Session 18/19Page 2/4 Topic A: why must we help fathers involve in their children’s development?
Topic A: why must we help fathers involve in their children’s development?
In East Africa, people are leaving villages and move into cities and poor townships, where unemployment rates create poverty and despair. The Covid-19 crisis further stresses family relations, and more children lose contact with their fathers.
The movement from villages to cities has created a harmful conflict between traditional father expectations and a new reality. Most men and women still have the traditional mindset: that the most important role of the father is to be the main breadwinner who provides for his family. When unemployment makes it impossible for him, it creates resentment and disappointment in women, and a very low self-esteem in men. East African research shows that many fathers give up, leave the family, or turn to drug abuse. Some marry a woman and divorce soon after having children, because they are ashamed of not being able to provide for them. This leaves many children and youth without the care and protection from their fathers. One third of children in Tanzania and Kenya grow up without their father – a major risk for their development. In Rwanda, one third of family heads are single mothers, and in every fifth household the head is a grandparent or older relative.
The old ideal – that fathers are only successful if they have a high income – is impossible for most men, and it makes many fathers lose hope and give up their family. But research shows that a father’s income is not as important as his social and emotional engagement: when fathers engage in relations with their children and teenagers, their school performance and lifelong development is much improved. How can this important message be spread, and inspire the local community to encourage and support fathers? How can we restore their hope and pride by making them understand how much they can give their children?
An example: Mihigo was a skilled car mechanic, whose work was much valued in the community. He provided for his wife and three children. One day his arm got pinched as he lay under a car, and the car support slipped away. With only one useful arm he lost his income, and in despair he left the family and started drinking. Encouraged by SOS staff, his friends and neighbors helped his wife, and then looked him up. At first, he rejected their help for shame, but they insisted and kept showing him how much they appreciated him. His wife and children told him how much his love and care meant to them. With their care, they managed to help him reunite with his wife and children. Realizing how needed he is, he and the family work to buy a cart and start as street vendor.
How can you spread knowledge about the importance of fathers for child development?
YOUR ROLE IN THE COMMUNITY: TO INSPIRE POSITIVE AWARENESS ABOUT FATHER ENGAGEMENT
Your role is to invite and lead community meetings, and inform about the tremendous positive effects of fathers engaging in their family. Use your skills and experience to inspire community group discussions and ideas, to create hope and community initiatives to strengthen fathers.
As staff you can’t change the general job situation of fathers. You can create awareness of the fact that father engagement in family life is about much more than having money. Even if poor, the social and emotional engagement of a father is extremely important for children’s basic values that are the foundations for success in adult life. For example, Nelson Mandela’s father died when he was 12, but Mandela later wrote that he learned his “proud rebelliousness and sense of fairness from him” In the interviews for this session, we have met many fathers who care for their family every day in spite of all challenges – but also many fathers who have lost hope and pride. They need knowledge and inspiration to build support from their community. They need encouragement for taking up responsible fatherhood, instead of hiding in shame.
WHO IS “A FATHER”?
In this program, a father is any man who works to take responsibility for his family, or who can be encouraged to do so. The role of a father can be performed by biological fathers, but also by other men. In African tradition, father or “Baba” applies to men in the social network in general, such as grandfathers, older brothers or cousins. Research shows that this unique social network is a protective factor for children, and you can inspire communities to make it stronger. Before we look at the immense value of father engagement in children, please reflect for yourself on these questions:
- What are your own observations of fathers in your community?
- What makes it difficult for fathers to engage in their families and connect with their spouse and children?
- What do fathers say about their ability to care for their families?
- The children and youth you work with: what do they say about their relationship with their fathers?
WHY ARE FATHERS SO IMPORTANT FOR POSITIVE CHILD DEVELOPMENT?
When you read research results from East Africa about the positive effects of father engagement, please think about arguments you think will help people understand and regain their trust in active fatherhood. These positive effects apply also to parents who are good at agreeing and working together for their children – even if they don’t live together any more. They also apply to stepfathers and relatives who act as substitute fathers. Being poor or rich as a father matters, but research shows that what matters much more is his will to give social and emotional care.
When fathers engage in care for their children, their lives improve tremendously:
- Fathers make many of the important decisions affecting the health, wellbeing, and care of young children
- Households with a father and a mother have better finances than single parents
- Mothers living with their husband are most often less stressed
- Relations with a father protects children from harm and abuse
- Children who have close bonds with a father have better academic performance
- They also have fewer emotional and behavioural problems
- Girls in families with an engaged father have higher self-esteem and confidence
Research also shows that young men in particular miss guidance, advice, and being close to their fathers. The future of teenage boys and young men depends much on close relations and dialogues with a male role model. Re-engaging or engaging in care for their children and youth also give fathers a great sense of pride and responsibility, and recognition in the community.
So, let us look at: what is father engagement?
THE FOUR DIMENSIONS OF POSITIVE FATHER-CHILD ENGAGEMENT
Even though a father is poor or unemployed, he can have a major influence on the wellbeing of the family, and children – if he is engaged. What does “engagement” mean? Father engagement has four dimensions:
- Frequent interactions. The father often engages in play, daily conversations, dialogues, conflict resolution, and acts as a guide for his children and teenagers.
- Availability. The father shows readiness to listen, discuss, and respond when children and youth look for support and advice. He often takes time to put other things aside, and often gives undivided attention and interest if the child or youth has a problem.
- Responsibility. The father participates in family debates and decisions concerning child development. For example: in education planning, protecting teenagers from danger or bad company, participate in health care visits and vaccinations, etc. As a role model, he passes on his moral values, and teaches children how to overcome life’s challenges and become resilient.
- Improved quality of life for all family members. Fathers who engage – or struggle to re-engage in care- develop a strong sense of pride and self-confidence, even in spite of economic poverty. This improves the development of their children. In particular, young men benefit from attention and advice from fathers who act as role models. Young girls are also better protected if other men in the extended family act as father figures.
These research results are the basic messages in your community work. But you are up against traditional ideas about the old division of responsibilities for child care – that women are the only providers of practical and emotional care. In modern society in the cities, fathers and mothers are beginning to share these responsibilities, and this improves child development tremendously. Furthermore, cultural norms define masculinity and fatherhood in ways that may not be well aligned with the above dimensions of father engagement. Even though it’s painful, these attitudes and negative experiences must be shared openly – in the community, and among fathers and mothers – before change can happen.
CREATING A FOCUS ON FATHERS IN THE COMMUNITY NETWORK
Now, let us first look at how you can contact key community stakeholders, and plan your community meetings. In our research and interviews, it is clear that any kind of strong social groups are vital for father engagement. This can be neighbours in the community, religious Christian or Muslim groups, groups formed by SOS Villages or other NGO staff, sport activities like football clubs in the community, etc. The important goal is to give fathers a place where they feel they belong and receive emotional and social support. This will help them drop negative groups that try to remedy the pain of misery by drugs, alcohol abuse, and self-pity. Also, to abandon the negative cultural norms in these groups (allowing marital violence, macho attitudes, sexual abuse, etc.)