Rewriting the script on the role of men in child care

Philemon and his wife Ireen walk with son Adam
© UNICEF Malawi/2019/Homeline Media

By Blessings Phumisa, UNICEF Malawi

There was a time when 51-year-old tomato farmer, Philemon Kanema Banda, used to care about the perceptions of his community on the role of men in raising children. The unwritten rules and norms on what was expected of men and women used to bother Philemon a lot.

So, he watched from a distance as his wife travelled to the under-five clinic for vitamin A supplementation and immunization with their first three children. The thought of him accompanying his wife and child to an under-five clinic was overstepping that societal line.

However, by the time  his fourth child was born, Philemon had had enough. He felt that the primary responsibility of raising his child was for his family alone.

“Everyone else is not there when you face the emotional and financial strains when your child falls ill. It is just you and your family. I cannot bear to see my son suffering from a disease we could have prevented,” says Philemon, a father of five, from Chivuti Village, Chikwina in Nkhata-Bay.

So, every month Philemon accompanies his wife Ireen to the under-five clinic with their two-year-old son Adam for vitamin A supplementation, immunization and growth monitoring. With the close attention he is receiving from his caring parents, Adam is a very healthy child whose imposing height and body belies his age.

Ireen is content because apart from having a healthy baby, trips to the clinic are much more fun with her husband around. To encourage the participation of fathers and male caregivers, Chikwina Health centre, located 34 kilometres away from Nkhata-Bay Central Hospital, gives an incentive to fathers and other male caregivers to be the first in line with their babies at under-five clinics.

 “I am the envy of everyone because we never have to wait in the queue at the clinic. My husband makes me proud because through this he is setting a very great example to all males about the importance of the involvement of men in vitamin A supplementation and immunization,” says Ireen.

She now has more time for other chores at home because Philemon also helps in taking care of Adam at home.

“We should not waste time being too focused on traditional perceptions of family responsibilities. Let’s take care of our children. Immunization and vitamin A supplementation give them good health,” says Ireen.

Health Surveillance Assistant (HSA) for Chikwina, Shupikile Mhango, says Philemon’s exemplary support to his family has been a beacon of light to many fathers in Chikwina.

“We even give Philemon an opportunity to talk to other families in Chikwina about the importance of having male caregivers take a central role in vitamin A supplementation,” says Shupikile.

Since June 2018, Global Affairs Canada has been funding UNICEF to provide Vitamin A capsules and albendazole deworming tablets to health facilities in five districts in Malawi. More than 128,000 under the age of five have been able to access these services since the funding began to flow.

Nkhata-Bay district in northern Malawi is one of these districts. It has one of country’s hilly terrains. With just 150 HSAs against a population of over 300, 000 people, the few HSAs are providing vital support in raising awareness about the role of fathers in Vitamin A supplementation.

Chikondi Mafaiti coordinates the Vitamin A supplementation in Nkhata Bay
© UNICEF Malawi/2019/Homeline Media

“More men are now coming to the under-five clinics across the district with their partners thanks to the work HSAs are doing in raising awareness about the need for the collective responsibility of fathers and mothers in making sure that children access vitamin A supplementation,” says Chikondi Mafaiti, coordinator for the Vitamin A supplementation in Nkhata-Bay’s Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI).

Negotiating through such a mountainous terrain on motorbikes and bicycles, HSAs have gone into the furthest parts of Nkhata-Bay to get male caregivers involved in Vitamin A supplementation.

Efforts are now on finding more supportive male caregivers such as Philemon as it is proving that chances of a child defaulting on Vitamin A supplementation and immunization are lower when both parents are involved.

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