How a Malawi Project Engaged Fathers to Support Girls’ Education
Why Engaging Men and Boys in Advancing Gender Equality in Education Matters
As an increasing number of young women and girls gain access to and progress through education, significant gender gaps still exist in education caused by poverty, harmful cultural norms and practices, poor water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure, political fragility, conflict, and crisis. We also know that the economic costs of not educating girls are colossal. In its 2018 report, Missed Opportunities: the High Cost of Not Educating Girls, the World Bank estimated the impact of depriving girls of education in over 100 developed and developing countries. The report explains that limited educational opportunities for girls and barriers to completing 12 years of education cost countries between $15 trillion and $30 trillion dollars in lost lifetime productivity and earnings.
In many patriarchal societies with conservative gender norms, men hold most of the authority within the family, and women’s decision-making power is limited. And, in some cultures, it is not uncommon for families to invest in their sons’ education before investing in that of their daughters. Yet, we know that keeping girls in school and ensuring they can learn in a safe and supportive environment benefits girls, their families, their communities, and societies. Given the known benefits to society by educating girls, how can these complex social-cultural attitudes, beliefs, and ideas be changed? How can the value of girls’ education be stressed? And, how can fathers or male caregivers improve girls’ access to education?
Those were the kind of questions that Save the Children contemplated when they partnered with Concern Worldwide (CWW), Grassroots Soccer (GRS), and Peace Corps to implement a comprehensive package of interventions aimed at improving school access and performance, increasing girls’ agency and self-efficacy, and improving attitudes and support for girls’ education and safety. The Apatseni Mwayi Atsikana Aphunzire (AMAA), or Give Girls a Chance to Learn, was a USAID-funded project (2017-2021) implemented in five districts across Malawi which targeted 60,000 girls in upper primary and secondary schools. AMAA’s design was based on the socioecological model (figure 1) which takes a whole-girl approach when conceptualizing the challenges to girls achieving their academic and developmental potential. As such, AMAA interventions were designed to work at multiple levels to address these challenges at the system level, in the community, at school, in the home, by the family, and within themselves. AMAA had four main outcomes: (1) improve the ability of girls to affect change in self and others; (2) enhance the creation of an enabling environment for girls’ adolescent development and education achievement; (3) strengthen the quality of teaching; and (4) improve access to secondary schools.
In 2013, researchers and practitioners from the Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University and Save the Children started listening to the experiences of young, first-time fathers in Northern Uganda. These young fathers shared their newfound parental joy but also shared their struggles in navigating their new roles and responsibilities. This formative research prompted the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to pilot The Responsible, Engaged and Loving (REAL) Fathers Initiative. REAL used a community-based mentoring approach to 1) improve parenting attitudes and confidence in using nonviolent discipline; 2) decrease use of intimate partner violence and physical punishment of children; and 3) foster acceptance of non-traditional gender roles in parenting.
AMAA adapted the REAL Fathers Initiative to make it relevant for the fathers and male guardians of girls aged 10-14 as they transitioned from primary to secondary school. By adopting a holistic whole-girl approach, fathers were encouraged to see their daughters’ capacity for educational success and develop their parenting skills to build stronger father-daughter relationships. Participating REAL Fathers addressed challenges for girls at the home and in the community and addressed complex problems facing girls in Malawi such as early marriage, teenage pregnancy, and school dropout. Fathers and their mentors also addressed broader family and societal problems such as intimate partner violence, child abuse, neglect, alcoholism, and abandonment.
A project evaluation conducted in September 2021 showed that REAL Fathers could see their daughters being just as capable as their sons in completing school. They also ensured that their daughters were given the time to do their homework by dividing chores evenly among children and by no longer sending them to the farm, the maize mill, or looking for work instead of attending school. In addition, the enabling environment for their daughters’ academic and emotional development was improved when fathers bought pens, exercise books, uniforms for school, menstrual hygiene products, and food for their daughters. These supports meant that daughters were no longer worried about having enough money for these items and were not forced into piecemeal work to do so. As a bonus, REAL Fathers also changed their behavior toward their wives. There was anecdotal evidence of less violence, infidelity, and alcohol abuse, and greater shared decision-making within couples. Girls also reported being happier due to diminished conflict in the family.
The changes that REAL Fathers were making in their homes was what motivated girls to go to school and work hard. At schools, REAL Fathers and Mothers’ Groups collaborated in bringing girls who had dropped out due to pregnancy or early marriage back to school. And, by playing a more visible role in their communities, such as joining Parent-Teacher Associations and School Management Committees and publicly speaking about the importance of girls' education, REAL Fathers were seen as role model fathers and husbands, and asked to “speak to other families who are facing difficulties.” The outcomes of the REAL Fathers project clearly demonstrate that a father's active presence and support in a girl’s life can positively and profoundly influence her academic achievement and adolescent development, thus changing not only their own overall well-being, but supporting them as active members of society and making communities stronger.