In the Republic of Senegal, there is a strict tradition that dictates that men must only spend time with men and women with women. This arrangement is even upheld in the home, which makes pregnancy and parenthood difficult for couples to navigate.
Men who take their wives to medical appointments and are seen walking in the street with women are perceived as weak because pregnancy and childcare are deemed “women’s work”. On top of this, men who miss work to accompany their wives are punished, which does not encourage a supportive or nurturing mentality amongst fathers and fathers-to-be.
Instead of joining their wives through their pregnancy, men would hire a Bajenu Gox, or “godmother” in Wolof, the local language. The Bajenu Gox is a group of women, most of whom receive special training, who act as doulas and help guide women through motherhood. Traditionally, they do not work with men.
But some Senegalese men are revolutionizing the expectations of fathers and the role that they play within the family. Makhtar Aidar, a municipal councilor and gender equality activist in the capital city of Dakar, is one of the first Nijaayu Gox or “godfathers”.
The main goal of the Nijaayu Gox, a group made up of 54 participants, is to prepare men for fatherhood while cultivating stronger relationships within Senegalese families. The Nijaayu Gox recruit the most respected men in their communities to set an example that would be noticed by others. On a normal day, they have regular day jobs, then spend their free time going from house to house, speaking with men, and teaching them the value of trying to understand their wives’ experience by joining them on their medical appointments.
The Nijaayu Gox hope that harmful traditions that perpetuate gender inequality will eventually change. With that said, there is another significant issue that could be resolved through the work of this activist group. In Senegal, 315 women in every 100,000 die during childbirth, which is one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.
Science supports the fact that if men are involved in pregnancies, maternal mortality is reduced. Fathers who are prepared and well-informed about obstetric danger signs can recognize them and ultimately help prevent deaths.
The Nijaayu Gox are working to expand their network across Senegal and are also working with local governments and NGOs to educate as many people as possible. Men in the program are starting to shift their mentality as they overcome ignorance and see first-hand what pregnancy is like for women to go through.