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

State of America’s Fathers 2016


By David Michael Newstead.

There’s new research out today that shines a light on the wide-ranging issues affecting fatherhood in America. On one hand, the State of America’s Fathers 2016 discusses demographic changes and social progress, while also making specific policies recommendations to address the challenges that remain. Notably, the report underlines the need for paid family leave in the United States as both mothers and fathers struggle to balance the obligations of work and childcare. The need for criminal justice reform is also prominently featured as research shows the connection between astronomical incarnation rates and the negative impacts these have on America’s families, particularly people of color. To learn more about the State of America’s Fathers, check out the links below.

Listen Here

Download the Report


Select Quotes on Fatherhood

By David Michael Newstead.

When asked to describe the state of the world’s fathers in one word, panelists said that fatherhood around the world was: hopeful, challenging, underestimated, improving, and changing. But for more expansive statements from the recent release of the State of the World’s Fathers report, check out some of the interesting highlights below.

I hadn’t understood that one of the great joys of becoming a mother was watching my husband become a father.
Chelsea Clinton, Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation

One of those policies and practices that this report advocates for and that I couldn’t agree with more strongly is having more paid paternity leave.
Chelsea Clinton, Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation

It matters that men discuss with their peers what is the essence of being a man, so that destructive versions of masculinity are subverted and replaced with a manliness that is large enough to discard violence and domination and deep enough to encompass tenderness and vulnerability.
Kate Gilmore, Deputy Executive Director of UNFPA

The heterosexual majority of the world could even learn quite a bit form same-sex couples, which studies show, and we cite those here as well, actually have gotten over the baggage of what men are supposed to do and what women are supposed to do a lot sooner than heterosexual couples have, for very good reason. … We have something to learn as heterosexual families from what same-sex partners and parents have learned a long time ago.
Gary Barker, International Director of Promundo

Caregiving is not a male thing or a female thing, but it is quite a human thing.
Gary Barker, International Director of Promundo

Violence breeds violence. So, a non-violent father is extremely important not only to protect children from violence, but also for children’s education and children’s health.
Lena Karlsson, Director of the Child Protection Initiative at Save the Children

Engaging with men is a long, life process.
Giselle Carino, Deputy Regional Director of International Planned Parenthood

If I had one wish, promoting positive construction of masculinity could actually be enough to dramatically increase the rate of progress.
Yannick Glemarec, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women

There’s nothing more powerful than a role model.
Michael Sneed, Vice President of Global Corporate Affairs at Johnson & Johnson


Full Audio: State of the World’s Fathers

Full audio from the release of the first-ever State of the World’s Fathers report at UN Headquarters in New York on June 16, 2015. Features speeches and panel discussions by representatives from UN Women, UNFPA, Sonke Gender Justice, Promundo, Save the Children, Johnson & Johnson, Planned Parenthood, and the Clinton Foundation. Moderated by Richard Lui.

The State of the World’s Fathers 2015

10422475_10101472486582076_5659611575017753442_nBy David Michael Newstead.

Yesterday’s release of the State of the World’s Fathers Report brought together a cross section of expert speakers and passionate delegates, all of whom gathered at UN headquarters as Father’s Day quickly approaches. But this year marks a unique milestone for fatherhood around the world, because a comprehensive study on the social and economic impacts of fathers has never been conducted until now. The result is a 287-page report that touches on a wide range of issues from the economics of care-giving to analysis on gender-based violence and the proven benefits of children having positive male role models.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that cultural concepts about masculinity can have far reaching influence on a country’s development. At their worst, men act as an obstacle to change, stalling much needed progress indefinitely. But at their best, they are significant contributors to things like girls’ education and child development. And understanding how and why that takes place is the underlining motivation for the study. In fact, key findings in the report detail how lives and livelihoods can be drastically altered by the presence or absence of paid parental leave, the degree to which care work in the home is shared equally, or by a man’s attitude towards sexual and reproductive health.

In her opening remarks for the event, Clinton Foundation Vice Chair Chelsea Clinton articulated that this data not only helps measure progress, but can also drive progress.

Another speaker put it differently, “The things that matter are the things you count.”

With that in mind, tracking and analyzing fatherhood going forward can only mean better informed approaches to addressing the needs of men, women, and children globally. Because beyond keynote speeches and panel discussions, the real purpose of this effort is to work in partnership with the substantial research that already exists concerning the well-being of women and children. Powered by that information, everyone is better able to thrive and we’re no longer left with an enormous blind spot when it comes to gender in the world.

It’s like a Father’s Day gift for everybody.


Promundo in Focus

Ted2By David Michael Newstead.

For some time now, there’s been growing recognition of the important role of gender in international development as organizations work to improve the lives of women and girls in places like Nigeria and Afghanistan. More recently, there’s also been the realization that men are a critical part of that solution – especially as it relates to women getting an education, earning a livelihood, or being free from the threat of physical violence. But although it’s understood to be very necessary, actually drawing men into that discussion is easier said than done.

Fortunately, I was recently able to speak with the head of one organization that’s pioneering the way forward, helping to engage key populations on these issues. Promundo’s mission statement reads as follows: Promundo works globally to achieve a culture of nonviolence and gender equality by engaging men and boys in partnership with women and girls. The organization conducts surveys in 11 countries, provides trauma-informed care in post-conflict areas, and engages with fathers through a variety of programs meant to end the cycle of violence common in many parts of the world.

