Challenging gender based violence through engaging men in maternal health care (Zimbabwe)

Zimbabwe fathers: no violence

This article was inspired by the report on the work of the Women’s Action Group in Zimbabwe with Zim men, reported in The Herald.

In Zimbabwe, the Women’s Action Group (WAG), a non-governmental organisation focusing on the prevention of violence against women, has set up a programme to work with fathers during pregnancy.

Why do they believe this will make a difference to gender based violence?

WAG focuses on the root causes of violence and sees that violence is “linked to gender roles and expectations”. Observing that gender roles and expectations are particularly strong around pregnancy and childbirth, they started a programme to engage Zim men in maternal healthcare in 2014, since when they have worked with 714 men.

WAG director, Ms Edinah Maiyiwa, said:

“We have since realised that men are critical partners in maternal issues. We decided to include men in our dialogues where we hold regular discussions on maternal health issues and gender based violence. Once we equip them with information, they go back to facilitate discussions at community level and these have turned out to be fruitful.”

The programme has observed a number of behavioural changes. More men are agreeing to appropriate family planning methods. The rate of domestic violence is decreasing, particularly among young men.

Other objectives behind the work are reduction in early marriage, ensuring that women attend antenatal clinics earlier and ensuring that families provide women with the money needed to attend clinics. We know from other research reported on Family Included that all these things can work.

Why does involving men in pregnancy and childbirth reduce violence?

Recent research on neuroscience, biology and anthropology has transformed our understanding of the mechanisms by which engaging men in the care of their pregnant partners and infants reduces violence. Indeed, it could be argued that scientists have discovered one of the biggest opportunities for tackling violence against women in the world today.

We have recently written on Family Included about the neuroscience, biology and anthropology of fatherhood. That article describes how engaging fathers reduces violence:

“Today, while the mother’s role within the family is relatively stable across cultures, the myriad of roles adopted by men around the world highlight the flexible nature of the father’s role. Fathering is said to be facultative – able to respond quickly via changes in behaviour, psychology and physiology to need. This has conferred a vital advantage to human flourishing in different environments.

“Ethnographic research shows that men can alter their role within their own lifetime, even within the same week. Their key aim is to ensure the survival of their offspring and they will adopt any role, even at cost to themselves, to ensure this occurs.

“Fathers’ brains have evolved to support the role that they play in their child’s socialisation and education. Recent research has shown that fathers who care for babies experience permanent brain changes (Abraham et al, 2014). When a father is less involved in caring for a child (e.g. a mother is the main carer), brain activation is seen only in the neocortex. But when the father is highly involved (particularly if no mother is present at all as a result of her death) the more ancient part of the brain, the limbic area, associated with emotions and caring, is also activated, as it is in mothers. And in these fathers, there is a new neural connection between the neo-cortex and the limbic area.

“Once changed, the father responds very differently to a baby. A screaming baby will lead to a fall in testosterone in a father who has experienced the changes brought about by earlier nurturing, leading to greater sensitivity to the baby’s needs; meanwhile, a man who has not been so conditioned will experience the opposite, an increase in testosterone, with a greater risk of an inappropriate aggressive response (van Anders et al., 2012). Fathers who care actively for babies and who are close to pregnant women experience changes in hormones linked to trust, sensitivity and love (oxytocin, cortisol, prolactin) (Fatherhood Institute, 2014; Atzil et al., 2012). These changes occur more quickly and are more pronounced the more the father is experienced in care (Gray & Anderson, 2010).”

How to build on the caring role of men to reduce violence

One of the costs of patriarchy is that it separates men from caring for their pregnant partners and their babies. This has important consequences, because it prevents the caring capacities of men to be “switched on” – the brain changes and the hormonal responses that come about through exposure to nurturing.

The irony is that to unlock this potential requires engaging men in very positive ways, despite the wrongs of patriarchy and the evil of violence within some families. A few radical women’s organisations, such as the Women’s Action Group in Zimbabwe, have taken this leap and are starting to see the benefits. By seeing the potential of men and believing in men, they are able to step right up to one of the root causes of gender inequality in the world today – the unequal division of undervalued caring roles.

It helps also that the aspiration of fathers, particularly young fathers, to have a close relationship with their children, is now a global phenomenon. Because of the advance in global communications, young men in every corner of the globe are seeing that others like them all over the world today are getting closer to their children and celebrating it. They instinctively know that this is a deeply life enhancing experience – they have evolved to feel this – and that patriarchy removes them from it.

A powerful new force to dismantling patriarchy is being released all over the world and it requires courage and vision and a partnership between women and men to share previously preciously strongly separated spheres. We are at the start: we need to move these approaches from the margins to the mainstream. That will be a hard and long task.


Photo: Paulien Osse. Creative Commons.