A UNICEF / Catholic Relief Services project has investigated fathers’ engagement in infant nutrition in the Muhanga and Karongi districts of Rewanda. The existing programme targets pregnant and lactating women and children under two years old and has, so far, not reached out to men in a systematic way. Through focus groups and interviews with fathers, workers and community leaders, the actions and aspirations of fathers were explored.
Fathers were found to have a good understanding of the basics of infant nutrition. Lack of knowledge was not found to be a barrier, but other barriers were identified:
- Traditional household roles: women care and men provide, with men generally controlling the money, including expenditure on health care.
- Mothers are less keen on fathers learning and doing more caring than the fathers themselves are.
- Mothers-in-law are highly influential over how much the father is involved.
- Fathers are constrained by social pressure from the community – a risk of being laughed at for stepping out of a traditional role.
- Health centres and the UNICEF/CRS project itself are branded as female projects.
Despite these influences, some fathers are crossing boundaries and taking a proactive role in care and nutrition of their infants. Fathers providing hands on support for mothers and accompanying them to the health centre are not unusual actions.
The report concludes with a number of recommendations:
- Engage men more through the nutrition programme, for example, during home visits and through “fathers’ days” in health centres.
- Engage men in discussion groups with other men to discuss gender norms, fatherhood and masculinity. These could involve men who have already changed and challenged existing norms.
- Run events for couples that foster more equitable decision-making with families.
- Engage with mothers-in-law.
- Encourage father-infant bonding through care and play.
Additional actions, not mentioned in the report, but necessary for success, are:
- Address the skills and beliefs of health workers. It is important for health workers to understand fatherhood and to understand how their personal beliefs can influence their practice.
- Engage mothers. The study indicated that mothers are less keen on fathers doing more than fathers are.
- Develop information packages for mothers and fathers that facilitate front-line workers to communicate effectively.
Catholic Relief Agency (2017), Father engagement in nutrition: a qualitative analysis in Muhang and Karongi districts in Rwanda
Photo: Trocaire. Creative Commons.