Breaking down barriers for fathers in Kenya

Group of fathers sit outside health centre in Kenya.

Members of a father-to-father group in Kenya

Among some Luhya communities in Western Kenya, culture and taboos define the role of men and women in families, including the responsibility of the bulk of the role parenting and decisions around how and what to feed children. A man’s role in maternal and childcare issues is hardly discussed. After all, the local belief goes, his main task as the head of the family is accomplished once his wife conceives.

However, a cultural transformation brought by Nutrition International’s (NI) Right Start Initiative (Anzilisha) has placed men at the centre of maternal and childcare issues in Vihiga County. The program, now implemented in 21 counties in Kenya, is redefining gender roles in the fight against malnutrition.

Male involvement in maternal and childcare issues has turned out to be a game changer. It has injected the much-needed energy to reduce malnutrition in the county. Father-to-father support groups, locally known as Baba Anzilisha, are encouraging dialogue between men and women on nutrition and health. As a result, men are caring for their wives and children as a noble responsibility, not a sign of ‘weakness.’

As the dark clouds gave way to rains, a crowd outside Ekwanda Community Health Unit ― which included County Governor H.E. Wilber Ottichilo and a delegation of Canadian Members of Parliament (MPs) ― watched a skit performed by members of Baba Anzilisha based on the real-life experience of a Luhya man struggling to overcome cultural barriers and taboos, before taking care of his pregnant wife. The testimonies on male involvement in maternal and childcare also spoke volumes about the evolving role of men in the community.

“Things are changing!” Dr Patrick Saisi, the Deputy County Governor, shouted with joy at the end of the skit.

The Canadian MPs in the delegation, Chandra Arya, Stephanie Kusie and Scott Simms, were also impressed.

“It takes a village and community to support each other. You are the success!” said MP Scott Simms.

For Pauline Makungu, the doubts about her husband’s daily participation in the Baba Anzilisha group ended when he supported her during her pregnancy, delivery and care during the first few months after the birth of their baby. “It is true Baba Anzilisha is working. My husband is a good example to other men on how to live well with their wives.” Pauline expressed her joy.

At Khusikhulu Community Health Unit, participants in a mother-to-mother support group demonstrated the benefits of the program, including the maternal and child care lessons they learned from an audiobook with support from community health volunteers. The mothers narrated their experiences in breastfeeding and agri-nutrition, which are key components of the program.

Nutrition International’s Regional Director for Africa, Dr Richard Pendame, singled out the nutrition-sensitive component in the mother-to-mother support group’s activities as the best example of putting knowledge into practice. The agricultural activities practiced by the mothers have also improved food security and nutrition at household level.

“NI commits to return to Vihiga County to explore possible areas of collaboration in nutrition planning and resource mobilization to support the realization of the Nutrition Model County initiative,” Said Dr Pendame, thanking the Canadian MPs for enabling NI to showcase the impact of the Canadian government’s support on the lives of hundreds of thousands of Kenyans.