The Duties of Real Men
Zhytomyr, Ukraine, April 2009. In the delivery ward of the Zhytomyr oblast mother and child centre reclines a man who’s holding twin newborn babies to his chest. He looks a little confused, but also happy. The boy and girl twins were delivered by Cesarean section, so it’s the father who has to take care of them while doctors attend to their mother.
“This isn’t a matter of fashion, but a scientifically-proven necessity,” says Olena Sherstiuk, director of UNICEF’s Mother and Child Development Programme, of the position in which the man finds himself. “First of all, a father warms a baby with his body, which is good because the newborn’s system can’t regulate its own temperature yet. Second, the contact sets off immune system mechanisms. Through skin-to-skin contact, a child picks up ‘domestic’ infections for which he or she already has antibodies,” not aggressive hospital infections.
“Third, and most important, this contact lays a foundation for good emotional health. The child feels from the first moments of life that this new world is friendly, loving, and warm. The child senses his or her father’s heartbeat. If for any reason a mother can’t handle a baby, it should be the father who does. Not a grandmother or a sister, but a father.”
Eighty per cent the of deliveries at the Zhytomyr oblast mother and child centre are partner-accompanied. Women select relatives with whom they’d like to be during this most crucial time, and usually it’s their husbands whom they choose to render moral and physical support.
This leading health care facility offers assistance to residents of those territories affected by the Chernobyl nuclear accident. According to a study in that area by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the level of knowledge among men regarding the majority of medical issues related to pregnancy and mother and child health is 20 per cent lower than that of women. The situation is much the same in other regions of Ukraine. However, since the Chernobyl regions are regions of particular social, economic, and medical vulnerability, it is there that UNICEF has founded its papa school network.
Knowledge Gives Strength
The first papa school in the Zhytomyr region was officially registered at the end of March. Work to establish similar facilities is underway in Novograd-Volynskyi, Berdychiv, Yemelchyn, Ovruch and Korosten.
“If 10 years ago someone had told me and my friends that we would be doing this, we’d have laughed out loud,” says Volodymyr Martseniuk, the founder of the papa school movement and the director of the joint Ukrainian-Swedish OLEH project. “We were normal, ordinary guys who strongly objected to violence and believed that there was a need to change something in society. We didn’t like the false perception that some 25-year-old bald bastard driving a Mercedes was a successful and normal bloke, while a family man who had worked at the same factory for years was a sucker.”
Men Are the Same Everywhere
“We wanted to open a papa school and draw on the long-standing experience generated by similar facilities in Sweden,” says Volodymyr. “At the beginning they told us it was a disastrous idea. Swedes are rich and they have nothing to do, while our men are totally different. However, our own experience – and by now we’ve helped to establish papa schools in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Lithuania – shows that men are the same all over the world.”
The standard duration of a training course at a papa school is six lessons of two hours each. “But since 2004, when we started to build our network, not a single class has lasted less than five hours,” smiles Volodymyr. “Moreover, our training courses have always exceeded six classes. In Vinnytsya we even signed an agreement with the local cooking school to use its premises to hold special classes in conjunction with their specialists.”
The most popular question the papa school students ask is, “How soon can we start having sex after childbirth?” Laughs Volodymyr, “I think that soon I’ll have to print up banners on that topic and hang them up everywhere.” Beyond that, the programme’s medical, financial and legal components usually generate the greatest interest. “Unfortunately, gender awareness is quite new to Ukraine. But after the first class, men start to understand that gender isn’t a dirty word.”
Volodymyr recalls a tractor driver from Ivano-Frankivsk oblast. “He was a very religious man,” he says, “who was brought up in a conservative family. When he came to our school, he thought that everything had to go according to Biblical principles. He believed that ‘a wife should obey her husband’ was the main principle governing family relations. But after he completed the first course and returned with the next group, he brought a notebook full of notes, arguing with everyone else that that Biblical admonition had a different meaning than they thought it did.”