Julio: a father leading changes in his community

Julio Propeta do Santos, a father of three children, is leading changes in his family and community

UNICEF Timor-Leste
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UNICEF Timor-Leste/2019/Amin

03 April 2019

Deep in the beating heart of Timor-Leste’s coffee country, men in Ermera are teaching each other to be better fathers. Julio Propeta do Santos, a father of three children, is leading changes in his family and community.  

ERMERA, TIMOR-LESTE – Up the hill from Emera’s capital Gleno, a modest corrugated iron home is situated amongst lush bushland and beside a roaring river. Inside lives Julio Propeta do Santos with his wife, three daughters and their extended family. 

Their location might make them seem isolated at first, but the 30-year-old father to three young girls plays a key role in connecting his community and bringing about positive change in the parenting skills of his fellow fathers.

Growing a stronger future Julio has been a facilitator of the Parenting Programme for a little over three years. An active member of his community, Julio has also been a Family Health Volunteer with the Ministry of Health for over 10 years. It was his work in this role that saw him be invited to train as a facilitator for the Parenting Programme. Naturally, he finds the nutrition content particularly important. 

“It’s taught us to eat the food that we produce,” says Julio. “We used to sell the vegetables we grow and use the money to buy sweets and cake for the kids. Now, we plant vegetables and fruits for our own consumption - to benefit the children’s nutrition, not to sell”.

Julio now prioritises feeding his children the better-quality produce from their harvest – a diverse bounty that includes nutrient rich vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplant, pumpkin and green beans as well as fruits such as oranges, bananas, avocados and pineapple. And he’s seeing the results. 

“With my first daughter we didn’t really understand these things, and you can see it’s impacted her growth. After joining the Programme, I have been able to protect the health of my second and third daughter with good nutrition,” explained Julio. His three daughters aged 10, 8 and 4, now enjoy a healthier diet that will help them continue to grow throughout their childhood and into adolescence. 

Challenging gender norms 

Timor-Leste’s traditionally patriarchal society holds strong gender norms that limit men’s roles within the home and discourage emotional vulnerability – factors that can prevent them from developing strong bonds with their children.  

Recognising the unique barriers to men engaging in positive parenting, a father’s network was established to facilitate mutual learning between role models like Julio and his peers. The group of between 20 to 30 fathers meet every three months to discuss the topics covered in the programme and encourage each other in their journey to be more involved fathers and husbands.

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UNICEF Timor-Leste/2019/Amin
Young father like Julio leading the change in the traditional Timorese community.

While the older generations might resist change, young fathers like Julio are leading the way to a more equitable and loving future. 

“Sometimes we explain these things to the grandparents, and they don’t want to hear about it. But the new generation, when you explain these topics, they are more open to new ideas. They’re starting to change,” says Julio.

In remote Timor-Leste, it’s common to see women walking long distances to health clinics with their small children wrapped up in cloth slings, sheltering their baby from the hot midday sun with an umbrella. Also, it is women who gather at the clinic often and participate in health education sessions while they wait to be seen – a benefit men tend to miss out on. 

As key decision makers with the family, when men miss out on health education, they can be reluctant to try new behaviours at home. But in Ermera, that is starting to change. 

“Now you see men carrying the baby and holding the umbrella when walking to the health clinic, their wives walking freely behind them,” Amadeu de Jesus, a representative from the Ministry of Social Solidarity, says proudly. “Fathers are even coming into the birthing suite during the birth” ads Julio. 

Communication is key

Encouraging fathers to be more involved throughout the pregnancy and birthing process, in a society which often sees these as the domain of women alone, is helping fathers learn how to communicate more positively with their children from the very beginning. 

“During household visits we explain early stimulation. Explain how a father can talk to the baby while it’s still in the womb. It helps to strengthen the bond between father and child,” says Julio. 

Timorese society traditionally places great value on social hierarchy, and the voices of children are often overlooked. The Parenting Programme is helping parents to understand the value of talking openly with their children. Of asking them what they think.

Under the shade of an old weeping fig tree, Julio explains why he’s found communicating with his daughters to be so important. “Sometimes they’re scared of us as parents, so you have to ask them their ideas to help them talk openly with you. They might be little, but sometimes they have great ideas to contribute”.

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UNICEF Timor-Leste/2019/Amin
Julio and his family set an example in their community about positive parenting.

A role model to other fathers, Julio strives to communicate openly with his three daughters at home. As a result, they have the confidence to talk to him about any challenges they might be facing. “At home, if my daughter doesn’t have a pen she’ll tell me ‘Dad, I don’t have a pen’. Because we give the children liberty to live freely, and we let the children express their feelings,” Julio explains. 

While discussing pen might seem trivial to some, encouraging children to talk about their challenges and express their feelings freely is an important part of protecting children from violence, abuse and exploitation. It helps them to find their voice and to be confident in telling others what they do and don’t want. 

Facilitating widespread change 

Julio dreams that the programme’s messages will become long-term changes within his community. A comprehensive approach to behaviour change is working to ensure that his dream is made reality.

“If we just share information, some might follow it, but many won’t. They just listen. So now, we’re doing theatre and more people are making changes. I can see the difference” says Julio, talking over the sound of the river beside us. 

The Parenting Programme combines the parenting education sessions with an extensive 48-episode community radio drama, as well as community theatre, discussion groups and household visits. Health professionals, teachers and local leaders are also engaged, and together they’re working to create a supportive environment for positive change. This is all made possible thanks to generous support of the H&M towards this important initiative.

Currently being piloted in Ermera and Viqueque municipality, UNICEF and the Ministry of Social Solidarity hope to expand the Parenting Programme across the country. The holistic caregiver education programme strengthens parenting skills by teaching a range of positive parenting techniques across a range of topics including child nutrition, early stimulation, education and positive parenting.