can also be effective to promote father engagement and
challenge restrictive gender norms towards creating a
favorable community environment to support individual
change. The MenCare Campaign is a global effort
initiated in 2011 motivated by the understanding that
fatherhood provided a key opportunity to involve men in
promoting caregiving, gender equality and reducing
violence. Since its inception, the MenCare Campaign has
created a global platform to drive and promote research
exchange, evidenced based program development, tools
for developing advocacy initiatives to promote men’s
equitable, nonviolent caregiving (Barker et al., 2018).
With over 100 partners in over 55 countries, the
MenCare Campaign works both locally and
internationally to promote normative change through a
combination of research on effective approaches to
engage fathers, the links between fatherhood and family
well-being and health. The campaign relies on research
that informs and improves fatherhood programming, the
creative use of media that showcases positive models of
male caregiving, and global convenings to create a
shared agenda and strategy to achieve collective goals.
Partners reported MenCare had positive impacts in
expanding the national conversation around fatherhood
and in a number of countries, influenced specific policies
around fatherhood and caregiving (Van der Gaag, 2015).
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5. Conclusion
An emerging body of evidence shows that positive father
engagement in the lives of their children much like
positive involvement of mothers and other significant
caregivers is associated with a series of early child
development outcomes as well as improved quality of
family environment and relationships that have profound
and lasting impacts on their development. However,
several constraints stand in the way of realizing this
potential in a large proportion of families at a global
level. Key barriers identified are: restrictive gender
norms that discourage men from becoming more
actively involved in caregiving and domestic
responsibilities, uphold care to be women’s primary
responsibility and justify men’s violence and control over
both women and children; lack of policies and supportive
enabling environment to encourage men to take time off
work to care for their children, and parenting and family
focused programs designed for and delivered primarily
to women caregivers. Emerging and promising
fatherhood and parenting support interventions show
effectiveness in both improving the quality and quantity
of care provided by fathers, enhancing couple
communication as well as reducing violence in the
family. These interventions also show that overcoming
barriers to engage men fully in their role as nurturing
caregivers and supportive partners is feasible with
explicit strategies to reach them but it’s not sufficient on
its own to generate sustainable change in social norms
and practices. This requires that social policies and
programs interacting with families support all parents
and caregivers to strengthen their parenting skills but
that also actively promote gender equality and challenge
restrictive norms sustaining power imbalances and
violent relationships. Knowledge gaps remain on how to
design and implement evidence-based gender
transformative parenting interventions that are scalable,
affordable, replicable, and sustainable in order to reach
large numbers of families, particularly in resource
constrained settings. Concerted efforts to address these
gaps and enhance the evidence can inform future policy
and parenting programming to engage men and this
contribute to achieving the SDG 16 by creating peaceful,
non-violent and equitable societies.
6. Research, policy and programmatic
recommendations: Engaging men in
parenting
Engaging fathers as positive, non-violent and meaningful
caregivers is critical to the development of children and
to support equality in caregiving and broader gender
justice. Yet significant efforts need to be made to
increase the scale and quality of interventions and
policies that can build the supportive environment at the
societal, family and individual level required to make that
possible. This section offers recommendations based on
the evidence available focusing on research, policies and
programs that can promote men’s active engagement as
fathers:
Invest in conducting action oriented research to
understand barriers to fathers’ engagement and positive
entry points to catalyze their active involvement.
Formative research should identify men’s concerns
around fatherhood and programmatic designs need to
ensure they consider in-kind or symbolic incentives to
motivate them to attend; develop strategies to reach
men in places and at times that work with their
schedules; create a safe space for mutual sharing and
learning on parenting and couple relationships.
Additional areas for advancing the research agenda to
engage fathers includes rigorously evaluating the added
value of parenting interventions that target fathers alone
compared to couples; understanding social and
community norms that play a role in enabling men’s
caregiving, and mapping of opportunities to integrate
engaged fatherhood in policy and legislation. Finally,
given existing myths around biological distinctions in
caregiving capacity based on gender, it is important to
support the generation and dissemination of
neurobiological research to contribute to dispel this
misconception that acts as a barrier to men’s
engagement as active caregivers.
Widen the growing but yet limited evidence base of
fatherhood programs to promote early childhood
development and prevent family violence in low and
middle income countries. Much of the existing evidence
around fathers’ impact on children’s outcomes remains
concentrated within the Global North. Given highly
variant contexts, impact of interventions may be
constrained in different settings, due to distinct gender
and social norms, incentives to participate, paid work
constraints and the social economy that might prevent
8
men’s participation. Dedicate more investment and
research to implement and evaluate the effectiveness of
parenting programs that explore innovative and flexible
program delivery modalities that can accommodate
demanding work schedules to address contextual
barriers to engage fathers and overcome recruitment
and retention challenges; and to better understand the
pathways through which positive father engagement in
parenting can impact different areas of child
development.
