A growing and overwhelming body of evidence confirms that engaged fatherhood is good for children, good for women and good for men themselves. But many fathers don’t know it.
In the majority of Sri Lankan families, cooking, feeding, washing, cleaning and of course, bringing up children is a woman’s responsibility. The man is little involved in the lives of his wife and children. The disengagement of men in the well-being of their families often paves the way to isolation, domestic violence and abuse.
“I used to think that bringing up my children and doing chores at home were my wife’s responsibility,” says Christopher, 31. “My wife would get up early in the morning, cook for the family and get the children ready for pre-school and daycare before she went for work; I would sleep through all of it, wake up late and go to work. After work I would go and play sports with my friends, and if I had some money, go for booze (alcohol) as well. None of us saw anything wrong in this lifestyle.”
Christopher with his wife and family.
Christopher’s wife Vijayakala didn’t see anything wrong in it either. It was normal and she just had to bear it.
Christopher comes from a community of tea estate labourers in the Central Hills of Sri Lanka where domestic violence is the highest (72%) in the country (World Health Organisation study). In his community, women plucked tea from morning till evening in any kind of weather while men worked in the factory only till 2:00 in the afternoon. The rest of the evening most got drunk. It added to the issue of domestic violence and abuse.
“I never listened to my wife’s opinion. So even over very small matters we argued a lot. I would even beat her sometimes. I was the boss,” Christopher says, “With my daughter, it was the same. She is four and if she asked for toys I would spank her.”
When World Vision began to work among tea estate communities, domestic violence and child abuse was identified as one of the biggest issues. Domestic violence is normalised and trivialised in Sri Lankan culture and even the women themselves believe it is normal. An old Sri Lankan Proverb says, “There are three things that can be beaten: a drum, a dog, and a woman.” And another – “Don’t let the outsiders know the fire inside your house” keeps victims silent. A survey conducted by an International Organisation in 2013 revealed that 58% of women agreed that ‘a woman should tolerate violence to keep the family together.’
Bringing awareness and empowering women alone wasn’t enough to solve the issue. It was important that both men and women were brought together to contribute to the solution.
World Vision, with the support of Promundo International, introduced the MenCare Project, which is designed to promote men’s involvement as caregivers in the lives of their partners and children. The sessions cover a variety of topics such as gender equality, family life, alcoholism, financial planning and child protection and development. A special session on family enrichment helps interaction between husbands and wives and helps them solve issues and start life again.
“The sessions changed my whole perspective on marriage and family,” smiles Christopher. “I started to share the chores at home – helping children get ready in the morning and doing laundry. I don’t argue anymore at home either. I have learnt to have conversations with my wife and my children without yelling or beating. I can see that it has changed my daughter from being afraid of me to being more relaxed around me. I didn’t know that being involved in their lives could be so rewarding.”
“Before the Project I used to allocate money from my salary for booze because I thought it was my right. But now I have stopped drinking and smoking completely,” he says. “Surprisingly it gives me more stamina to work. My wife and I plan our expenses for the month and we have been able to pay off all the debt, open savings accounts for the children and even buy a gas stove.”
After work, Christopher now spends most evenings with his wife and children. “I help my daughter with her crafts or any other work she’s brought from pre-school. Then I put on some music for her to dance to. She loves to dance,” he smiles.
Similar changes are evident in every father who took part in the MenCare Project. “They have developed the habit of saving and are more involved in the lives of their children,” says A Jeyaram, the Estate Manager of Ouvahkellei Estate where Christopher lives and works. “Domestic violence has started to disappear from their homes, alcoholism and smoking has significantly gone down among the workers of our Estate and productivity has increased by 25% compared to previous years.”
An evaluation conducted among the fathers (between 25 – 40 years) who participated in the Project indicated that 69% have reduced alcohol consumption, 66% support their partners in household activities and are engaged in the lives of their children,while 72% now prepare their monthly budget with their partner.
“But this change is not always easy,” says Christopher. “Some of my friends call me a sissy for helping my wife with house chores. They don’t understand why I don’t go drinking anymore.”
However, Christopher and the others from the Project have begun to share their knowledge with others in their community, becoming activists in preventing violence against women and children; they have already begun to see the changes.
“I can see some of them changing and I see the joy in their wives and children and even neighbours,” he says, “Every father should go through the MenCare Project.”
This story was featured on wvi.org