Whether in reproductive health or family planning, the role of the man should be part of policy
In India, by and large, gender policies revolve around women. Involving men in gender policies is good for women; good for families and children; and also gives men a chance to break out of the stereotypes set out for them.columns Updated: Feb 18, 2018 09:10 IST
Other than the platitudes about the supporting role of men in women’s issues, matters related to men play a secondary role in gender conferences. So it was a pleasant turn of events that the issue of fatherhood and its role in gender relations played a prominent role in the just-concluded Difficult Dialogues meet on gender equality in Goa. In societies such as ours, it is almost a given that women will spend much longer caring for the home and children than men. With more women coming into the workforce, the participation of men becomes important.
It is well known that the absence of men as equal participants in housework diminishes opportunities for women to go out to work. But there is a more subterranean reason why men should be involved in bringing up children. Many studies have shown that a younger generation of men want to be involved in the lives of their children. The State of the World’s Fathers report shows that around 77% of men say they would work less if this meant they could have more time with their children.
Ninety-two countries offer paternity leave to new fathers. India is not one of them. However, Haryana, considered the bastion of patriarchy, does offer 15 days of paternity leave, something which many, including women’s groups, dismissed as a paid opportunity for men to loiter about and drink. But this is unfair and it has real potential to transform gender relations altogether. I know that Sweden is a bit removed from India but it was found there that if fathers took paternity leave, the mother’s income would go up in the coming years. The woman would not have to drop out of work and she would not be overlooked in seniority. Emotionally, too it is a disservice to men to imagine that they do not want to be emotionally connected with their children. According to Margaret O’Brien, professor in child and family policy at University College, London, the younger generation of fathers are keen to be involved in their children’s upbringing.
In many ways, the boy child’s role model is his father. And if the father is seen as sharing in the household work, including bringing up children, this has a lasting impact as the boy moves into adulthood. One thing is that it reduces the double burden on women who, in most societies, have to manage home and work. It also gives men a chance to break out of the stereotypes set out for them. But in India, by and large, gender policies revolve around women. The ministry dealing with gender issues is called women and child. The man does not figure too much even in government policies relating to women and children. This, despite the fact that it is the men who take most of the important decisions in a family including parenting and who will do it.
Of course, we have the odd ad which shows the caring father in what are quaintly called gender reversed roles, the implication being that such roles are preordained. We need to push the boundaries much more, make the involvement of men a social, economic and political talking point. Numerous studies have shown that when fathers are involved in parenting, the children perform better at schools, they are more well rounded as they grow into adolescence, their verbal and intellectual skills are better and they are much less biased in many ways.
Whether in reproductive health and family planning or parenting, the role of the father should be part of policy. It is not that men are inherently averse to sharing housework and caring for children. It is that they are conditioned to be so. My own father, who played a significant role in my childhood, was always happy to do household chores, including cooking. But when he moved to his ancestral home back in India, he was expressly kept away from doing this by sundry relatives and household staff for fear of what people would say. So, my father confined himself to sneaking into the kitchen once in a while when no one was looking and whipping up a dish or two. A role he relished, and which I am sure many men do, was denied to him thanks to societal prejudice. It is heartening that many young men in India today want to help out not just for the sake of their wives or partners but for their own satisfaction and well being. This would be the real equal opportunities world.