From Patriarchy to Partners
A few years ago, I met a worried husband. To the outside world, Shyam* was a provider, a village headman, and perhaps the embodiment of all things masculine. But to me, on the warm, summer day he was a helpless man seeking answers. His wife, Geeta*, had been recently diagnosed with severe anaemia while she was carrying their twin babies. For the past few weeks, they had been running around from hospital to hospital trying to figure out what “anaemia” means and what they could do to protect their unborn children. Wherever they would go to get answers, Geeta would be rushed into a different room while Shyam would wait outside hoping that someone would explain to him what was going on. They were met with the words “Agli baar apni saas ko lana. Bring your mother-in-law next time” and each time, Shyam would feel a little more helpless.
During our conversation, Shyam couldn’t hold his anxiety in and regurgitated all his worries hoping that maybe I could help him out. As I slowly explained to him what was going on, I could see his eyes well up. He quietly muttered “I am the father. Why didn’t they just explain this to me? Do you know how worried I have been?” For the first time in all my years working on the field, I realised the inherent bias that exists in the system. Maternal and child health (MCH) is so often considered a women’s agenda that we forget about those who make women mothers and children equally alive.
There is evidence from all over the world that explains the importance of involving fathers and husbands as allies in MCH solutions. For instance, our deeply patriarchal societal systems hands most of the power to them. They often influence access to healthcare for their families and thus, are often thought of as perpetrators. That is not to say that in many cases this might be true, however, our inherent bias often clouds our judgement. I have first-hand met men like Shyam who want to help, who can help, and who are lost in the myriad of social pressure, standing isolated from their family unable to bridge the chasm of misunderstanding.
I often wonder, how should we bridge this gap? How do we bring our male allies on-board in the effort to ensure no woman or child dies in vain? The first step is recognizing these men; finding them where they are, acknowledging that they are not alone, and viewing them as a part of a couple. Next, we invest in their knowledge. They can act as powerful allies in our quest for an equal world, but this would not be possible without the right kind of information. In tandem to this, we need to build systems and structures where couples feel safe and can work together with their service providers to understand the challenges that lie ahead of them. Lastly, we must provide opportunities to the couple to exercise their joint decision-making. There are programs from around the world where couple-based interventions have shown remarkable improvement in MCH outcomes. For instance, Bandebreho – an intervention implemented in Rwanda as a part of the MenCare+ program – worked with couples through critical reflection sessions to deconstruct toxic masculinity. The program reported higher male involvement in antenatal care, greater use of contraception, and improvement in shared decision-making within the couple.
We owe it to the women and children we serve to give them their best shot at a healthy life which is not possible without those with the means to contribute more substantially than we can. I strongly believe that there are many allies in our communities who want to contribute and participate in our noble quest. But just like Shyam they are lost. It is people like us who can help them find their way. Because isn’t that what development truly means? Empowering them to make the right decisions for themselves and their loved ones. If we can achieve this, we would be building our society as a truly egalitarian system.
*Names changed to maintain anonymity
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