A Little Girl Not Lost
I can still vividly remember my dad lifting up three-year-old me and carrying me on his shoulders during a stroll by the river — a dizzyingly freeing experience, high in the air, but also one grounded in the knowledge that my dad was there, holding me up with an innate strength and anchoring me against gravity. My father was a role model to me, someone whom I looked up to and could always count on to be that anchor.
It was also the 1970s, and my dad was typical for his time: his culinary skills were not so advanced and he lacked an ability to figure out the mysterious mechanics of a washing machine.
My mom, on the other hand, led a life that went beyond the norms of the day. She was not a traditional stay-at-home mother but a full-time teacher who played multiple roles of income earner, primary child caregiver, housekeeper, and general washer-upper.
In the early years of my life, my parents’ roles in our home were quite traditional. But over time, these gender roles began to relax, and as situations changed, my dad broadened his skills at home. He began doing things that previously only my mom had done. Eventually, they began to share more of the household chores.
Throughout my childhood and this transformation in our home, there was always one constant, that anchor: my dad’s love for me. I have strong, fond memories of the warmth and care that my father had for me, no matter where I was in the world — how he worried about my safety when I lived in abroad in remote areas in Africa while at the same time being so proud of my achievements.
It is a special bond that a father and a daughter can have, and I was lucky to have in spades. It never waned throughout my life.
The Gender Problem
Unfortunately, in some countries where Concern works, many little girls are not so lucky. In some communities, rigid gender norms are so embedded within cultural and social beliefs that many men are deeply disappointed when their wives give birth to baby girls. The belief is that these girls will one day become someone else’s “property” and are thus of less value to the family than boys. Some men can’t even stand the sight of their daughters. This creates an unlikely environment for girls and their fathers to develop strong relationships, and the impact this has on girls’ future lives and opportunities can be devastating.
Rigid gender norms and notions of what it means to “be a man” can have negative implications on the lives of boys as well. They are taught at a young age to be tough, rough, dominant, and in control. Boys don’t cry. This enormous pressure can inhibit both boys and men from showing emotions and developing strong, loving connections with their children and their wives.
Men who do support their wives and families in loving and caring relationships — even in something as fundamental as helping to look after their children — are often teased and taunted by other men and sometimes even by women in their communities. They are called names like “man-woman” and told that their wives have bewitched them. This social pressure is enormous, and consequently connections are often lost between men and their families as fathers and husbands.
However, despite the threat of social ridicule, there are men who push against the traditional notions and expectations of what it is to “be a man,” and they express their masculinity in a very different way. Many years ago, Gary Barker, the founder and international director of Promundo, explained to me that I will always find these special kinds of men everywhere I work.
I have absolutely found this to be true, and every visit I make overseas, I find one or two of these men. Of course, they are not shouting from the rooftops that they are cleaning, washing, and living happier lives with their families. But when you do find them, it is immediately apparent that they are role models for how life can be different — and better. They are extremely powerful allies in the movement to influence more equitable and happy gender relations within families and communities.
Research shows us the that the role that a father has on his children, particularly boys, has enormous impact. If a father shows equitable attitudes and behaviors in the home when his children are growing up, there is a high chance that his sons will grow up to become similar fathers and husbands. The role of fathers is a powerful and critical role one.
From a Negative into a Positive
Carrying the heavy load of constantly performing as “a real man” — not showing emotion, communicating, or giving and receiving love and affection — is extremely stressful.
But change is possible. I have seen it firsthand, and it is transformative. After all, we are all human beings. No one is born violent or uncaring, and we all have needs for love and affection. Boys and men in particular are taught to discard some of these critical needs with devastating consequences for themselves and their families.
But the good news is that these behaviors are taught — which means they can be unlearned.
At Concern, our programs work through building on the positives. We focus on the important role that men have to play in the home and in the wider community, unpacking issues of masculinities and the power of socialization. By showcasing positive behaviors of men from the communities in which we work, it provides a really powerful catalyst and influence to change relationships and dynamics in the home. The result is that everyone benefits — not just men themselves but the women and children as well.
Engaging Men for Change in Sierra Leone
In Sierra Leone, women are highly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence. While girls may be more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse, women in formal or customary marriages may be at particular risk of specific forms of sexual, physical, psychological, and economic violence inflicted by male partners.
