Adaptative Programming: Engaging absentee fathers in a parenting program
The popularity of parenting programs as a strategy to prevent violence against women and children has soared over the last decade. There is strong evidence that children who are exposed to violence — whether witnessing their fathers beating their mothers or experiencing violent discipline — are much more likely to perpetrate or experience intimate partner violence later in life. Programs that intervene early can be effective in reducing risk factors associated with violence against children, and thus preventing its intergenerational transmission.
Clara Alemann was working at the Gender and Diversity division of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), when she co-led the adaptation of a parenting intervention in El Alto, the second-largest city in Bolivia, as part of the Bank’s research agenda to expand the evidence base on what works to prevent violence against women. In Bolivia, one in two women experience intimate partner violence and 70% of children experience physical punishment from their parents or caregivers.
The goals of the project were fourfold:
- to promote gender equitable attitudes and relationships among mothers and fathers of children under five;
- to prevent the use of violence against children at the household level;
- to increase men’s participation in childcare and domestic chores; and
- to improve parenting practices that facilitate healthy relationships between parents and their children.
The team chose to adapt Program P, an evidence-based program originally conceived by Promundo, Cultura y Salud, and RedMAS that engages men in fatherhood and caregiving. Program P is a community-based intervention consisting of ten group education sessions with mothers and fathers of young children where they reflect and learn about violence in the family, gender socialization and its impact on child development, positive communication skills, division of caregiving and positive discipline.
Adapting Program P to a new context
Adapting Program P to the context of El Alto required extensive research, Clara said. Firstly, some 70% of the city’s one million inhabitants are indigenous, with traditions and parenting practices that differ from non-indigenous communities. Secondly, the research phase also illuminated the challenge posed by the situation of extreme poverty in the city which forces men to work punishing hours. “These families have zero work-life balance,” Clara recalled. “We wanted to engage men, but they left home at 5am and came back at 10pm, six days a week, and Sundays were set aside for Church. They also migrate to the interior of the country for long periods of time. They were exhausted.”
“Implementing a fatherhood program isn’t easy when the fathers are largely absent and even when they are interested, life conditions are so hard that attending group sessions is very difficult”, Clara added. This posed particular problems for Program P, which emphasizes group activities, participatory role play, and extensive facilitated discussions between fathers.
For the project to get off the ground, they had to rework some of the fundamental tenets of the intervention. Group sessions had to be complemented or replaced by home visits or sessions at the workplace when attendance was impossible, working to the fathers’ schedule, not the pre-designed timeframe of Program P. Some of the group exercises had to be forgone and instead facilitators relied on videos that could be watched by parents during home visits. These flexible approaches managed to secure the engagement of numerous fathers.
The adaptation also resulted in a revised and improved Program P curricula and Manual with a more structured pedagogic format, fleshed out conceptual framework and additional content. To deal with the high levels of violence that continued during the implementation of the program, the materials were updated to include a protocol for facilitators to manage cases of violence that may require referrals to other services.
And to tailor to program to indigenous cultures, interactive exercises, information and guidelines for reflection on parenting and positive discipline were updated using culturally relevant images, everyday scenarios, vignettes and case studies with which parents could identify.
“We’re still waiting on the final results,” said Clara, “but we all felt that something, albeit modestly, was slowly changing.” Despite the challenges, many of the male participants expressed a genuine desire to improve as parents, even when their punishing work schedule meant they had to miss sessions.
Furthermore, some men reported that the program had helped them to become more aware of how important their role as a father was for their child’s development, leading them to make an effort to spend more time playing with or caring for their children. It also encouraged other men to commit to rebalance unequal power dynamics by sharing domestic responsibilities and decision-making in the household.
The lesson for Clara was clear: “The adaptive capacity of programs to stay relevant in very different contexts is critical. In urban marginal communities such as in El Alto, you need a more flexible, lighter approach that can accommodate to families intensive work schedules,” she said, “and you need to identify what program elements are core and which are peripheral to achieve the desired changes.”
The task, as she sees it, is not only to understand which interventions work but precisely which elements are most effective, for whom, in what conditions and dosage, and understanding exactly how change happens. This requires drawing on practice-based learning to question the assumptions that informed the design of the intervention, and even to adjust the initial theory of change and the program approach based on what has been learned from implementation.
Only with that knowledge and willingness to review assumptions and modify the intervention where necessary based on practical experience on the ground, can adaptation to challenging contexts such as El Alto work well and promote change in entrenched beliefs and practices affecting the lives of women and children.
Clara is a gender specialist with over 13 years of experience in program design, implementation and evaluation of social development programs to advance gender equality. Her work has focused on the areas of early childhood development, youth development, sexual and reproductive health, engaging men and boys and integrating violence prevention and response interventions in these sectors. She is particularly interested in working to advance approaches that address and seek to transform gender norms that sustain inequitable relationships and violence against women, and its intersection with violence against children. She has supported government counterparts and non-governmental organizations to design, implement and evaluate violence prevention interventions.