Fatherhood and Feminism with Nikki van der Gaag

By David Michael Newstead.

Last year, Nikki van der Gaag co-authored a groundbreaking study on the world’s fathers after realizing they were absent from most research. This year, she’s honing in on fatherhood in specific regions and delving into the cultural context behind men’s involvement in their children’s lives. Today, Nikki van der Gaag joins me to discuss her research, gender equality, and Ryan Gosling.

David Newstead: So, this June is the anniversary of the first-ever State of the World’s Fathers’ Report. In the time since its release, do you believe that that research has had an impact? And if so, how?

Nikki van der Gaag: Yes is the answer and far more than I thought when we set out to do this work. The whole thing came about because I was doing an evaluation of the global MenCare campaign. And it just struck me that there’s a State of the World’s Mothers. There’s a State of the World’s Children. I’ve been involved in several State of the World’s Girls’ reports. But there was absolutely nothing that looked at men.

I knew there was a space for it. I knew that issues around how you can get men involved in gender equality were coming to the fore and bubbling up in various different places. But I don’t think when they decided to go ahead with it that Promundo and the MenCare campaign had any idea it was going to have the impact that it did. And that’s always partly serendipity. But I think it’s partly that it’s an idea that people were interested in. It’s now been translated into numerous languages and there have been a number of other fathers’ reports in different countries and regions. I was in Kosovo last week for the launch of the State of the Balkan Fathers’ Report. The most recent is the State of America’s Fathers, launched just last week. So, it’s one of those ideas that just took off.

So, we’re really pleased. I think there were eight launches last June in different countries. It was just an idea whose time had come at that particular point.

David Newstead: Do you see the research better informing implementation of different projects? Or how do you see it going from research data to some sort of applied or scaled up version?

Nikki van der Gaag: I think it works both ways. What we were mainly doing was to look at where there was already work on the ground or research or policy and to try and influence both policy and implementation. So you know, being very clear for example that in so many countries it’s either prohibited by law or it’s not culturally acceptable for men to be present at the birth of their child. Provided that the mother wants it, which was an important proviso. But many men wanted to be there and many women wanted them to be there too.

And research was saying that when they were present helping during pregnancy, there for the birth, and there after the birth in many cases it really helped their relationships with their children as well as supporting their partners.

The reports are trying to feed into policy. Sometimes doors are closed and sometimes they are open. And I think looking at fathers is one piece of the jigsaw. One way in to looking at how men can be involved in gender equality and what needs to change, structurally as well as individually. And it’s a way in that people find easier than some of the other ways in perhaps. So, we’re hoping that it will influence both policy and practice on the ground in a number of different, very specific ways.

David Newstead: You’ve been working in this area for a while now. Is there something significant you learned from the report or from your subsequent research related to the report that you didn’t already know? Like did something stick out that was very surprising?

Nikki van der Gaag: I think the most surprising revelation was simply the fact of how little there was out there that was looking at fathers. You know, we had a lot of problems finding the research that we were looking for. And we didn’t realize it was going to be so difficult. So, that initial thought that we need to see what’s out there and to make something of it was the biggest revelation as far as I was concerned.

And since then, I’ve been involved in quite a lot of other projects where we’re trying to nuance that work on men and gender equality. And there are quite a lot of debates on how fatherhood is one way in, but actually doesn’t always address the more difficult questions around the involvement of men. So if you work with fathers, what does that actually lead to?

For example, in the Balkans last week they had done this lovely film of men looking after their babies and their children, which in a context of a society that’s very patriarchal it’s just not something that men do. And the young people had done this amazing play around a father and two brothers not daring to pick up their baby and not knowing what to do. They’re in a very different place than we might be in the United States or in the UK.

Fatherhood is a way of being able to think about what it means to be a man, because it’s often the point at which either gender norms get far more entrenched or actually it opens men’s eyes up to “Hmm, I want to be a bit different than this.

For example, I was talking to men a couple years ago in the Dominican Republic who had come together, because they were worried about violence in their communities. They were concerned by violence against women, but they also had their own experiences of violence. If they had a violent father, they didn’t want to be that kind of father to their own children. So, it’s about personal motivation and also about motivating others to change. And fatherhood is a good way into that, but it’s not the only way. That’s one of the things I’ve been pondering on in the last year. The MenCare campaign is now thinking about a second report to build on that work.