Support the development of a repository and open
sourcing of evidence and knowledge on the roles and
impact of fathers to inform policy development.
Initiatives like The Global Fatherhood Charter or the
National Fatherhood Initiative, are key resources that
draw on expert knowledge and a large body of research
to make evidence-based recommendations accessible to
parents, practitioners and policy makers across the world
(Global Fatherhood Charter, 2019; National Fatherhood
Initiative, n.d.). As organizations and specifically, local
civil society seeks to elevate and prioritize healthy child
development, developing more accessible resources that
highlight promising practices can ensure the wide
diffusion of evidenced based practices.
Support the development of theory-driven social norm
change interventions that identify specific norms driving
inequitable behaviors around parenting and caregiving.
Addressing restrictive social norms and expectations is at
the heart of driving transformative change and
developing supportive environments that enable fathers
and their female partners to adopt gender equitable
behaviors including the use of intimate partner violence
and violent forms of discipline against children. These
interventions should involve parents, family members,
reference groups and the communities at large to
challenge harmful norms and rigid ideas around
masculinity, adopt new norms and attitudes, as well as
strengthen healthy relationship skills that can sustain
these shifts.
Design, implement and evaluate gender transformative
parenting programs that can be taken to scale in a
sustainable way. Long-term and resource intensive
interventions may be challenging to implement for most
governments in the Global South. It is critical to invest in
generating a larger body of evidence and practice based
knowledge on what are the core components
(curriculum topics, dosage and approaches) of parenting
interventions that have been most effective. Evaluations
should not only describe program results achieved but
also detail the content of the curriculum, the required
profile of facilitators, the strategies used to recruit and
retain parents, but particularly fathers, whether
incentives are required, and core elements to ensure
fidelity of design and implementation, as well as its cost-
effectiveness.
Ensure programs and interventions that engage men are
designed and delivered in ways that respond to women’s
needs, choices and priorities. Policy and program
practitioners should involve women during the design of
the intervention to consider their concerns regarding
potential risks of increased male involvement which can
include reinforcing men’s power and control over
women’s decision-making, restricting the few safe spaces
where women have agency in the areas of maternal and
child health and parenting. Health and social protection
services engaging men need to guard against possible
exclusion of young, single or unaccompanied women.
Moreover, any intervention seeking to actively engage
men as partners in parenting, maternal or child health
needs to ensure they do not create additional risks for
women, of experiencing intimate partner violence. These
need to guarantee access and referrals to adequate and
survivor centered support services for women that can
suffer intimate partner violence as traditional norms
begin to shift and male partners can feel threatened.
Integrate strategies to actively engage fathers and male
caregivers in key services and programs directed to
families seeking to promote children and adolescent
development that reach large sectors of the population.
Policies related to early child development, social
welfare, childcare, newborn and child health, nutrition,
education, and youth development should encourage
fathers’ positive engagement with children, while
recognizing the realities of different types of families and
fathers, including non-residential fathers. Social services
directly interacting with families need to train and recruit
male staff to model caregiving and childcare roles.
Moreover, these policies should provide resources to
strengthen and support families to address structural
drivers of adversity, especially those with special needs
and vulnerabilities (e.g., adolescent parents, children
with disabilities, incarcerated fathers, etc.), and they
should be complemented with policies that promote
fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives throughout
adolescence and early adulthood.
9
Support equal, fully paid, non-transferable parental leave
for all parents to create the conditions that allow for
fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives from an
early age. Parental leave should be offered in both
public and private sectors, and complemented by other
policies (e.g. provision of care services for children,
elderly and people with disabilities) that promote
women’s equal participation in the labor force and men’s
equal participation in unpaid care work. Support efforts
to collect data on time use in unpaid care work and how
it is divided between women and men, as well as reasons
that determine male and female parents’ dedication to
unpaid care and use it to inform policy-making and
budgeting decisions regarding provision of childcare, and
parenting and parental support services.
10
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... In summary, our findings suggest that men have actively initiated their participation in ANC more than health facilities and health workers. The examples of male involvement in ANC presented here substantiate the assertion that men taking joint responsibility for women's workload during pregnancy fosters a less stressful prenatal experience for expectant mothers [55]. Our research material also emphasizes the claim that men become exposed to new ways of relating to their partners through their involvement in pregnancy-related care, which could promote new fatherhood norms [55]. ...
... The examples of male involvement in ANC presented here substantiate the assertion that men taking joint responsibility for women's workload during pregnancy fosters a less stressful prenatal experience for expectant mothers [55]. Our research material also emphasizes the claim that men become exposed to new ways of relating to their partners through their involvement in pregnancy-related care, which could promote new fatherhood norms [55]. Perhaps with a strategic focus on the clinic's spatial setup and including men in the general sessions and private consultations, the maternity clinic could, with time, be transformed into less of a gendered space, i.e., a space that will accommodate both female and male identities. ...
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