All Parents Play a Role: the Importance of Fatherhood as Told by Syrian Outreach Staff in Azraq Camp

“This is too important for fathers not to be involved — for us not to target them with information about early childhood development (ECD).” Abu Rabia makes this statement and I understand it a minute later once our translator repeats it back to me in English. The information he’s referring to is part of a training my colleague, Ayat, and I are facilitating and the remarkable statistic — that 95% of the brain’s architecture is developed by age five and how early nurturing experiences affect this growth — has hit a chord with the Syrian outreach volunteers on the child protection team who serve Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan.

This training is part of a project to scope out scalable, evidence-based ECD parenting strategies. We’ve all heard the statistics — 3.7 million Syrian children have been born since the start of the crisis — and I hope we haven’t become desensitized to it! In case you have, imagine the generation about to be born: 300,000 Syrian mothers living in displacement in Lebanon are currently pregnant.

One of the programs we’re piloting in Azraq Camp is called Reach Up and Learn, and I’m most excited about it both because of the outcomes — the program has demonstrated improvements in ECD outcomes that have been sustained and have resulted in better life outcomes (higher school achievement and attainment, higher wages, etc.) — and because of the infectious enthusiasm that volunteers like Abu Rabia have for it after piloting since December of last year.

In a recent interview with a community health volunteer and his family, I heard a similar sentiment: “We are experiencing a crisis of fatherhood — we’re not involved with our children. I myself [have] suffered from this!” he explained.

Of course, a major focus of parenting initiatives is on mothers and is led by women, and this makes sense given the critical role that mothers play. My female colleagues in Azraq note the majority of caregiving is done by mothers — not by fathers who are more likely to swoop in on evening or weekend to play games, sports, take them on picnics or buy them gifts. But it’s something parenting program implementers have struggled to do in other contexts, especially since fathers are often not able to attend center-based activities or feel it’s not their role to attend. Men are always encouraged to be involved as long it doesn’t alienate or disempower mothers in their roles — and as long mothers also have the appropriate opportunities to participate and get support from female facilitators — but rather helps them get more support in co-parenting . Examples of widespread engagement of fathers in parenting initiatives are few and far between. However the evidence is positive that reaching fathers with nurturing, positive parenting messaging and involving of fathers in caring for young children has shown amazing cognitive developmental outcomes for those children later in life.

The Reach Up model, which focuses on mothers but also includes targeted messages to and engagement of fathers, is led by researchers in Jamaica and over the years they have amassed some of the most well-cited studies on improving child outcomes. They have also worked towards adapting their model to take advantage of entry points where mothers and their children already spend time, like in the waiting room of a health clinic which could help reduce cost to enable scale. The economic outcome that they have been able to measure is truly encouraging: For example children in Jamaica who received the weekly play-based home visiting intervention for two years were earning 25% higher incomes as adults than those in the control group. This group had also received more education and were less likely to be involved in violent crime. Governments have understandably been excited by this and the government of Peru has adapted the model to create Cuna Mas, a home visiting intervention at scale, which in 2015, reached 93,000 children across Peru.

Two of the researchers, experts in the program, generously volunteered their time to train IRC staff from Jordan and Lebanon with the support of the Bernard Van Leer Foundation and the team is underway with many aspects of adapting the program to the context. For example, Ayat, has reached out to artists who are redrawing books which are set in Jamaica (with tropical backdrops) and incorporating landscapes and clothing styles that children will recognize as their own.

The team in Azraq has held a series of awareness-raising sessions with fathers in the ‘villages’ they serve. The picture my colleague sent me over Whatsapp shows a group of men sitting in a U shape in one of the volunteers’ caravans. When I later asked them about the session they told me they shared the data from the Jamaica study and talked about how quickly the brain grows during the first five years of life to impress upon their peers how urgent it is and shared their own experiences of playing, guiding and supporting their young children.

We aim to expand this model to non- camp settings in Jordan and to Lebanon this year and I hope we’ll find that fathers are as enthusiastic!

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