David Newstead: Shifting gears some, I wanted to ask about your book. You wrote a book called Feminism and Men. And my question regarding that is – If there is a place for men in the Feminist Revolution, who embodies that role in the world right now? Like who should men be emulating basically?

Nikki van der Gaag: I’m slightly suspicious of the idea that there’s ever a perfect role model. We’re in a culture where celebrities have a very big influence one way or another, which is not necessarily a good thing! I was reading a book this afternoon, I Call Myself a Feminist: The View from Twenty-Five Women Under Thirty. And there’s a young man at the end writing who talks about the fact that his ideas on feminism were triggered by Ryan Gosling. We all have to come to this in a different way. So, within different communities there are people you might look up to.

I’m just thinking about some of the young men that I visited when I was in South Africa as part of the research for the State of the World’s Fathers. So, going to some of those fathers’ groups and talking to some of the very few male counselors who were also part of that project. There are people that you meet in your life as you go along it that you can take as role models at different periods of time. You know, for some people their own fathers’ are their role models. For some people, they are definitely not. But these days we’re all shaped by so many different factors. I don’t think there’s ever just one. Sometimes, it might be that you happen to read something. You know, you might happen to read David Newstead’s blog and that might trigger something in you that takes you to do something differently.

David Newstead: I was curious what work you’re focusing on now or what projects are going to be coming up in the near future for you?

Nikki van der Gaag: So, I’m continuing on my work with men and gender equality. I’ve just been helping the global MenEngage alliance with an e-dialogue that they did a couple weeks ago where they were trying to look at the issue of accountability to women’s organizations. We had more than hundred people contributing from about thirty different countries. It was absolutely fascinating. So, I’m continuing to do bits and pieces of that work and to help with that.

I’m trying to clear the decks a bit, because I’ve been commissioned to write this very short book called The No-Nonsense Guide to Feminism. Which will have a strand about men and gender equality, but will look a little bit about where the state of feminism is internationally. It’ll be interesting for me, because I’ve mainly been focusing on men’s involvement for the last few years.

David Newstead: I realize you have much more research left to do. But internationally, do you feel good or are you wary about the state of feminism across the world?

Nikki van der Gaag: I generally feel good about it. I mean, I’m old enough to have seen it come in different phases. Not so much the whole First, Second, Third-wave thing. But if I think about ten years ago and I said I was a feminist, everyone kind of took a step backwards. And now, it’s much more acceptable, though hugely contested. Plus there’s all this horrible stuff on the internet. I got some really nasty men’s rights comments when I did the Tedx talk. But in some ways that shows that people are sitting up and taking notice and trying to work out what this means for them.

I feel hugely encouraged by the younger generation of both young men and young women who are either call themselves feminist or pro-feminist and who are genuinely in search of how they can contribute to gender equality. In every part of the world. I’ve visited lots of different countries in the course of my work and I always meet the most amazing young people. They don’t necessarily call themselves feminists, because feminist is also seen as a kind of western import. But they certainly would act in ways in order to support girls and women in terms of empowerment. I feel encouraged. Not unadulteratedly encouraged, but encouraged nonetheless.

David Newstead: Nikki, thank you for speaking with me today. Do you have any final thoughts?

Nikki van der Gaag: There are some interesting threads that I’m trying to pull out at the moment. I think whenever an issue becomes more popular for example, campaigns like the HeForShe campaign or celebrities talking about feminism or about men and gender equality, there’s always going to be some backlash of one kind or another. And the women’s groups I talk to are worried about men taking over resources and spaces that are already shrinking. But most of the men that I work with or I talk to are incredibly aware of that I think and are really trying to negotiate as I said with this e-dialogue the issue of accountability. So, I feel not only hopeful about feminism. I actually feel hopeful about the role that men will be able to play.

One of the next steps need to be finding ways of working with men in more powerful positions. There’s some interesting work going on, for example, with religious leaders in different countries. I mean, we’re never going to persuade the Trumps of this world, are we? But there might be other men who actually do hold those levers of power whether at the international level or the national level or the local level who men can reach more easily than women can. So, the next step is reaching men who have influence. And that might be celebrities, going back to our earlier conversation. But it also might be politicians or business leaders or a whole range of different men who we need to persuade to buy into these changes.

Read about the State of America’s Fathers 2016

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