Healthy masculinity means healthy families

Jun 16, 2022
Written by Sophia Papastavrou and Socorro Maminta, Gender Technical Specialists for World Vision Canada

Imagine how much different the world would be for women and girls everywhere if fathers, brothers, and sons were fierce advocates and allies for the rights of women and girls in their communities.

This is the vision behind MenCare—a global fatherhood campaign dedicated to engaging men and boys in the pursuit of gender equality and the advancement of the rights of women and girls.

While women and girls have enormous potential as advocates and change agents for their own health and equality, men and boys have their own crucial roles to play as allies and drivers of the change needed to improve the health and well-being of women and girls worldwide.

For more than 20 years, World Vision Canada has adapted and implemented MenCare approaches in communities all over Africa and Asia. It continues to be a key strategy for engaging men and boys in the pursuit of gender equality and the advancement of the rights of women and girls.

A campaign active in more than 50 countries on five continents, coordinated by Equimundo: Center for Masculinities and Social Justice and Sonke Gender Justice, local MenCare teams aim to promote men’s involvement as equitable, non-violent fathers and caregivers to achieve family well-being, gender equality, and better health for the whole family and community.

Recently, WVC’s implementation of MenCare was assessed across three programs/projects that focused on improving gendered health and nutrition outcomes in Africa and Asia. Funded by Global Affairs Canada, these programs/projects are:
  • Enhancing Nutrition Services to Improve Maternal and Child Health in Africa and Asia (ENRICH, 2016-2021)
  • Supporting Systems to Achieve Improved Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (SUSTAIN, 2016-2021)
  • Born On Time, a project led by World Vision, with Save the Children and Plan International Canada as members, focused on the prevention of preterm births (Born On Time, 2016-2021)
Empowering women and girls to realize their health rights requires transforming the discriminatory gender norms that drive poor health in women, girls and babies—and that includes engaging with the ways men may enforce them.

A father’s role in advancing gender equality
Increasingly, WVC is investing in projects that engage men, particularly fathers, as critical partners in addressing poor women’s and family health outcomes. This is achieved by building their knowledge and skills related to women’s and family health; creating awareness of the important role and responsibility that men have as husbands/partners and fathers in ensuring that women and newborns remain healthy before, during and after childbirth; and challenging discriminatory gender norms and practices to address women and girls’ limited agency and decision-making, unequal sharing of reproductive roles between women and men, and gender-based violence and other issues that have negative impacts on women’s and family health.

Drawing on the latest evidence-based research on engaging men as allies for gender equality, the three gendered health and nutrition programs/projects adopted similar strategies across countries to build and leverage men’s awareness and sense of responsibility for the health and well-being of their wives and children.

MenCare programs provide education and resources to help men take on a more equitable role in their families and communities, encouraging them to become more involved with their families, particularly around issues of health and nutrition. Photo: Paul Bettings

MenCare groups were formed and members trained using locally contextualized curriculum focused on increasing men’s knowledge of gendered health issues and encouraging men to be active and accountable husbands and fathers.

What does it mean to be an active husband and father? This means being directly involved in all aspects of the family, especially in the early stages of a child’s life:
  • safe pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing
  • eliminating gender biases
  • sharing decision-making with their wives
  • ensuring good nutritional practices for new and expecting mothers;
  • taking on a more equal share of household chores and childcare responsibilities
  • reducing alcohol dependence
  • ending gender-based violence and preventing child, early and forced marriage.
Championing healthy fatherhood
Some men who received the training were mentored to become MenCare “Champions” to mobilize and influence other men in their communities to become active, engaged parents, nonviolent and more equitable partners. Champions were responsible for organizing seminars in their communities to share what they learned with other men.

Champions also conducted home visits where they provided information to couples on family planning and shared evidence to support the benefits of men getting involved in reproductive and women’s health to advance family health and well-being.

Beyond the formal MenCare training, and the MenCare “Champions” program, change on an individual and community level happened through awareness-raising events, discussion groups for men, father-daughter dialogues, couples-counselling, and counselling for men on gender equality and gendered and family health issues.

