Many studies have shown that the involvement of men in early childhood development (ECD) is extremely beneficial to a child’s social, emotional and cognitive growth. Fathers who are involved and playful with their infants have children with higher IQs, improved linguistic abilities, greater capacity for empathy, decreased gender stereotypes, and are all-round better prepared to succeed in school.
In Senegal, strict ideas around gender roles and gendered divisions of labor have meant that for a long time, raising children has been exclusively considered women’s work. Men, on the other hand, are thought of primarily as providers for the family and ready disciplinarians. As “head of the household,” it’s not uncommon for a man to make decisions without consulting the rest of the family, maintain distance from his young children and have little involvement in their education.
However, Tostan’s Reinforcement of Parental Practices (RPP) program is calling into question these very practices with remarkable results.
The RPP program, which began in 2012 and is currently implemented in 110 communities across Senegal, is taught by a trained facilitator from the same ethnic and linguistic group as participants. Interactive class sessions, which are informed by recent findings in scientific and sociological research in the field of ECD, use diverse teaching methods—from theatre sketches to traditional songs—to encourage parents to interact, read, and play more with their young children. And while the majority of participants are women, the program is creating the space for fathers to play a much larger role in their children’s early learning than ever before.
All men in the community, including religious and traditional leaders, are invited to attend a key session on the important role of men in ECD. Participants are encouraged to discuss and debate why the role of men has traditionally been situated outside the child rearing domain, whether or not they would like to see change, and if so, how they could bring about these changes. The fathers come to understand that if they want a more democratic society based on dignity and equality for every man, woman, boy and girl, they first need to create a democratic space in their own home, to set an example for their children. Children learn by imitation—especially from the actions, attitudes and behavior of their parents and siblings. The home creates an ideal environment for young children to learn values such as teamwork, cooperation, mediation, negotiation, problem solving, and collaborative decision-making, which will serve them later in life.
By the end of this male-focused session, participants can explain why men have such a determining role in their children’s success at school, and they are equipped with practical strategies for how men can be involved in early learning. These include tips on how to read to children (or, if they’re not able to read, how describing pictures and talking about stories is just as important); recounting personal stories and experiences; helping with activities at home that involve the children; setting up ‘dad groups’ to encourage one another and share strategies for helping educate their children; writing poems or songs on the importance of men in a child’s life; and organizing door-to-door visits and inter-village meetings to share their new knowledge. More and more fathers are also walking their children to school, meeting with teachers, and monitoring their children’s progress at school; this provides powerful motivation for learning.
During my last visit to Kolda in December 2015, I noticed that beyond participation in this special module, many class participants were also “adopting” their husbands as their chosen person with whom to share all their new knowledge from the entire program. This process (which we call “organized diffusion”) is crucial for ensuring the sustainable impact of the program, and by choosing to share this knowledge with their husbands, women are simultaneously tackling gendered social norms more broadly.
None of this change would be possible without the combined efforts of local social mobilization agents, especially religious leaders, who have become an unstoppable force in the field of ECD across Senegal. The RPP team has been working with religious leaders since 2013, holding workshops with hundreds of these social change agents on how to share best practices for ECD and providing them with tools to advocate for the abandonment of violence against children. They now seize all opportunities to spread the message of the program at baptisms, weddings and during their Friday sermons at community mosques. Most convincingly, they emphasize how the Prophet (PBUH) educated his own children and in a non-violent manner.
As men assume an ever greater role in their children’s early development, and work alongside women to raise the next generation, the future of Senegal looks brighter every day.
By Vicki Loader, Assistant to the RPP program