Ask Diack, a 50-year-old father of 7 from Senegal, the difference between sex and gender and he’ll proudly tell you:
“Sex is biological and it cannot be changed while gender is what is attributed to a person by society – it decides what a man must do and what a woman must do.”
Had you asked Diack this same question a few months ago, he probably wouldn’t have been able to offer such an accurate definition, and that’s because Plan International recently started a project in his community focused on engaging men to help change the birth story for women and girls.
As part of this project, men were encouraged to join peer-to-peer support groups, also known as “Fathers’ clubs”, to discuss and explore how gender roles affect their perceptions of themselves and of the women and girls in their lives.
Becoming an equal and engaged partner
For most families like Diack’s in rural Senegal, gender roles often define roles and responsibilities of men and women.
For example, men are expected to be the breadwinners while women are expected to carry out household tasks such as cooking, cleaning and childrearing. In addition, men often don’t play an active role in supporting women during pregnancy, childbirth, or in the care of newborns.
To challenge this norm in Diack’s community, Plan International provided training to local men who are leaders or role models in their communities so that they could set up Fathers’ clubs’, where men are encouraged to take on a more active role in supporting their wives and raising their children. Research shows that male engagement plays a crucial role in changing the birth story since men are often the primary decision makers in their families.
“We raise awareness [for men] to go with their wives to the health facilities,” says Diack, adding that more men are now attending antenatal checkups, child vaccinations and even childbirth.
“In the past, men seldom did so,” he says. “Now we urge them to go with their wives to antenatal checkups in order to know about [possible] complications in order to give assistance.”
At club meetings, men not only learn about the importance of sexual and reproductive health and rights, but also discuss their honest views and opinions on everything from gender roles to parenting to keeping a happy marriage. According to Diack, these discussions are having a huge impact.
“When we meet, we talk about the topic and stress where the behavior change is needed,” he says.
“There are many people whose behaviors have changed thanks to the project…people are now informed about their roles in their families. That is to say men and women have to share household chores.”
Meet Diack, and see how his fathers’ club is changing the birth story in his community:
Changes at home
For Diack, the Fathers’ club has enabled him to identify ways to help his wife and therefore strengthen their relationship.
“The situation has improved,” he says. “If my wife is in the kitchen cooking lunch and I hear the baby crying, I take care of him. In the early morning, while my wife is preparing breakfast, I bathe the children so they won’t be late for school.”
Most importantly, the couple now makes decisions about their family together.
“Regarding the size of my family, my wife and I decide it together,” he says, adding that they’re also encouraging their children to dream and set big goals for the future.
“I care about their education and I discuss with them to prepare for their futures.”
Like her father, Diack’s daughter would like to challenge gender stereotypes too. She aspires to become either a police officer or a military commander when she’s older, and thanks to Plan International programming, Diack understands the importance of supporting her all the way.
“I respect her choice and I must assist her,” he says, with a smile.
Men and boys can help change the birth story
In many countries, widespread norms around masculinity and what being a man/husband/father means leave little space for women to participate in decision-making at home and in communities. These norms also can discourage men from participating in caregiving and from seeking out information on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
That’s why our work emphasizes the importance of men supporting women, before, during and after pregnancy.
Through fathers’ clubs and other peer-to-peer support groups, Plan International is working with over 3 million men and boys as agents of change, helping them pave the way for more equitable gender relations and to change birth stories in their homes and communities.
If you believe everyone has a role to play in changing the birth story, show your support by signing your name below.
I stand with Canada to change the birth story because I believe that every adolescent girl, woman and child has the right to be healthy and to live a life free of discrimination.