Dads love their children. Yet globally, cultural and traditional values about gender roles and parenting mean that dads are less involved in bringing up their children. This is not only unfair to dads and kids, it also places an uneven burden of caregiving and domestic labour on women, perpetuating gender inequality.
A father’s love is a good starting point for engaging dads in parenting groups, to help them become the fathers and partners that they want to be. These groups help dads to improve their knowledge and practical skills to support child development, they provide an opportunity for dads to build solidarity networks with other dads and they provide an opportunity for dads to support community action for children.
They are a place where dads can reflect on gender roles and norms which say that the man is the provider and protector who is not involved in caregiving and domestic chores, and that men don’t make good caregivers and aren’t able to provide the love and care that children need.
Parenting groups are also a safe space where men can change. When men see that other men are changing their attitudes and behaviours, then they too may be more willing to change –
and be less worried about facing ridicule as a result.
Plan International recognises the importance of men taking an active role in protecting and promoting the health and wellbeing of their partners and children. This means supporting and engaging men to provide emotional, financial and physical support; assuming equal and joint responsibility with their partner for care work and domestic chores; and communicating and resolving differences of opinion and potential conflict without violence.
In Indonesia this year, as part of an Early Childhood Development (ECD) project, Plan International supported 154 parenting groups in 92 Plan International-supported villages across five districts in the east of the country. This included 450 male participants, with approximately 10% of the parenting group members being fathers or male caregivers. Although these numbers are still low, it represents good progress in engaging fathers in this project.
In Amol Village, like in all surrounding communities, the responsibility for care of young children is given to mothers or female caregivers as part of tradition or habit. Recognising the need to engage dads, including in supporting the role of their wives and mothers of their children, we first worked with local government to hold community meetings to talk about the importance of involving male caregivers and fathers in Plan International’s parenting program. This was followed by a selection of dads who showed motivation to participate. The role of local leaders, including religious leaders, was important for engaging fathers and for providing role models for different ways of engaging with children and women.
The new father class in Amol village was attended by 15 dads who met weekly on a Sunday. One of the members was Mr Sate. He is a father of four who was motivated to participate so he could learn about positive parenting and perform his role as a father better. He and his wife are both farmers. His wife always carried their youngest child on her back when they both went to work on the farm and when they returned, she did all the household chores whilst he rested:
“Before the parenting group existed, I didn’t care for my family. All domestic work, for instance taking care of the children, washing the dishes, cooking, cleaning the house, and many more were given to the mother. When I would go to the field with my wife, we would walk together, work the crops together. When we got home, my wife would be worn out with the little kid. Before this, after we got home, I took my bath right away, sat in front of the television and asked for coffee; meanwhile my wife who was cleaning the dishes had to stop to make me coffee.”
After participating in the father classes, Mr Sate said that there are a lot of changes in him, and his wife agreed. She said that her husband had totally changed – he shared the roles in their household and he is involved in child care at home:
“The thing that made me change is one day at home when my kid said to me, ‘Father, please make me a small car.’ Tired or not, since I remembered the (parenting) program, I had to make time to create and make toys for him. Furthermore, when the child is cranky I always take him for a cruise, sometimes the mother prepares the food and I feed them.”
Mr Sate has told other dads that the parenting program is very helpful for those who have young children. Other dads in the village who have participated have also been positive about the parenting program:
“When I was a child, I felt afraid to approach my father. Now I try to change, so my child won’t feel what I felt in my childhood.”
“Such a remarkable change! I’m happy because I had waited for nine years until I have a child. I’m happy washing my child’s clothes. Boiling water too, I’m doing it happily.”
“Before I participated in the father class, (I thought) the role of father was just going to the farm and taking care of livestock. After I participated in the father class, I started to feel guilty because (I gave) less attention to my family’s needs. Since that time (I) started to share the tasks with my wife at home such as chopping vegetables, washing clothes.”
In a neighbouring district, as well as their regular meetings, one of the father classes initiated joint activities that were attended by approximately 70 people from the village. These activities were to improve the community for their children and included repairing the community’s drinking water pipes, repairing the community health centre building and donating time, labour and funds for construction of an early childhood centre for their children to attend pre-primary activities.
Across all Plan International’s ECD projects, men are a vital partner in addressing gender inequality and achieving girls’ and womens’ rights. Men’s engagement is good for their female partners – 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 – and it’s good for their young children – it helps young girls and boys to grow up free from limiting and stereotypical gendered norms and expectations about their value and how they should behave. And it’s good for dad’s too – men actively involved with the care and development of their children are more likely to be emotionally fulfilled and feel satisfied with their lives, adopt health-promoting behaviours, experience less stress and live longer.
Our ECD project in Indonesia is just one example of how working with dads means that change, including changing perspective around gender roles, can happen at multiple levels – in one’s self, in the family and in the wider community.