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Young fathers in Ghana are expanding the meaning of manhood

Man and woman holding a baby
More Ghanaian men are becoming comfortable with family roles. Ronilo Jasareno/Flickr

As the world works towards the goal of gender equality, it’s widely recognised that reaching it requires working with boys and men. Getting men involved in gender equality programmes – as partners, fathers and community members – is the way to achieve and sustain progress on this issue. And it’s important to base these programmes on specific, local “ways of being a man”. These cultural understandings of gender norms provide clues as to how behaviour can be changed for everyone’s benefit.

In Ghana, gender studies have shown that one of the main aspects of being a man is seen as the ability to have a biological child and provide for members of one’s household. Traditionally, men are expected to provide, lead and protect their families while women are expected to do housework and care for children. Men tend to exercise control and domination over their partners and children, and this sometimes culminates in domestic violence.

Although women are traditionally expected to perform housework, studies have shown that they are increasingly participating in work outside the home. Over two decades ago, research began to indicate that women who worked outside the home were contributing to their family income in exchange for the performance by men of household chores such as cooking, cleaning and washing of clothes. More recent studies have also indicated that young, educated men in the urban areas are involved in carrying out domestic chores.

As the number of women who work outside the home increases, it appears that the traditional notions of gender practice in the household will no longer be feasible. Studying the current expectations of fathers in Ghana provides an opportunity to consider fathers’ potential appropriation of new norms and a chance to look at tensions arising between new fathering norms and dominant ideals of masculinity in non-Western contexts.

My own study is a contribution to the understanding of changing gender norms and practices in the household. I investigated current ways of being a man among young fathers in urban and rural areas. I spent 10 months conducting interviews, discussions and observations with fathers and mothers, community leaders and health workers in Accra and the Afram Plains.

I found that although being an involved father could spark tensions in the community for men, emergent masculinities are nonthreatening and do not make a notion of adult masculinity based on having biological children and the ability to provide for them disappear.

Ways of being a man

My study indicated three important ways of being a man among young fathers in Accra and the Afram Plains. First, marriage was a significant marker of adulthood for boys. Second, men are expected to provide for their partners in relationships. And thirdly, men are expected to have their own biological children. These expectations are similar to the traditional Ghanaian gender norms and practices that have been emphasised in much of the social science research.

But in addition to these cultural expectations, the men in my study expressed the view that it is important to lead the family in equal partnerships.

One father from the rural sample summarised this as follows:

In the olden days, they considered bride price a form of transaction so that men would treat the women with disrespect. Now, things have changed. We are all equal. We live in peace and respect both parties in the family.

Most men in both rural and urban sample also explained that treating your partner with respect and as an equal partner involved having all your children with her alone and not cheating on her.

The study also found that in both Accra and the Afram Plains, men were expected to participate in domestic chores like cooking, cleaning, fetching water and washing clothes. This was an unexpected finding, especially in the Afram Plains, because traditional gender practices have been associated more with rural areas than urban areas.

Most men in the Accra sample talked about spending time with their partners and children and their involvement in maternity and child welfare services. Although men in the village neither attended maternity care services nor talked about spending time with their partners and children, a few men were observed carrying their babies and taking them to the community healthcare facility.

Men might once have been mocked for doing “women’s work” like housework and childcare. But the study participants emphasised that the way they treated their partners at home and the kind of work they did for their families was a personal choice.

Emergent masculinities among Ghanaian fathers

The men in my study spoke of treating their partners as equal and sharing domestic responsibilities. These shifts in norms and practices in the household signal change in family life. As masculine ideals expand to include the flexibility to perform tasks that have been culturally reserved for women, traditional forms of family life that uphold the rule of the husband and father could be weakened.

These Ghanaian men show that manhood does not have to be toxic, violent or discriminatory. What fathers do for their partners and children opens new opportunities and ways of engaging boys and men to promote gender justice.

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