In April, I sat down with Gary Barker, the International Director of Promundo, to talk about his organization’s work and the state of gender in the world today.

David Newstead: Promundo is a fairly unique organization. How did it get started originally and how did you first become involved?

Gary Barker: I founded it on paper in 1997. Then, it was up and going by 1999. I’d done work for 10 years prior with street children and sexually exploited children in Brazil. And we kept talking about men, but there were maybe 2 men in the room out of 50 people. So, I realized something was missing, but how do we take that into programs and advocacy? It started with dissertation research on violent and inequitable versions of manhood and grew from there.

David Newstead: How have things gone since then?

Gary Barker: There’s steady and growing awareness in the women rights and development field that men need to be part of the equation. The question is – how? There’s a recognition that it’s necessary, but there are also sensitivities about maintaining the focus on women and girls as well as things like limited funding. That’s part of the reason Promundo started the MenEngage Network to coordinate with those doing like-minded work and to make it clear that we’re a pro-feminist organization. For men specifically though, we’ve seen higher dropout rates among boys, men die 6 years earlier on average, they participate in armed conflicts, face higher rates of suicide, homicide, and incarceration.

David Newstead: So, your organization has plenty to work with.

Gary Barker: Patriarchy, unfortunately, leaves a lot in its wake. But things like caregiving and fatherhood have been shown to inspire positive life changes for men, even former gang members.

David Newstead: A while back, I did this write-up where I asked women and men to say 3 words they associated with masculinity. Then, I listed and analyzed their answers. And I bring it up now, because no one said anything that had to do with weakness or emotion, even though men clearly have both of those. Really, every answer was a variation on the word “strength”. But I mean, even Superman had Kryptonite. And his girlfriend had a career of her own. Didn’t bother him.

Gary Barker: Of course, haha.

David Newstead: So in your view, what approaches have worked well over the last 18 years and what hasn’t when it comes to engaging men on these issues?

Gary Barker: What’s worked well? Building on men who already resist violent and destructive forms of manhood and turning the volume up on their voices. Going to places where men hang out, so fill-in-the-blank: schools, sports, prisons, the health sector. And engaging men together with women, so this isn’t a separate box for men.

What hasn’t worked? Public service announcements against gender violence. Men just turn away from stuff that assumes the worst of men, because men hunger for connections, not for causing harm to others. Engaging with men by themselves doesn’t work nearly as well as engaging men with women as well as community leaders. Then, of course, the thing that really doesn’t work is the one-off session. A single training. The one and only lecture in a classroom. There’s no embedding or progression or sustained interaction.

David Newstead: On YouTube, you’ve talked about the need to scale up your work from small-scale interventions at the community-level to larger public policy goals. What’s an example of what that effort would look like?

Gary Barker: In Brazil where we work, there’s now a prenatal protocol on engaging men, which involved buy-in from the Ministry of Health, training staff, etc. Then, we’re trying to get paternity leave. We got it introduced in the Brazilian legislature in 2007. Currently, there’s 4 months paid maternity leave and 5 days paid paternity leave. In 2015, this effort is alive again and that could become 20 days of paternity leave. That’s the kind of structural policy change we work towards.

David Newstead: Have you encountered any resistance to that?

Gary Barker: Businesses don’t like it. Then, there’s been a little bit of resistance from healthcare systems, because they’ve always got their hands full with their existing responsibilities.

David Newstead: So, do you ever just encounter blatant misogyny?

Gary Barker: The blogosphere makes noise. Then, I don’t know if you saw in the Washington Post recently, but there was an anti-feminist event in Detroit with 200 men (the First International Conference on Men’s Issues). In contrast, Michael Kimmel’s pro-feminist event in New York (the First International Conference on Masculinities) had 700. And our event in Delhi had 1,200. So, anti-feminist views do have to be contended with, especially as they relate to working men around the world who feel threatened economically. But just because things are difficult, feminism isn’t the enemy.

David Newstead: Promundo works in such a variety of contexts. How did you translate your original work in Brazil to other cultures like India or Russia or the Congo? Even the United States?

Gary Barker: Context matters tremendously. For instance, is it a post-conflict country? We always work with local partners. And we always start with a hefty amount of research. Then, we ask individual women and men as well as important community gatekeepers about the situation on the ground. And we map the resisters, the people who already want change.

David Newstead: What’s the most common problem you face?

Gary Barker: Sustainability. The short-term nature of funding and projects and the development field in general. Convincing funders and partners of the time it takes to achieve change. Obviously, poverty and injustice, but on a day-to-day basis, sort of this short-term vision of our funders and policy makers.

David Newstead: Based on your research and your experience, what would you say is the state of manhood in the world today? And do you feel positively or negatively about the direction things are going in?

Gary Barker: Well, 2 steps forward, 1 step backward. I do think there’s slow and steady progression. The younger generation gets it. And women are becoming more empowered at the workplace, in school, and in politics. The step backward is Neoliberal policies and their effects in different countries. Cutbacks on teachers and shelters, for example. Basically, men need to carry babies instead of weapons. But I would say I’m cautiously optimistic.