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What I Learned About Fatherhood In Rio’s Impoverished Favelas

Parents Without Borders, produced with our partners at the United Nations Foundation, features influential parents leading programs and initiatives making a global impact.

I write this on an airplane, a place I spend far too many hours. But this time instead of a trip to one of the 20 countries where I work, I am at the beginning of another father-daughter adventure. Something akin to the first steps when she was one year old, or taking her to pre-school for the first time.

As the flight takes off, the Arcade Fire song “The Suburbs” shuffles through my iPhone and the words hit me again: “I want a daughter while I’m still young. Want to hold her hand, show her some beauty before all this damage is done.” It’s not by coincidence the song is on. Since I first heard the lyrics, I’ve had it on my favorites.

We’re heading to Los Angeles to visit universities. She wants to study film; in fact she already makes them.

As parents, we repeat this to ourselves when they are 2 and then 3 and then 5 and then a senior in high school: it all goes by so fast.

“I want a daughter while I’m still young. Want to hold her hand, show her some beauty before all this damage is done.”

This is the part I hang on to: I have the luck of a daughter who is smart and beautiful and healthy and passionate both about questioning injustice in the world and about using film to share the beauty she sees. And I adore this version of her at 17, who questions her amazing mother and me just as much as she questions the world around her.

But she’s been asking direct and difficult questions for a long time. She was only five when she came sauntering in to our living room one day wearing her tutu and twirling something in her hand.

“So, Papi, you work in all those places, telling men they should be nice to women and be there for their children.”

Guilty as charged, I nodded.

“But how come you missed my play?”

That question or one like it has gone on for years. I answered by taking her with me on several of my work trips. I watched as she made sense of a campaign I was involved in India on engaging men to question violence against women. Or as she understood the living conditions and the screaming inequalities in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro where my organization worked, and where we lived for many years.

Exactly 18 years ago, I founded Promundo in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to work on engaging men and boys in the gender equality revolution and in violence prevention. My daughter has come to call Promundo her older and more famous brother. Now instead of complaining about it, she invites me to speak about what I do to her high school, she does subtitles for our videos and she sends me ideas of how to get our ideas out.

Promundo — which in Portuguese is a contraction of “for the world” — was born from the idea that the revolution in women’s lives required a revolution in the lives of boys and men; that the promise of equality between men and women brought benefits for men. That stepping out the centuries-old boxes of rigid, violent, homophobic or misogynistic versions of manhood was good for all of us, women and men. Hence: for the world.

We started with the premise that the solution to changing ideas about being a man was always right in front of us: listening to the men who already questioned harmful ideas about manhood.

We started with the premise that the solution to changing ideas about being a man was always right in front of us: listening to the men who already questioned harmful ideas about manhood. We began our work in Rio’s favelas, where many young men had witnessed violence against their mothers growing up or had seen brothers or cousins join gangs. Many had seen their own fathers abandon their mothers; about a third of them had never even met their biological fathers. Many of them said: “I don’t want to be like he was.”

Our first campaigns were, and still are, developed by young people in favelas. They worked alongside some of Rio’s most creative ad agencies, crafting storyboards and slogans to make it cool and hip to be young men who treated women well, who supported sexual diversity, who used condoms and questioned violence. These were young women and men, nearly all African-Brazilian, who face the problems that many African-American young men in Baltimore or Ferguson, Missouri, face: police harassment and lethal police violence, historic discrimination, limited job possibilities. While our gender equality messaging was important, it was just as important to offer the young men and women opportunities to thrive and shine and interact with the middle class world of Rio de Janeiro that too often sees them as criminals.

From those beginnings, Promundo has reached more than 20 countries, and now has offices in Brazil, the U.S., Portugal, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We train and advocate to governments, we carry out research, and we train health providers and teachers. We’ve reached nearly 250,000 young men and women with our violence prevention work, engaged more than 50,000 men across 10 countries in father training, some 200,000 women whose lives improved because their husbands were engaged with them in economic empowerment programs.

Every man who takes on caregiving is a potential ally for women’s equality because he’s got skin in the game.

So what? None of those numbers matter unless we look at the individuals behind them. That’s what my daughter has asked me in so many words every time she hears about some new milestone her older brother Promundo has reached. (By the way, she also tells us not to measure her by her grades — she is consistent in her arguments. She doesn’t think she should be measured in a number either.)

Beyond those numbers, I think about Joao, a young father from a favela in Rio de Janeiro. He brought his two-year-old daughter to a community event we organized on fatherhood. My daughter was with me as well, who was about 3 at the time. He told me he had to struggle every day with the mother of his girlfriend (the mother of his child, whom he didn’t live with), to get access to his daughter. His name was not on his daughter’s birth certificate, hence he had no legal custody of the child, and the grandmother thought he was nothing more than a derelict. In fact, the opposite was true: he was a caring, involved father.

