What Fatherhood Around The World Really Looks Like

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I met João in a favela in Rio de Janeiro where my organization, Promundo, works. He was 19 at the time and had a two-year-old daughter who lived with her mother’s -- his girlfriend’s -- family. Both João and his girlfriend were struggling to finish secondary school, and her family didn’t want him around. To them, he was another irresponsible young man with few prospects. They assumed that he was more likely to become involved in a drug gang than to be an involved father.

But João stuck around. While his girlfriend studied in the morning, he took care of their daughter and studied in the afternoon while she watched the baby.

I couldn’t help but compare Joao’s reality with my own. My daughter, who is about the same age as João’s, was born in a private hospital, where a nurse welcomed me to the pre-natal visits (and chastised me for the one I missed). My wife and I had birth preparation classes, a nanny and day care.

My daughter once came with me to a health fair we organized in João’s community. Our daughters played together while João and I talked about what lots of men talk about: our children. How to get them to sleep, what they like to eat, what they like to play, what we hoped for their future, and more. There were vast differences in my middle class life and João’s economically stressed family, where many fathers were dead, imprisoned, or simply gone. But we shared the belief that nothing in the world mattered more to us than our daughters.

Too often, we ignore how much fathers matter to children. Research finds that men’s involvement in the pre-natal period leads to better maternal and newborn health outcomes. With the support from fathers, many women choose to breastfeed, immunize their children and seek care for childhood illnesses. Study after study affirms that children fare better in school and in their emotional development if they have an involved father. Girls with involved, equitable fathers tend to have higher aspirations and are less likely to face unwanted sex.

Of course, single mothers can raise healthy and thriving children. But children are more likely to thrive if their fathers are involved in positive ways.

Men’s involvement in caregiving also empowers women. Even as women have entered the paid work force around the world, their incomes continue to be 24 percent less than men. This is largely because, worldwide, women do two to ten times the amount of caregiving and domestic chores that men do. When men do more caregiving, women are able to do more paid work. Studies suggest that the U.S. GDP would be five percent larger and India’s GDP would be $1.7 trillion bigger if women were able to work outside the home at the rates that men do.

This week, as part of the global MenCare campaign, we launch the first ever State of the World’s Fathers report, a global overview of where we stand in terms of engaging men to be caregivers and fathers. The report reviews existing research on fathers, and makes recommendations for how to engage men to ensure their children are thriving and gender equality is achieved.

We came to a number of conclusions from the report. One is that boys should be encouraged from early on to see themselves as co-caregivers, while at the same time raising daughters to be career-focused. Another is to encourage men to be full partners, when women want it, during prenatal visits and maternal and child health. Lastly, we gathered that there needs to be universal access to subsidized, high quality day care and paid, non-transferable leave for fathers and mothers in all kinds of family arrangements, whether same-sex, adoptive, or biological.

We should also emphasize that most fathers want to be more involved in their children’s lives. Most men, like João and myself, see hands-on caregiving as one of the main sources of happiness and meaning in life. Men who do more of the caregiving live longer, healthier lives and have better relationships, including sexual ones, with their partners.

We don’t assume change is easy. And involved fathers won’t erase all the world’s inequality. But if we want a fair start for children and empowerment for women we need full equality of men and women in the daily care of children. That’s the state of the world’s fathers, mothers, and children we’re aiming for.