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Engaging fathers vital for gender equality

By Justine Coulson | China Daily | Updated: 2023-07-12 06:43


Earlier this year, the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, highlighted that with the roll-back on progress in women's and girls' rights seen across the world, it will take another 300 years to achieve gender equality if this negative trend is not reversed. Gender inequality continues to hinder women's access to health, education, economic opportunities and leadership roles. Globally, women's and girls' sexual and reproductive health and rights continue to be undermined with one woman dying every two minutes due to pregnancy or childbirth, a third of all women experiencing intimate partner and/or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime and more than 40 percent of women being denied the right to make decisions about their own sexual and reproductive health. And, as the world's population grows older, evidence shows that the impact of gender inequality accumulates over a woman's life, leaving her more likely to face ill health and poverty in old age than her male counterpart.

The theme of this year's World Population Day is Unleashing the power of gender equality: Uplifting the voices of women and girls to unlock our world's infinite possibilities. UNFPA is drawing attention to the importance of gender equality not only to improve the wellbeing and uphold the rights of individual women and girls, but also to accelerate the achievement of the prosperous, peaceful and sustainable future envisioned by the International Conference on Population and Development and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Women and girls make up half of the world's 8 billion population and when they are empowered to exert autonomy over their lives and bodies, they and their families thrive leading to more inclusive, resilient, developed societies.

For countries, such as China, that are grappling with low fertility and aging, advancing gender equality is an important investment when responding to shifting population dynamics. In aging societies where declining labour productivity is a concern, achieving gender parity in the workforce is one of the most effective ways to improve output and income growth; the World Bank estimates that by closing the gender pay gap, countries can achieve a 20 percent increase in GDP per capita.

In contexts of low fertility, gender inequality can influence a woman's decision to have no or fewer children as women take on a larger share of unpaid domestic work and childcare at home, whilst also experiencing a loss of earnings and career progression as working mothers. Globally, women are responsible for over 70 percent of unpaid care work, and in China only 7.5 percent of families have parents who jointly take care of their children and almost 70 percent of homework guidance is undertaken by mothers. When women return to work after maternity leave, research shows that their pay permanently falls behind that of men and women who did not take time away from work which contributes to a lifetime gender inequality in earnings.

While advancing gender equality starts by listening to the voices of women and girls and introducing laws and policies that enable them to exert their rights and make meaningful choices, it also requires the engagement of men and boys as partners and allies. Notably, in the context of low fertility, a number of studies in Asia and Europe have shown that when men take on a more equal share of unpaid domestic work and childcare, women are more likely to consider having children.

To change social norms to support gender equality, it is important to purposely change what boys and girls experience around them. Studies have shown that when boys see their fathers engaged as full partners in domestic work and childcare, they are more likely to contribute a more equal share of unpaid care work within the household. For girls, when they see their fathers taking on a greater share of unpaid work within the home, they are more likely to work outside the home and to take up jobs that challenge traditional gender stereotypes.

To achieve a sustained gender norm change at the national level, the structural factors that influence the value of care in society need to be transformed. Governments, employers, civil society, and media should promote a cultural shift towards recognizing the valuable contribution unpaid domestic work and childcare makes to socio-economic development and challenging the belief that unpaid domestic work and childcare is exclusively the responsibility of women. Family support policies can encourage more engagement in childcare by fathers by extending equal benefits and flexibility to both parents. For example, a "use it or lose it" longer parental leave has been introduced in some countries, specifically targeting fathers. This supports a norm of equal parenting responsibility for mothers and fathers, enables women to take less time away from their careers, and addresses negative perceptions of maternity leave, while still ensuring babies benefit from close parental care.

The education sector also has an important role to play in achieving gender norm change. When boys are engaged in comprehensive sexuality education in a way that destigmatizes women's sexual and reproductive health, challenges harmful practices and supports gender equality, they are more likely to support women's and girls' autonomy and choices in the future. Parenting programs specifically targeted at men can provide new fathers with a safe space to discuss their challenges and develop greater confidence in positive engagement with their children.

And men should be aware that advancing gender equality doesn't just offer benefits for women and girls. Traditional gender norms restrict masculine role models, while greater gender equality can open up a wider choice of roles and positive behaviours for men. For example, evidence shows that when men adopt non-violent and more gender-equitable norms and practices, it is not just their female partners who are happier in the relationship as the men also experience an increase in health and happiness.

In order to unlock the full potential of women and girls by enabling them to realise their aspirations for their lives, their families and their careers, we must engage men and boys. By advancing gender equality, we can harness the creativity, ingenuity, resources and power of half the planet's population to address demographic and other challenges that threaten our future, including climate change and conflict.

The author is representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in China. The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

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