Grand Challenges Canada

By Michelle Cruickshank, Global Mental Health Lead, and Jocelyn Mackie, Co-CEO, Grand Challenges Canada

Globally sourced solutions

It’s Tuesday night in the Musanze District in Rwanda, a group of men gather to participate in their weekly fatherhood education course called “Bandebereho”, meaning “role model”. They receive training on childrearing and domestic duties, as well as social support from each other. Together these men are learning to transcend the stigma about societal expectations of fathers and to participate actively in their children’s development. A 27-year-old participant remarks that since starting the program, he attended his child’s birth and assisted his wife during child labour – a rare activity for men in his community. He confidently cares for his baby and wife with newly honed domestic skills.

Roughly 6,000 miles away in Karachi, Pakistan, another group of fathers meet. Each one is a new father experiencing depression. The aim of the program, “Learning Thru Play” is to reduce paternal depression while equipping fathers with cognitive and behavioral tools to be effective in their role as co-parents. By the end of the program, the fathers had significantly improved health-related quality of life, knowledge, and positive attitudes about child development. Both programs are supported, in part, by their respective Ministries of Health. Both programs are also supported by the government of Canada’s international development investments through our work at Grand Challenges Canada.

We can offer our own reflections on how lessons from these social innovations can directly benefit Canadians. One of us is a mother and the other has dedicated her career to supporting healthy early childhoods and the mental well-being of families. Both of us work daily to support public health innovation around the world.  Through our work and experiences, we know that men’s engagement during early childhood has substantial benefits on young children, the fathers themselves, and on their partners. Decades of research suggests that children with engaged fathers display significantly higher IQs, enhanced communication skills, and more positive social interactions with their peers. Mothers with partners who are engaged and share domestic labor, experience lower stress and seek greater access to antenatal care.

Just as new mothers experience difficulties and should be supported, new fathers often have difficulty expressing their feelings of exhaustion, isolation, and helplessness. Despite the benefits of supporting new fathers, there is a dearth of accessible programs in Canada to enhance their mental wellbeing and their capacity for engagement in their new responsibilities. Overcoming gender inequality and enhancing support for new fathers is a critical step toward creating healthier children, healthier families, and healthier societies.

Some of the most formidable barriers to men’s engagement in child-rearing include services and policies that either exclude men or do not provide an enabling environment for their engagement. Social stigma, including rigid norms and expectations of how men should and should not behave in family units, are also barriers. Canada’s parental leave policies, inclusive of paternity leave, are a good start.

However, in Canada, parenting groups and targeted support for fathers are rare, especially among social groups where emotional expression is viewed as a sign of weakness. Recognizing the father as a key influencer in family units offers an alternative, systemic approach to addressing the needs of fathers and supporting them to engage in healthy family activities.

Lessons from Rwanda and Pakistan, where government-supported social innovations enhance father wellbeing and participation, offer powerful examples that would support a new era. One that values the unique needs of fathers and prioritizes the physical and mental health of all parents. It takes a village to raise a child – and that village needs to include men who are better supported.