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The fatherhood revolution


Kelly Sikkema under a Creative Commons Licence

I have been a feminist since my late teens. I have seen how women’s organizations have made a difference to women’s and girls’ lives in countries as different as Pakistan and El Salvador, Egypt and Indonesia.

I  have rejoiced with the many gains that women and girls have made, and grieved where progress was too slow or even gone backwards – the levels of violence against women that never seem to change, the women dying unnecessarily in childbirth, the fact that there are still fewer girls than boys in school, the dearth of women in senior positions…

But until relatively recently, there was one thing that I had not considered, and that was men.

It was easy to see them as the problem. After all, they still hold the majority of power when it comes to economy, governments, religion, the media and often within the household too. They also commit the majority of violence against women – as well as against each other.

But men and boys are also fathers, brothers, husbands, partners, grandfathers, uncles and cousins to women and girls. So could they also be part of the solution?

It was my son, then aged 11, who alerted me to this when he said simply: ‘Mum, why are you obsessed with women’s rights? What about me?’

This was the start of a journey that led to my writing Feminism and Men and to working on this first ever report on the State of the World’s Fathers.

I started trying to meet men and boys, as well as girls and women during the course of my work.

I noticed that wherever they came from, whether they were rich or poor, young or old, one of the things they talked about was how becoming a father had changed them; how the love they felt for their daughters and sons had made them more caring and even less violent people.  

A group of men in the Dominican Republic, for example, had come together from different communities because they were concerned about violence against women.

Cristobal, one of the older men in the group, said fiercely: ‘My father treated us children like animals. I knew when I had my own kids that I wanted to be a better father than he was.’

Wilman, a younger man, was worried about the violence in his family and didn’t know what to do about it.  

Those who were fathers said that fatherhood had been a turning point for them in their lives. They wanted to hand down love, not violence; care, not absence of care, to their sons and daughters. And it really helped to talk about this, to share it with other men, often for the first time in their lives.

A group of fathers who were part of the MenCare campaign in South Africa also told me how becoming a father had been a way in to talking, often for the first time, about the kind of destructive and narrow masculinity that tells men and boys that they have to be strong, not to cry, to be the top dog – and the damage they knew this had done to them when they were very small.

As a result, many said they were trying to become more involved in the home, sharing the burden of unpaid domestic and caring work with their partners for the first time, wanting to be there for the birth of their children, believing that they could break the cycle of violence handed down from their own fathers.

When I was able to talk to their wives and partners, they often corroborated the change – though this is something I would like to explore further.

Four out of five men will become fathers at some point in their lives. And most of the others will play some kind of role in a child’s life. Which is why this very first State of the World’s Fathers, bringing together men in their nurturing roles firmly into the picture, is so important.

Women all over the world still spend between 1 and 3 more hours a day on housework than men and 2 to 10 times as much time on caring for a child or older person.

Even when fathers are involved in the household, it is usually doing the fun things like taking a child out or playing with them, rather than taking responsibility for the messy business involved in running a home and caring for a family.

And this double burden is one of the reasons why women are still regarded as second-class citizens in so many places, why they only make up 21.8% of parliamentarians globally and head only 24 of America’s top 500 companies, and why girls are pulled out of school.

The women’s revolution has achieved so much. But the things we still need to end violence against women, ensure that women can compete on a more even playing field with men, and allow girls to go to school, is men who support gender equality and fathers who support feminism.

Because fatherhood is a key part of this. Even in Britain, notes the report, it is when women have children that the gender pay gap really rockets – from 7% to 21%.

If men valued caregiving and unpaid work and participated equally in the home – rather than just ‘helping’, and taught their sons to do the same, rigid ideas about gender and all the corresponding harm that this brings to women, to children – and to men themselves – could begin to unravel.

Of course, there are huge structural changes that need to happen as well – in the law, in health, in education, in the workplace.

For example, in Britain we work the longest hours in Europe – hardly conducive to being a parent for either mothers or fathers – and we have only just introduced paternity leave, one of the key calls of the report.  

So my son was right. We need men to be involved if we are ever to achieve gender equality.

This means men making the changes to their lives that women have made to theirs over the last decades. Dads need to clean the toilet, but also lobby for the kind of family-friendly policies recommended in the report that benefit fathers as well as mothers.

Nothing less than a fatherhood revolution.

The State of the World’s Fathers is out now.

Nikki van der Gaag is a former New Internationalist Co-Editor.

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