One MenCare discussion group member from Nkuninkana, Tanzania, said, “I can see the difference after starting the involvement in MenCare sessions.”

“Previously, I was not involved in doing house work but after MenCare, I am so much involved in doing housework and taking care of my family. My wife is no longer getting tired as she used to be—we are a happy family now.”

Men were engaged in social and behaviour change activities where they learned how to proactively support their spouses during pregnancy, at birth, and in the postpartum period, and to reflect on the gender norms and traditional practices that threaten the health and well-being of their wives and daughters.

One father from Bitale, Tanzania, reflected on what he learned.

"I came to learn that women are doing so much work, compared to men,” he said. “Because my wife was doing all the work without my support, that is why our first three children when they were born, they had so many problems. It was because my wife was overworked and had so limited time to rest.”
After learning more about how overwhelmed their wives could get with household chores, fathers in MenCare programs shifted household duties to share the burden. Photo: Paul Bettings

During male engagement dialogues and couple’s counselling sessions, participants gained strategies for improved couple communication and gender equitable decision-making. Couples also discussed the role of husbands and fathers in preventing SGBV, combatting the harmful practice of child marriage and serving as champions for gender equality to inspire change in other men.

Men also participated in training on ‘Positive Masculinities’ which encouraged a fairer distribution of household chores and childcare responsibilities between women and men. Men also supported sexual and reproductive health and rights for their wives and daughters.

And youth were also included in the process—teen boys in communities learned about positive masculinities through peer education groups.

Through the MenCare programs, men gained skills in the organization and facilitation of community events which encouraged all community members to challenge accepted ideas about “manhood” and the roles of men and women in the community, and to support their husbands and fathers to become engaged and compassionate family members.

In addition, men encouraged other men at these events to make space for their wives’ opinions when making household decisions about nutrition, health care, education, and family budgeting, stressing the benefits for all family members when decisions are made in an inclusive and equitable way. Community level actions were often coordinated with community leaders for greater community acceptance and impact.

Faith leaders like Priest Jejaw play a pivotal role in the journey to gender equality and fully realized women's rights in communities all over the world. Photo: Paul Bettings

The World Vision team drew on their experience partnering with faith leaders around the world as allies for gender equality, to engage imams, pastors and priests where their influence was leveraged to promote the uptake of maternal and newborn heath, including adolescent sexual and reproductive health services, to discourage child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence and to mobilize men to adopt attitudes and behaviours in support of gender equality and improved family health.

Priest Jejaw was one such faith leader driven to lead change in his community in Ethiopia after his 14-year-old daughter passed away while giving birth. His community still practiced early marriage, but he played a key role in pushing back against preterm birth and early marriage as a man of influence in his village.

Impacting families one man at a time
So, what has been the result of MenCare in these communities? Overall, engaged and caring fathers and husbands.

Here are the specifics:
  • Men playing a more proactive role in family health and nutrition, including making decisions jointly with their wives on contraception, number of children desired, and birth spacing, and accompanying their wives to health centers for antenatal and post-natal visits;
  • Men contributing more to domestic and childcare activities in their households;
  • Men jointly making household decisions with their wives related to healthcare, nutrition, education and family budgeting;
  • Men sharing responsibility for improved family nutrition, particularly for expectant and new mothers and children under five;
  • Men motivating other men to play a more active role in the health and well-being of their families and to think critically about harmful gender norms and traditional practices.
Well-designed programs for engaging men and boys are key to effective gender-equality strategies as they help to overcome gender-based barriers preventing equitable access to health, education, and economic opportunities, and can create space for women’s political participation and leadership. Men and boys must play an active role in protecting their families and communities from gender-based violence and harmful traditional practices such as child marriage.

It’s a long and hard journey to achieving full gender equality and rights for women and girls.

But, if there’s anything MenCare tells us, it’s that when everyone is on board, there is hope for change.

You can find out more about our MenCare programs and results through these reports:

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