Love conquers: how loving couple relationships support the caring role of fathers and their challenge of community gender norms

couple relationships

An evaluation of Plan International programmes in Tanzania and Zimbabwe seeking to engage men in maternal and newborn health found an outcome that was not sought by researchers at the start, nor measured until participating individuals named it: more love between mothers and fathers. Furthermore, this increased experience of love motivated further involvement by fathers in care and also supported them to challenge strict gender norms governing what is acceptable for women and men to do.

Other researchers have criticised the way that “male involvement interventions” are instrumental, treating “males” as risks whose behaviour must be modified. This has been described as “dehumanising” and, when applied to developing countries, “racist”. There are extensive critiques of public health and social science literature that presents Africa, in particular, as “loveless”.

The research took place in two areas where programmes to support caring by fathers had been running for three or more years. The programmes aimed to increase the financial, emotional and physical support given by fathers, as well as to promote equitable couple communication, joint decision-making and the active participation of men in challenging constraining gender norms. The programmes involved community-based men’s discussion groups, peer outreach, couple counselling and education led by traditional and religious leaders.

In both cases, the programmes took place in low-resource settings, where changes in the degree of participation in caring by fathers could make a profound difference to mothers. In both areas, monogamous cohabitation is the norm (though polygyny is legal). Strict gender roles are strongly asserted, though escalating economic security in the regions is challenging the status quo.

The research consisted of focus groups and in-depth interviews with adult men and women and with adolescent girls and boys (15-19 years), 90 women and 81 men in all. Topics of discussion included beliefs about gender roles, and parenting roles and behaviours.

Couple relationships were not included in the evaluation until the men and women brought it up repeatedly, referring to “love”. Additional analysis was conducted to explore this unexpected finding.


The evaluation found that men’s participation in maternal and newborn healthcare had increased. But the evaluation also found reports from all participants – older and younger, women and men – of happier, more loving, more peaceful and more mutually supportive relationships, all flowing from greater participation by fathers in care.

“We are living a very happy life….When I’m helping her, I think it comes to her mind that I love her. I didn’t do that before. Now we are happy, and we have peace in our house.” (Adult man, Tanzania)

“We enjoy our marriage when we do what they teach us.” (Adolescent woman, Tanzania)

“I can see love has increased. When we are walking together, I feel happy. I feel he loves me because in all tasks we are helping each other.” (Adult woman, Tanzania)

Women expressed how support had increased their personal comfort and dignity. They described a reduction in their workload and a more equitable division of labour in the household. When men know more about maternal and newborn health, there is more cooperation in the family around it.


The challenge to gender norms in the programme resulted in divided responses within the community.

Some – many men and older women in particular – expressed strong resistance. Men who care can be mocked and shunned, considered to be dominated (or colloquially, “given a love potion”) by their wives.

Other men, particularly more experienced fathers, did provide support, but maintained traditional narratives: they only did it privately and  described their contribution as a “favour” to women.

And finally, others openly challenged gender norms. The research found that such men were motivated to do so by the improved relationship with their wife.

Moderator: “Some were saying if other people see you washing [clothes] they talk badly about you or they say you are brainwashed. Don’t you think about what people say if they see you doing it?”

Participant: “I do not think about that because I know that my wife is not feeling well.” [Adult man, Zimbabwe]

Moderator: “How do you feel when other people talk about you? How does your husband feel?”

Participant: “I do not have a problem with them. He doesn’t care at all. He just cares about me and I care about him too.” (Adult woman, Tanzania)


The researchers recommend that couple relationships and love are considered in the design of future programmes, because of the influence of this on the caring contributions of fathers and the benefits to equality, both within the home and through the open challenge by men of gender norms. Such an approach would humanise “male” engagement programmes.

Some programmes, for example those run by MenCare, do already include couple relationship support.


Comrie-Thomson L, Mavhu W, Makungu C, Nahar Q, Khan R, Davis J, Stillo E, Hamdani S, Luchters S & Vaughan C (2019), Male involvement interventions and improved couples’ emotional relationship in Tanzania and Zimbabwe: ‘When we are walking together, I feel happy’, Culture Health & Sexuality

Header photo: IAVI. Creative Commons.