[youtube expand=1] Or I think of Tecio, a young man from another favela, who came from a violent household. His father regularly beat up and expelled his younger brother from the house because he was gay. Tecio was deeply affected by the violence he saw and wanted to find a place to become an activist against violence. I remember watching him interact with my daughter once when she was with me. He was caring and thoughtful and patient — things we usually don’t expect from adolescent boys.

Years later, Tecio is an involved father of his own children. And he became a case worker assistant for the Brazilian children’s rights system. He helps children get their birth certificates and helps their parents navigate getting them into school.

There are hundreds more like these — stories of young and adult men who have embraced caring, non-violent ways of being men. And fatherhood is nearly always central to them.

As a developmental psychologist, I have spent years studying fatherhood; I have published journal articles on the role of fathers in child development. Increasingly though, it became obvious to us how much fatherhood and caregiving matter for men. Men who report close relations with children live longer. We’re happier (including sexually happier, in some research we have carried out). We’re more likely to take care of our health if we report close relationships with children — biological, or adopted or otherwise. In short, caring for others is useful for children, but it is also changes the lives of the caregivers.

This past June as part of our global MenCare campaign, we launched the first ever State of the World’s Fathers in the UN. It was our effort to get involved, equitable fatherhood on the global, international development and gender equality agenda and acknowledge that women won’t achieve the lives they want without getting men to do half the world’s caregiving, and that children won’t thrive the way they should. And to say that men miss out on what matters to themselves unless we support them in being the kind of caregivers and fathers they want to be.

Some women’s rights colleagues asked us as we developed the report: Are you saying this is for men? Yes, we affirmed. It is also for men. We want men not just doing the care work because it’s good for their female partners or their children. Every man who takes on caregiving is a potential ally for women’s equality because he’s got skin in the game. A man who stays up late to soothe a crying child will be an ally to women in asking for flexible work policies. A man who is involved in his children’s health will be an advocate in getting the lifesaving services that children and mothers need. A truly involved father will want paid leave for his partner, and for himself.

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I think it’s fair to say that everything I learned about this topic, I learned with my daughter and my partner. That I can’t be an activist for these things unless I’m living the talk at home. That we can’t get men to be allies in gender equality if we don’t help them see what they have in the game. That we can’t support children without supporting their caregivers. That we won’t achieve gender equality without engaging men. That our numbers only matter if we listen to and include in every step the lives and voices behind them.

A few days before my daughter and I left for the trip to California, I asked her to watch a new Promundo film with me. She rolled her eyes as if to say: here comes my older brother again. But she attentively watched the film, which tells the story of Abby, from Goma, Democratic Republic Of Congo (DRC), a father of two sons. He participated in our Living Peace initiative, which works to help families recovering from conflict-related sexual violence. His wife was among the one in 4 women in Goma who were raped in the conflict. At first, like many men in his situation, Abby felt hopeless, frustrated and traumatized. He too was abducted by rebels and forced to labor for them. When he escaped, he returned home to find that his wife had become pregnant from being rape by combatants. Feeling shame that he could do nothing to protect to her, he sent her home to her parents. He wanted nothing to do with her.

After he went through the Living Peace program, he reunited with her. He said: “The best homework assignment you made me do was go home and talk to my wife.” And he accepted the boy born of rape. He is a hands-on caregiver for both of his children in a place where childcare is seen as women’s work and where most men reject a child born of rape.

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After the program, Abby and his wife resolved not to live in shame because of what happened to them. They wanted to tell their story, which we made into a film.

Sitting in our comfortable house and living room a long way from the conflict of DRC, my partner, my daughter and I looked at each other and I guessed what we were all thinking: How lucky we are. And how much we have to do.

A few days later, my daughter told me: “I want to go with you to DRC.”


Gary Barker is founder and international director of Promundo, which works in more than 20 countries to engage men and boys to achieve gender equality and prevent violence. He is also co-founder of the MenCare campaign and co-author of the first ever State of the World’s Fathers report. He is an Ashoka Fellow, and a member of the Clinton Global Initiative. He has published extensively about engaging men in gender equality, and leads one of the largest studies on men, the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES). The story of Promundo is told in his first book, Dying to be Men. After so many nights reading and making up bedtime stories for his daughter, he has also become a part-time novelist. His latest novel, co-written with Michael Kaufman, is a dystopic, anti-war fable called The Afghan Vampires Book Club published in the UK by World Editions.