Gender equality in South Africa: An evaluation of the effectiveness of MenCare+ in the South African context

Guest post by Sonke Gender Justice’s Andre Lewaks (MenCare+ National Manager South Africa) and Yvonne Jila (2015 Mandela Washington Fellow and Child Rights and Positive Parenting Intern).

Two men learn to change diapers in South Africa.

“Sonke came to us […to help us understand] how life is, how to manage yourself, how to treat your kids, how to help your wife, how to share, how to be that human being. I will always think about Sonke Gender Justice, it built me as a person.”

These are the words of a MenCare+ program participant in South Africa, quoted in a recent research report entitled Gender Equality in South Africa: An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of the MenCare+ Parenting Program in the South African Context. Completed in September 2015, the research was carried out by Dirkje van den Berg (Utretch University) in partnership with Sonke Gender Justice.

The study focused on the effectiveness of MenCare+ – called the “MenCare+ Parenting Program” in South Africa – in promoting gender equality. The research examined the ways in which attitudes toward gender, household divisions of caregiving, and fathers’ involvement among participants changed before and after joining MenCare+ fathers’ groups. The study included a sample of 119 men from Mfuleni, Nyanga, Manenberg, and Saldanha, who participated in four focus group discussions about the program in 2014.

MenCare+ partner and MenCare global co-coordinator, Sonke Gender Justice, implements the program in and around Cape Town as one of its interventions in South Africa focusing on men, fatherhood, and gender equality. The purpose of the program, which is based on the Program P methodology, is to promote gender equality by transforming harmful gender attitudes and improving men’s caregiving and fatherhood skills. The target population of MenCare+ training is mostly fathers, but at times mothers and other caregivers also join. The program consists of 12 sessions in which participants come together to discuss and share their experiences related to caregiving, fatherhood, gender roles, sexual and reproductive health, family planning, nonviolent parenting, and more. In these discussions, trainers encourage the participants to become actively involved in raising their children, supporting their partners, and sharing the work at home.

Focus group discussions found that participants were highly motivated to come to the MenCare+ training each week. Fathers’ reasons for continuing to return included not only that they learned new parenting skills after each session, but also that they noticed positive changes in their own lives and relationships. Participants said they appreciated the open, friendly space created by trainers and facilitators. They indicated that they felt safe and were confident enough to freely express themselves during the sessions; these frank discussions stimulated the learning process, they said. By opening up to their peers, participants said they became aware of the fact that others struggled with the same issues that they did, and they were able to help each other by sharing similar experiences and advice. They also enjoyed meeting new people, making new friends, and forming a bond with the group. For some of the participants, taking part in the program was a way to get themselves off of the streets and to keep themselves out of danger.

Participants described the fathers’ groups as a stimulus to reflect upon and improve their own lives. They stated that the program showed them both why it was important to be there for their children and how they could become responsible, involved fathers. They also said the program taught them that raising children is not just about providing money. A participant from Mfuleni said:

“The sessions helped me. … I started realizing that being an ATM father [one who only provides financial support] doesn’t work, especially not for my kids. I need to be there for my kids. I need to be a father figure for my kids.”

One session, entitled “My Father’s Legacy,” encouraged participants to think about their childhood and the ways in which their own fathers were involved in raising them. They reflected on both the positive and the negative ways their fathers had – or had not – been involved in their upbringing. One participant from Mfuleni said:

“I did some introspection: What legacy do I want to leave? What must my children think of me? How would they remember me?”

Another session on pregnancy helped participants realize that they have a role to play during the prenatal period, supporting their partners and forming habits of involved fatherhood even before their children were born. One participant said that the problem in his community is that most men believe that after a man impregnates his wife, he has done his job and does not need to be present until the baby is born.

The program contributed to participants’ self-confidence. After finishing the program, many men said that they felt much more confident about how to behave in “the right way,” independently of traditional norms and others’ opinions. Some participants emphasized that this marked a shift in their communities’ norms, where “gangsterism” is often perceived as a good thing and men are expected to go into the streets with guns and cars. One participant added to this, saying:

“As a gangster, they shoot guns, rob people, sell drugs; they go get a gun and shoot someone. They kill people, kill other gangsters. There is a lot of violence. What the most important thing is for them is smoking drugs, being with their friends.”

A participant from Manenberg reported that, before the sessions, he abused drugs; however, after participating in the program for only a few weeks, he stopped using them. He said the program made a huge impact in his life – beyond what he could express in words.

Overall, participants in all four focus group discussions were motivated to spread MenCare+ messages of gender equality and involved, nonviolent fatherhood to other people in their communities. Participants said they learned – and felt more confident – that they could make a difference. After their participation in the program, they became involved in promoting it to others by wearing MenCare+ T-shirts and caps, by approaching people in the community, and by helping and advising their peers.

At the same time, participants also emphasized the need for additional campaigns to take MenCare+ messages into their communities. They recommended organizing meetings and starting dialogues to involve other community members in the program.

The MenCare+ South Africa program acknowledges and appreciates support from Rutgers, Sonke Gender Justice, and Mosaic.