LONDON — Targeting men as they become fathers could be an effective way of transforming male attitudes towards women and could help reduce gender-based violence, according to a new evaluation offering rare insight into the impact of such efforts.
The approach can also lead to greater sharing of household duties, and encourage use of family planning among couples, it found.
The two-year randomized controlled trial examined the impact of a program in Rwanda that seeks to “transform norms around masculinity” among recent and expectant fathers “by demonstrating positive models of fatherhood.”
There is a growing understanding among development groups that empowering women also means working with men and boys to change social attitudes — but these programs still face some resistance. Devex spoke to gender experts to find out more.
Run by Promundo, an NGO working to engage men and boys for gender equality, and Rutgers, the Dutch reproductive rights center, the “Bandebereho” program — which means “role model” in Kinyarwanda — has worked with 1,700 couples across Rwanda since 2014, offering 15 weekly sessions on topics such as gender and power; fatherhood; couple communication and decision-making; intimate partner violence; caregiving; child development; and male engagement in reproductive and maternal health.
Implemented by the Rwanda Men’s Resource Center, it is part of a multicountry MenCare+ program to engage men in sexual, reproductive, and maternal health. All sessions were led by local volunteer fathers, with nurses and police officers co-facilitating some sessions. Women joined about half the sessions.
The RCT evaluation, published Wednesday, tracked 600 male and female participants over a 21-month period and compared their attitudes and self-reported experiences against a control group. Men who took part in the program were nearly half as likely to use violence against their female partners, according to reports from the women, and spent almost one hour or more per day doing unpaid care work and household chores.
Women also reported greater involvement in decision-making in the household, including around when to have children.
Gender advocates say the study offers the most rigorous evaluation to date on the effectiveness of targeting men to improve gender equality, as well as other outcomes. Previous studies have tended to focus only on the impact of male engagement on gender-based violence, for example, or on the use of family planning.
“One of the key things we were excited about is that the evaluation suggests there are
ways that addressing these power dynamics and building couple skills can address multiple outcomes with one intervention,” Ruti Levtov, Promundo’s director of research, told Devex, adding that “few evaluations look at such a broad range of outcomes.”
“Women’s reports of violence were pretty dramatically different compared to other studies [and] we were happy to see violence against children also decreased, even though this wasn’t a major focus of intervention,” Levtov said.
Using the scarce funds that are available for gender programs on initiatives that target men is not without controversy, however; and the evaluators admit more research is needed to ensure women do not experience unintended consequences and that “male engagement approaches do not undermine women’s autonomy,” the report states.
The evaluation also suggests that fatherhood can be a “good entry point” to changing male behavior since they are “open” to thinking about their families and relationships at that time, Levtov said.
“There can be a perception that such programs are focusing on positive images of men and children and neglecting the hard stuff [such as GBV] but the evaluation suggests that actually it’s an excellent way of getting to this really more challenging stuff [at a time when] men are feeling more connected to family,” she said.
The evaluation team included researchers from the World Bank, Promundo, and a number of American universities, and was guided by a technical advisory group.
The fact that it interviewed the couples over a two-year period is significant, according to Nikki van der Gaag, director of women's rights and gender justice at Oxfam GB and a senior fellow at Promundo, who said norms-change programs cannot be evaluated in a matter of weeks.
Randomized controlled trials are just one of several monitoring and evaluation options that organizations have, which is why Innovations for Poverty Action is rolling out a new program to help groups find the right fit for them.
“Ideally, you’d do it over two generations not two years, but the fact this is over two years with the funding constraints is great,” she said, adding that applying the RCT methodology to measure change in social norms is difficult but necessary.
“There are huge debates about using RCTs for social norms programs … but we have to get rigorous about the way we evaluate changes in social norms … [and] make sure it’s very robust,” she said.
Promundo’s Levtov said that while the evaluation showed strong outcomes, it also raised gaps in the intervention which the NGO hopes to address in future programs. For example, female participants said they would like to have attended all of the training sessions.
Furthermore, while the evaluation showed that men in the program took on extra household duties, this did not lead to a reduction in the time women spent doing unpaid care work — an issue that warrants closer thinking, said Levtov.
Funding constraints also meant that while the men were interviewed three times over a two-year period — before, during and after the intervention — their female partners were only surveyed twice.
And she said that more research was also needed into how couples-based interventions impact household finances and budgeting.
But Katja Iversen, chief executive officer of Women Deliver, a global advocacy group campaigning for investment in the well-being of women and girls, said the findings were encouraging.
“Gender equality is not a women’s issue; it is a societal issue, and it is a matter of prosperity for all. Boys and men must be involved to advance gender equality, and they are crucial in shifting negative gender norms,” she said.
Update, April 10: This story was updated to include additional information about the program.