On Taking Time to Be a Father

I wanted from childhood to become a doctor. But as a schoolboy in my south-western Nigerian town of Ijebu-Igbo, I often slacked off in class and neglected my studies. But my father, my pillar of strength and a teacher himself, was able to guide me through that difficult period. With his help, I found my path and became more serious about my studies.

And here I am, a proud physician and Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, which, among other tasks, helps countries involve men in the struggle for gender equality and shared responsibility in family life and reproductive health. All because my parents, my mother and father, believed in me and encouraged me to pursue my medical studies and my dream of becoming a doctor. They took time with me--both of them.

It is this notion of time that interests me, and how we value it, or rather how we don't. Do we value the time it takes for a mother to prepare the food for our children, the time it takes to clean the house, get the kids ready for school, the time it takes to talk to her children about what matters to them, clean their clothes, keep them healthy, embrace them when they fall sick, hold them when they are sad, help them up when they fall?

This month, as much of the world turns to celebrate Father's Day, UNFPA is involved in launching the world's first global analysis of fatherhood and gender equality, a comprehensive 'State of the World's Fathers' report. Standout statistics for me are focused around this notion of time. Why is it that women continue to spend between 2 to 10 times longer than men caring for a child, despite the fact that women today make up 40 per cent of the global workforce and 50 per cent of the world's food producers.

There is no country in the world where men and boys share the unpaid domestic and care work equally with women and girls. This imbalance has widespread negative effects. It hurts men, women, and children. Women lose opportunities for work and income, and girls are often held back from educational opportunities, which worsens gender inequality and gendered poverty. Boys and girls lose out on the benefits of having an involved father, and men miss out on the connections and closeness that fatherhood can offer.

Today, I am a father of five grown children and grandfather of four grandchildren. I have witnessed first-hand the time and care that goes into giving children the best start in life. So this week, as the first State of the World's Fathers report is released across the globe, I urge all of us fathers to think about what it means to be a dad, and about the time we spend caring in the home. I call on you, on all of us, to promote the full involvement of men in family life and the full integration of women in community life, ensuring that men and women are equal partners.

We, at UNFPA, have been calling on leaders to do this for more than 20 years, since the Programme of Action was agreed by the world's nations at the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development. The agreement was unprecedented in its call for countries to 'promote male involvement in the struggle for gender equality and shared responsibility in all areas of family life and reproductive health'. For generations, UNFPA has been working with fathers to help build more equitable households and societies.

When fathers are engaged in promoting the health and rights of women and children, their partners are happier, their children are more fulfilled, and societies reap abundant economic and social benefits. The engagement of fathers can also foster joint decision-making and improve couples' communication, which builds healthy relationships based on mutual trust and respect. Fathers can play a powerful role in transforming rigid gender norms, promoting women's and girls' empowerment and well-being, and ending gender-based discrimination and violence.

The schools for husbands, developed in Niger and replicated in several other countries, are a living example of how men's involvement in sexual and reproductive health, including voluntary family planning, can make a difference in the lives of families and communities. Wives and daughters do not have to hide anymore to exercise their right to reproductive health or to voluntary family planning. Quite the opposite: they are strongly encouraged by their husbands and fathers to seek these services.

By promoting gender equality and human rights within our own families and communities, we, fathers of the world, can create the future we want, a future where individuals believe in themselves and in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. It is simple and powerful. Take time to be a father.

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin is an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund