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Father and son in Guatemala.

Panel 4

Iniciativa Papa: Improving the lives of children, one father at a time

Every day at noon, without fail, Juan Aguirre Quispe picks up his daughter from day care. His large, muscular hand clasps the toddler’s small, delicate fingers as they stroll along, singing songs she learned at the centre. After his hectic morning of work, the 33-year-old father looks forward to this oasis - time spent jumping, giggling and cuddling with his little girl. He deflects his friends’ wisecracks about doing “women’s work” with retorts about how the stories and tickles he shares with his children make them smarter. In his heart, he knows that their time spent together is also good for him.

“I enjoy our being together. We eat together, we play and spend more time together,” said Mr. Quispe. Reflecting on his life since sharing the care for his children, he believes that his marriage is now stronger. “My wife and I communicate more, we show our love and union.”

Mr. Quispe is one of 96,000 Peruvian men who participate in Iniciativa Papa, an ECD initiative introduced by UNICEF and implemented through pre-school programmes by the Ministry of Education. In its work with men and teenage boys, Iniciativa Papa reinforces the important roles they play in raising children. In small groups led by trained facilitators, fathers discuss the benefits of sound nutrition, clean water, immunizations and cognitive stimulation. Like other countries, such as Jordan and Namibia, Peru’s commitment to its smallest citizens advocates the giant role of fathers in childcare. Men throughout the world are learning first-hand how to positively contribute to their children’s lives.

In Namibia, for instance, community liaison officers captured the attention of villagers by calling for “fathers’ meetings.” Tapping into the men’s competitive spirit, they developed a board game, For Fathers Only — Fathers Involved in ECD. The board has a series of blocks with various sketches of men playing with and caring for children. The object of the game is to move from the start to the finish box by drawing a card and answering a question, such as “What do children gain from playing?” After one father answers, the group evaluates his explanation. If they agree that he gave a thoughtful and correct response, he moves his piece forward.

In Jordan, fathers involved in its Better Parenting programme meet in small groups during the evening at community centres or the homes of village leaders. They learn how to construct play environments with material found around their homes. They talk about how men’s affectionate care — playing, dancing, bathing, feeding — helps children develop.

Studies of fatherhood underscore something that men who actively participate in their children’s lives know viscerally: When men are more than breadwinners or disciplinarians in families, everyone gains. Fathers have always been viewed as power-brokers. But equally important as their economic contributions and authority is their influential role as nurturers and caregivers.

When fathers nurture their children, not only are the children physically healthier, but they’re also more mentally acute and emotionally sound. A study of eight-year-olds in Barbados found that children performed better in school when their fathers were actively involved in their lives — whether or not their fathers lived with them. Studies in the United States showed that infants with highly engaged fathers scored higher on pre-school intelligence tests than infants whose fathers were less involved. Increased academic scores are not the only benefits provided by a devoted father. When fathers and children play, sing and laugh together, there is a greater chance for happy, well-adjusted families.

Since its inception two years ago, Iniciativa Papa has successfully engaged men and teenagers in evaluating rigid gender roles and challenged them to become architects of their children’s future. Besides learning concrete facts about child development, the men also confront the values that have been passed down from generation to generation. But changing long-held beliefs about mothers’ and fathers’ roles or their expectations of sons and daughters is often an uphill battle.

“Machismo is not something that can disappear overnight,” says Jessica Avellaneda García, a 24-year-old programme facilitator. “But there is progress. They seem more willing to communicate, they value women’s work in the house more and they interact more with their children.”

Rising above old stereotypes, some fathers are learning that singing, storytelling, listening, feeding, cuddling and playing improve the minds and bodies of their sons and daughters. The men also understand the importance of tolerance and tenderness in crafting their children’s self-worth.

“I’ve learned to be more patient,” said Braulio Gálvez Gutiérrez, a father who participates in the teenage group. “These are little children, and you have to have a lot of patience. That’s why it’s better to take advantage of their curiosity to teach them, so they can learn. I try not to scream at my son. Now I show him more my love.”


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