Bogotá’s Care School for Men empowers fathers to embrace caregiving | The Optimist Daily
Today’s Solutions: July 19, 2024

BY THE OPTIMIST DAILY EDITORIAL STAFF

A remarkable scene plays out at Bogotá’s Sanitas University when a select group of young men congregate for an unusual class. They all grab a plastic doll, rash cream, and diapers. Felipe Contreras, their instructor, leads them through a routine that is unfamiliar to many: naming the dolls, wiping their bottoms, changing their diapers, applying rash ointment, and gently cradling the dolls while supporting their heads.

This is the Care School for Men, an innovative initiative launched by the city of Bogotá to teach men how to actively assist in housework and childcare. The program attempts to break long-held gender conventions by teaching men practical skills such as changing diapers and styling ponytails. While some of the students in this program are medical students, the majority are simply fathers who want to do more for their children.

Tackling gender inequality

The Care School for Men, the first of its kind in Colombia, addresses one of the most persistent features of gender inequality: women bear a disproportionate share of the unpaid caregiving load. According to the International Labour Organization, women worldwide provide three-quarters of all unpaid care. According to a 2017 research by Colombia’s national statistics agency, women in Bogotá spend an average of five and a half hours per day on unpaid work, more than twice as much as men.

This discrepancy affects women’s opportunities for paid employment, education, and self-care, contributing to higher female poverty rates, according to a study published in the Journal of Global Health. Despite the increasing number of women joining the workforce and earning higher wages, cultural expectations of men and women remain greatly unchanged. “Cultural beliefs dictate that women are naturally better suited to housework and caregiving, while men are better suited to paid work outside the home,” explains Juan David Cortés, strategy leader at the Care School for Men.

A fresh approach to caregiving

The Care School concept arose during the COVID-19 epidemic, when many mothers, who were the primary caregivers, became ill or died, leaving their male partners to assume household tasks. The city got distressed calls from men who expressed their anguish and frustration at being unable to care for their children. “They called with the pain of losing their partners but also with frustration at being unable to take care of their children,” Cortés shares.

Recognizing the need for a solution, the Care School opened in 2021 to teach men fundamental caring and domestic skills, increasing their confidence along the way. The free one-day lessons teach practical skills such as diaper changing and hair styling on dolls and mannequins. Longer classes, lasting six to eight sessions, include courses on cleaning bathrooms, ironing clothes, and dishwashing. These practical lessons are supplemented by discussions about challenging gender stereotypes and traditional masculinity. “Something fundamental that we talk about in the program is that there are diverse ways of being men, without having to fulfill expectations,” Cortés reflects.

A global trend

The Care School is part of a larger global movement. For more than four decades, NGOs in the United States have provided training to help men transition to parenthood, and this model has spread to other countries. Equimundo, a research center dedicated to gender equality, discovered that such programs effectively change men’s views and behaviors about childcare.

The Care School expands on this model by accepting men of all ages to be caretakers and by being city-run, which broadens its reach. Since its beginning, the city has invested the equivalent of $500,000 in the program. Initially, enrollment was minimal, but it has since increased dramatically. To date, 7,300 men have taken in-person workshops, 50,000 have finished the online version, and 160,000 have watched the city’s video series about caregiving.

Engaging and fun

Partnerships with private organizations have been critical to the program’s success, with classes delivered to colleges, companies, community centers, and even jails. Another important consideration is the program’s messaging. Instead of portraying caregiving as a burdensome task, the Care School promotes it as “educational and fun,” making the lessons appealing and engaging.

To encourage more family involvement, young male teachers at Sanitas University gave away prizes such as aprons, cleaning supplies, and reusable grocery bags during a recent session. The mood was cheerful, with students joking and teasing one another as they acquired new abilities. “Be careful,” Contreras joked with a student who was lifting a doll by its wrist. “If you hold the baby by the arm, its arm is going to fall off.”

Contreras reassured the students that it is acceptable to struggle with new tasks, pointing out that many men are in the same position. The program emphasizes the broader benefits of caregiving for men and their families. “[We’re] viewing this as an opportunity to not only minimize gender gaps but also to enhance connections with our partners, with our families,” Cortés explains.”

A father’s metamorphosis

Ferley Sáenz, the 40-year-old coordinator of Bogotá’s transportation system, exemplifies the program’s effectiveness. Initially joining the Care School to alleviate stress, Sáenz became involved in conversations about caregiving and masculinity. As a husband and father of two, Sáenz revealed that his wife handled the majority of the childcare and housework while he spent much of his time at work or socializing.

The problem worsened when his eldest kid, Martin, began to withdraw from him, wailing anytime his mother left them alone. Their relationship deteriorated to the point where Sáenz could no longer feed, play with, or drop Martin off at daycare without his wife present. “I felt like a stranger in my own home,” Sáenz explains.

The Care School persuaded Sáenz that restoring his relationship with his son necessitated taking a more active role at home. Since completing the program, Sáenz has focused on becoming a better father. He now assists Martin with his homework, attends parent-teacher meetings, and looks after the children for a few hours on weekends, providing his wife with much-needed relaxation. “Spending quality time with [my children] and engaging in their development and learning process has brought us closer. “My eldest son tells me about his day at school, which he never did before,” Sáenz adds. “It’s an incredible feeling.”

Aiming for social change

While individual success stories like Sáenz’s are encouraging, Cortés recognizes that changing social attitudes on caregiving will take time. Over the following six years, he hopes to reach 40 percent of Bogotá’s male population, a considerable increase from the present enrollment rate of under one percent.

“This is like growing a bamboo plant. We are only now sowing the seed,” Cortés says. The program has gotten backing from Bogotá’s new mayor, Carlos Galán, who has promised to promote gender equality and caregiving initiatives.

Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at New America, a nonpartisan think tank, underlines the significance of such projects. “If the men who go through these classes become more equal partners in their families, that’s a success on a private level,” says Schulte. “If you want to go to scale and you want to see more families and make a difference in gender equality, then you absolutely have to follow that with public policy and workplace culture change.”

To attract additional participants, the Care School organizes pop-up sessions, such as the one at Sanitas University. Luis Rodríguez, a 17-year-old medical student, attended a lesson with the encouragement of friends. Rodríguez had never considered his mother’s workload until he began Care School activities. As he dressed a mannequin’s hair, he noticed how many responsibilities his mother had to deal with on a daily basis.

Rodríguez’s increasing understanding motivated him to take on additional obligations at home. “It looked really, really good, the way my mom does it,” he says of his first successful ponytail. He is now keen to understand what more he can give.

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