Involve men in caregiving to achieve gender equality
During the Covid-19 lockdowns, men have been performing more care work than any other time in recent history. This was confirmed through surveys with women and men in 47 countries across various regions, and highlighted in the fourth "State of the World's Fathers" report (launched on June 15, 2021). The report was produced by Promundo, co-coordinator of MenCare: A Global Fatherhood Campaign (active in over 55 countries) and includes data from the International Men and Gender Equality Survey, the ILO, UNICEF, and UN Women.
According to the report, despite men's increased participation at home during the global pandemic, the world is at least 92 years away from achieving equality in unpaid care work between men and women. Moreover, no country in the world has achieved equality in unpaid care, and no country has a policy or target date to achieve it.
Societies will not be able to function if women stop performing caregiving responsibilities. Still, this work is seriously undervalued. Even when many women perform all the responsibilities of domestic life—raising children, taking care of sick family members—there is a perception that they are not "working"! Don't all of us know some Bangladeshi woman who could not enter the job market or had to leave their job after getting married and having children? Many women cannot pursue higher education or professional development opportunities due to their role as caregivers, which means they are not able to realise their full potential.
When fathers take on their fair share of unpaid care work, it can alter the nature of the relationships between men and women and children. Both fathers and mothers will have more time for their children, women are released from some of their "double burden", and fathers get to experience the joys, satisfactions, and stresses of caring for their children. Performing the role of caregiver also offers men the opportunity to begin to break free from the narrow concepts of manhood and fatherhood, which provides their sons and daughters with positive role models and higher hopes for the future. In addition, fathers with close connections to their children live longer, have fewer health problems, and are more productive and generally happier. Men's equitable participation in caregiving bring benefits to men themselves, to their partners, their children, and to societies.
The Helping Dads Care data featured in the "State of the World's Fathers" 2019 report showed that on average, across seven middle- and higher-income countries, 85 percent of men said they would "do whatever it takes to be very involved" in the early stages of caring for a newborn or adopted child.
Why is it not possible for men to take care of their children and participate fully in domestic work? Economies and economic policies value financial growth and profit over equality and undermine the importance of care work. Unpaid care work is mostly known as women's and girls' responsibility and labour force participation or income generation is viewed as men's work. This has been reinforced by centuries of policies, workplace norms, the media, and educational curricula. This has not changed even when women are increasingly part of the paid labour force. Due to these inequitable norms and power dynamics, governments and families prioritise men's incomes and paid work at the expense of women's participation in the labour force and undermine all forms of care work.
Well-designed leave policies for fathers have the potential to transform gender relations and benefit all concerned. A study from Sweden showed that every month that fathers took paternity leave increased the mother's income by 6.7 percent, as measured four years later, which was more than she lost by taking parental leave herself.
The recent "State of the World's Fathers" report provides seven recommendations—(1) Put in place national care policies and campaigns that recognise, reduce, and redistribute care work equally between men and women; (2) Provide equal, job-protected, fully paid parental leave for all parents as a national policy; (3) Design and expand social protection programmes to redistribute care equally between women and men; (4) Transform health sector institutions to promote fathers' involvement from the prenatal period through birth and childhood and men's involvement as caregivers; (5) Promote an ethic of male care in schools, media, and other key institutions in which social norms are created and reinforced; (6) Change workplace conditions, culture, and policies to support workers' caregiving and mandate those changes in national legislation; and (7) Hold male political leaders accountable for their support of care policies, while advocating for women's equality in political leadership.
Even though the survey did not include data from Bangladesh, the recommendations of the report are relevant for the country. We must address the current lack of men's and boys' equitable participation in caregiving. The Bangladesh government should adopt and implement policies that specifically encourage and support fathers' involvement in early childhood development, care, and education. Employers will have to ensure that workplace policies enable both men and women to perform their caregiving responsibilities. Policy decisions will have to be supported by campaigns to bring changes in social attitudes. The media can play an important role in this regard by not disseminating gender stereotypes, promoting messages/images that show both men and women in caregiving roles, and celebrating women's academic and professional achievements. Parents should raise boys and girls equally so that they do not feel confined by societal expectations, and can grow up to realise their full potential.
Covid-19 has given us an opportunity to reimagine a more caring, gender equitable, environmentally sustainable, liveable, and economically just world. Let us be brave and achieve true gender equality by revolutionising the lives of men and boys, which includes their full participation in domestic life.
Laila Khondkar is an international development worker.