By Anjalee Kohli, Bryan Shaw and Erin DeGraw
The REAL Fathers initiative
The Responsible, Engaged and Loving (REAL) Fathers approach was developed in 2013 in northern Uganda as a pilot project. Between 1987-2008, northern Uganda experienced a 20-year conflict. At the end of the conflict, families found that their social bonds had deteriorated, often with a generation of men having been killed in entire villages. As communities rebuilt, elders identified a need to support and guide young fathers as they entered into relationships and fatherhood. REAL Fathers was developed in response to this need.
What is the model?
REAL Fathers is a community mentorship program that works with young fathers to prevent intimate partner violence and violent discipline of children. REAL Fathers engages fathers who are parenting young children, from birth to 5 years of age, as this is developmentally when children begin to test boundaries and exert independence, and is when discipline often begins.
The intervention is designed to reach young men before social norms related to gender roles (e.g., parenting, household responsibilities, caregiving, use of violence), attitudes, and behaviors related to relationships and parenting are established. Young fathers participating in the program identify respected and trusted older men in the community to be trained as their mentors; their wives and community leaders confirm the mentor selection. Young fathers are engaged in one-on-one, couples’ and group mentorship. These activities are reinforced by a community poster campaign and celebration event to shift norms and fathers’ attitudes, knowledge and behavior.
— The REAL Fathers approach supports young fathers through individual, couple and group reflection and engagement with key parenting and relationship topics, helping young fathers build new skills in childcare and spousal communication, and encouraging young fathers’ growth as parents and partners.
— The REAL Fathers poster campaign reinforces positive parenting, relationship and communication topics for participating fathers. The posters help to disseminate REAL Fathers’ messages throughout the community, catalyzing community conversation around what it means to be a good father and husband, positive parenting techniques that can be used their community, communication techniques to support relationship health and family wellbeing, and the importance of gender equality.
— Concluding with a community wide celebration allows fathers to share what they learned throughout the mentorship program in a public forum. Wives, mentors and other community members have an opportunity to share their experience with REAL Fathers and to voice their support for the changes they have witnessed in young men and their families.
— REAL Fathers is one of the few integrated family violence prevention programs with evidence of its effectiveness. The REAL Fathers initiative implemented in Uganda has been identified by the Global Partnership to End Violence through their INSPIRE handbook as a best practice in violence prevention. The model has been shown to be adaptable and effective across multiple contexts, providing a replicable and scalable approach toward violence prevention.
REAL Father results in Rwanda and Senegal
Plan International, in partnership with the Institute for Reproductive Health (IRH) of Georgetown University, conducted the “Gender transformative programming for advancing care for children in adversity” project under the JSI Research and Training Institute, Inc.’s USAID funded Partnerships Plus project to adapt, implement and evaluate REAL Fathers in Rwanda and Senegal (2020-2022). The project team conducted a quantitative evaluation of the project through baseline and endline interviews with young fathers participating in REAL and their wives or female partners. Some key results from the evaluation showed:
1. Very high participation and retention of fathers and mothers across the seven months of REAL Fathers programming in both Senegal and Rwanda, indicating that the intervention was well received and appropriate for the community. In Rwanda in particular, 81% of fathers attended all 14 sessions (seven individual sessions, seven group sessions), showcasing a high demand for the program and appreciation for the REAL Fathers methodology.
2. A significant reduction at endline in young fathers’ use of violent discipline in the past three months across both countries, after participation in the REAL Fathers program. Men in Senegal showed a 36% reduction in any violent discipline including psychological aggression, physical punishment and harsh physical punishment, while men in Rwanda indicated a 39% reduction. Similarly, women also showcased a significant reduction in use of violent discipline. In Senegal, women showed a 27% reduction in any violent discipline and 22% showed a reduction in Rwanda. Results showed that more women used violent discipline with children under five than men; this may reflect the time that women spend with young children. The reductions in women’s use of violent discipline are notable as they were not the primary participants in the REAL Fathers program.
3. At baseline we noted a wide gap between men and women in reporting that their relationship (with their partner) was very good. This continued at endline. In Rwanda both men and women gave their relationship a higher rating at endline, with men increasing from 42% from baseline to 54% at endline and women increasing from 20% to 32%. Interestingly, men in Senegal were less likely to report their relationship was very good at endline in comparison to baseline (76% at baseline vs 65% at endline), while women reported an increase in their relationship being very good at endline (20% at baseline vs 48% at endline).
4. Similarly, we noted a wide gap between men and women in reporting the occurrence of IPV in the relationship. More women reported experiencing IPV than men reported perpetrating it. In Senegal, 23% of men reported use of any IPV (emotional IPV, physical IPV or sexual IPV) in the past three months at baseline compared to 10% at endline. Forty-nine percent of women reported experiencing IPV at baseline compared to 31% at endline. Similarly, in Rwanda, 23% of men reported use of any IPV in the past three months at baseline, compared to 11% at endline and 44% of women reported experiencing any IPV in the past three months at baseline compared to 24% at endline.
Key insights and recommendations
1. In both Rwanda and Senegal, men’s use of violent discipline against children under five declined significantly. We also learned, at baseline and endline, that women used violent discipline against children under five more frequently than men and that they significantly reduced their use of violent discipline at the end of the project. These reductions were seen even though women were not the primary participants in REAL Fathers. They participated in fewer sessions than men and the program messaging via posters, and selection of mentors maintained a focus on men. Still, women may have learned these new behaviors through discussion with their partner, the mentor or through observation of their partner. Reduced stress and violence in the home by men may have reduced women’s use of violent discipline. Further exploring the type of support, mentorship and guidance women need could transform the program from a father-focused intervention to a couples’ intervention, possibly with some sessions for fathers and mothers separately.
2. As expected, when asked about IPV, women reported that they experienced it more often than men reported perpetrating it. This aligns with global research that favors asking women about their IPV experience as men may underreport IPV perpetration. This is the first time any evaluation of REAL Fathers has included women’s reports of IPV experience (and their use of violent discipline). The findings provide important information on household and parenting dynamics, and provide additional strong support for the success of REAL as an integrated violence prevention intervention. Additionally, future iterations of REAL Fathers could include research to better understand men’s and women’s perceptions of IPV within their relationships and the situations in which they use violent discipline against their children.
3. There is a need to supplement quantitative evaluations with qualitative research to better understand the why behind the results. Qualitative research could help unpack how men and women understood the intervention and adopted new behaviors in their relationships.
4. Additional research could examine the sustained behavior change one- or two-years post-intervention and assess whether the project has an unintended positive effect on how parents communicate with and discipline their older children. Additional studies to understand the use of violent discipline against children five and older would provide a more holistic picture of life in the home.