Learning to share the burden
Men in Mugu District in Nepal’s Karnali Province are being prompted to take up more of an active role in the health and wellbeing of their families
Mugu, Nepal: As the morning sun hits his porch in the village of Bham Bada in Mugu District, Jhim Bahadur Bhandari is picking pieces of husk out of a batch of millet grains. Daughters Sarina and Man Devi are darting in and out of the house, getting ready for their classes. Their mother, Dharmi, is in the kitchen.
It’s a pleasant scene, though something of an unexpected sight in this small, largely male-dominated community, to see a man quietly attending to domestic chores. But 18-year-old Man Devi says their father is not like most men.
“He doesn’t expect us to do housework just because we are girls,” says Man Devi, who is in studying business in a nearby college.
“If anything, he tells us to focus on our studies because he wants us to be independent.”
On her part, Dharmi says she feels fortunate to have found a “real partner” in life. She remembers how after she went through a bout of sickness, Jhim Bahadur – worried for her – had decided they wouldn’t have any more children, resisting social pressure to birth a son. “He takes care of us and the house,” she says, listing all the ways her husband helps her in cooking, cleaning and fetching firewood. “There’s nothing he doesn’t do.”
“I feel that when both men and women work together it reduces the pressure on both sides,” Jhim Bahadur says. “It’s good for everyone.”
This is a message that Jhim Bahadur tries his best to impart to other local men during their monthly fathers’ group meetings, where he has become something of a role model. Such fathers’ groups, or “baba samuhas” as they are called locally, are community-based groups that have been mobilized by UNICEF – with generous funding support from KOICA – in different villages across Mugu District. The groups were inspired by the mothers’ groups that have played such a key role in championing social causes in communities around Nepal.
Each of the 16 baba samuhas – made up of fathers young and old from a given village – meets once every month. Under the facilitation of a social mobilizer from UNICEF’s local partner organization, the Karnali Community Development Center (KCDC), the men then discuss a range of subjects, including improved feeding practices, vaccination schedules, and how to take better care of pregnant women and new mothers, among others.
The initiative is part of a broader effort to improve maternal, newborn and child health in Mugu District. Alongside better health infrastructure and governance, increasing men’s engagement in the wellbeing of their families is a key aim of the project.
“There used to be the common concept that only mothers are responsible for their own health and the care of children,” says Bijaya Bham, chair of the Bham Bada fathers’ group. He explains that this is why Nepal has not been able to reach all its goals in reducing maternal and child mortality.
“Fathers have an equally important role to play…..This is the thinking we try to promote at our meetings,” he adds.
Of course, both Jhim Bahadur and Bijaya admit to the complexities of changing age-old beliefs about gender roles and expectations, especially among uneducated members of the community. Besides, it has only been a little over six months since the group was established.
“It’s not going to happen at once, especially when it comes to the older generation of fathers,” Jhim says. “But I have hope for the younger ones because they are more exposed to what is happening in the outside world and have a better understanding of equality between men and women.”
Representing this new generation is 23-year-old Sagar Bitalu, also a member of the fathers’ group. He says that since being involved in the fathers’ group, and learning of the experiences of other fathers like Jhim Bahadur, he spends a lot more time with his one-year-old daughter Suhana.
“We used to think that taking care of children was a woman’s job,” he says. “Now we understand that as fathers, it’s our responsibility to share the burden.”