Through Concern’s “Engaging Men to Contribute to Safer Communities in Tonkolili District” program in Sierra Leone, we have directly targeted men who perpetrate this violence in a process that aims to shift their construction and reproduction of masculinities in everyday life. The goal of the “Engaging Men” program is to reduce sexual violence against women and girls in Tonkolili District by increasing awareness, changing attitudes, and improving resources.
Concern uses a two-pronged strategy for achieving this goal, and the results have been highly effective and transformative for communities. The first part involves discussions and activities that address the inequitable norms and beliefs about male and female identities and social roles that sustain violence. These discussions are then taken into the home through the “living peace” approach, which works to help men and their partners develop positive coping mechanisms and foster healthy relationships free of violence. The second part of the strategy focuses on strengthening the capacity of front-line service providers, including police officers, social workers, and health care workers. The cultural aspects of organizations that perpetuate the poor treatment of survivors of violence and trauma are addressed as well by using the “living peace” approach within the formal institutions of law enforcement and health centers.
Change One Family and Change a Community
For too long, campaigns have often aimed to stop violence against women and girls by focusing on the negative. Men have been flooded with negative images that convey the notion of men as “bad,” which hasn’t made any inroads to change behavior or reduce levels of violence.
What Concern has found is that by utilizing an approach that taps into the positive roles that men can play in the lives of their families, significant results emerge. The testimonies from both women and men that have come out of the “Engaging Men” program have shown that this kind of intervention has had a transformative impact on behaviors and relationships. The changes that have emerged have addressed issues of equity and improved the conditions of women in terms of their freedom from violence, reduced workloads, improved health, better food security, and reports of more communicative and supportive emotional relationships with partners and all family members.
Following are just a few of the stories of men in Concern’s Sierra Leone program who, by being strong fathers and husbands who show love, respect, and support, are serving as role models for other men and transforming their communities.
Mafanta Village, Kholifa Rowalla Chiefdom, Sierra Leone
“I learned to be a caring husband from my father. He was a strong man who always treated my mother with respect and was proud to support her.”
Alfred and his wife, Maseray, have been married for nine years and have three children. He believes it’s important to share household tasks and discuss important decisions. They have set an example for people in their village, and regardless of what some men think, Alfred continues to help with the housework and to treat his wife with respect. He believes he is setting an example for his children, who will grow up learning the importance of supporting and respecting their spouses in the future.
Rochen Malal, Malal Mara Chiefdom, Sierra Leone
“People marry for many reasons — but marry someone whom you love.”
Abdulai and his wife, Jane Turay, have been married for 35 years. They have five children, 14 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. Abdulai and Jane have always had a great marriage and have always worked together to support their family. They consider themselves good examples for their children and their community and hope that all the young people around them will form homes free of violence where couples support and love each other.
Manewa Village, Malal Mara Chiefdom, Sierra Leone
“Husbands should be patient and respect their wives. Couples should sit and discuss before making decisions and share household tasks.”
Amadu and his wife, Mariatu Sesay, have been married for 16 years. The have a rice cookery business where they work together. To meet customer demand, they get up early to prepare the meals. While Amadu cleans the pots and pans and prepares the plates to serve, Mariatu prepares the fire and sweeps. To focus on their business, the couple shares many of the household tasks, including washing clothes and cleaning their home as well as taking care of their children.
Manewa Village, Malal Mara Chiefdom, Sierra Leone
“We work together so our children can go to school.”
Amadu and his wife, Fatmata, work together to support their family. They go to the farm every morning to fetch wood, chop it, and sell it. With hard work, they are able to send their four children to school. They believe that all of their children — boys and girls—deserve the chance of a promising future.
Petifu Mandugu, Kunike Chiefdom, Sierra Leone
“I believe my wife has her own rights. She is not a slave and she needs my support.”
Gibrilla is married to Rugiatu and they have two children, Zainab and Hassan. He believes he and Rugiatu should work together rather than she working for him. When Rugiatu is working in the market, Gibrilla is happy to stay at home and look after their children. He wants them to grow up to be kind people and to know how to love and respect their partners.
Kiampkakoli, Malal Mara Chiefdom, Sierra Leone
“By helping out and working together with my wife, we have a happy, healthy family.”
Ibrahim and his wife, Gbassy Kamara, have been together for 15 years. He supports his wife by helping her with the daily chores, fetching wood for cooking, preparing rice, and cooking for her. Together, they are able to send their three children to school because they recognize the importance of education. Ibrahim wants his children to work hard to get ahead in life.