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Fathers/Incarcerated fathers

Last edited: October 30, 2010

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Why does fatherhood present an important window of opportunity to address gender norms and violence prevention?

  • Fatherhood is a good entry point for men who may feel threatened by a discussion on violence, sexuality, alcohol or other topics considered ‘taboo’ (de Keijzer 2004).
  • In many countries, ‘fatherhood’ is seen as a socially desirable role for men.
  • Young men and women who become parents as teens or young adults may be particularly vulnerable to relationship violence.
  • Having a child and being involved in their care has been identified as a motivating factor for young men to leave gangs or abandon a variety of delinquent behaviours (Achtaz & MacAllum, 1994; Barker, 1998).
  • Sharing in childcare may be a good point of intervention to promote equitable relationships, allowing for a discussion about authority and negotiation, domestic work, discipline and violence, emotions, etc. (de Keijzer 2004).
  • By seeing or anticipating the effect of gender inequity on their daughters, men may begin to care about these issues, such as sexual harassment or violence that did not concern them before.
  • Positive parenting and home environments free from intimate-partner violence are crucial to the development of positive skills in children that facilitate healthy relationships (Harvey et al., 2007).


Lessons learned about fatherhood programmes and gender equity

Many fatherhood programmes do not promote gender equality

Notwithstanding the importance of father’s groups, it is important to recognize that some initiatives in this area may do little to promote gender equality. For instance, some father’s rights groups may be composed of divorced or separated fathers seeking greater visitation rights who may, in fact, abide by traditional notions of fatherhood and family structure. Others may be born of men’s genuine interest in maintaining a closer relationship with their children, but may not do much to promote gender equality. Clearly those programmes with fathers which promote greater gender equality through shared engagement in child care, child support and domestic chores are better poised to contribute to violence prevention.

Men in fatherhood programmes may also be perpetrating abuse or have a history of abuse. Fatherhood programmes, should at a minimum provide information and referrals to assist men to stop their abusive behaviour.

Guiding Principles for Fathering After Violence

  • The safety of women and children is always the first priority. Interventions must be continually informed and guided by the experiences of battered women and their children.
  • Automatic contact between the offending fathers and their children or parenting partners should not be endorsed or encouraged.
  • In any domestic violence intervention, there must be critical awareness of the cultural context in which parenting happens.
  • Abuse is a deliberate choice and a learned behaviour and therefore can be unlearned. Some men choose to change their abusive behaviour and heal their relationships; others continue to choose violence.
  • Fathers who have used violence need close observation to mitigate unintended harm.
  • Service coordination among providers of domestic violence services is essential.
  • The reparative process between abusive fathers and their children often is long and complex and is not appropriate for all men

Adapted from Family Violence Prevention Fund.

Integrate relationship issues, including domestic violence, into existing programmes working with young parents

  • Home visitation programmes may be an important entry point to increase men’s involvement in parenting and to address issues of violence, particularly intimate partner violence and child abuse. Evidence from randomized controlled trials of home visitation programmes (where they exist), for instance, show that such programmes can lead to:
  • Decreased corporal punishment
  • Improved parent-child interaction
  • Improved emotional support by parents
  • Decreased number of emergency room visits for children, and reduced verified cases of child abuse and neglect (Harvey et al., 2007)
  • Programmes that provide links to education and employment may be especially promising targets for violence prevention messages because young mothers and fathers may also have limited education and tenuous attachments to work, both are known risk factors (Rosewater 2003).

Reach out to marginalized youth and men, including incarcerated fathers

Programmes that target very vulnerable groups, such as young men who are incarcerated and are returning to the community and young fathers who are disconnected from their children may be particularly effective (Rosewater 2003). Such programmes are relatively recent, and therefore rigorous evaluations are not available, but most seem to address domestic violence indirectly by inviting young men and fathers to help shape the lives of their children. This approach seems to engender a positive response by enabling young men to see a role for themselves with their children (Rosewater 2003).


Examples of initiatives that have used fatherhood as an entry point to discuss gender norms

PAPAI (Brazil) works with young fathers to challenge traditional views of manhood, stressing, for instance, that taking care of others (a partner or children) can be compatible with being a man. It also has a special programme for young fathers called the Brazilian Adolescent Father’s Support Programme which supports teenagers who are already parents. See the case study in English.
Salud y Género (Mexico) has found that talking about fatherhood is a good entry point for men who might feel threatened by topics such as violence, sexuality or alcohol. See the case study in English.

 Fatherhood Project (South Africa) promotes positive images of men as fathers, and fosters a policy and programmatic environment that favours men’s involvement with their children. It does this by implementing a travelling photo exhibition with images that reveal the possibilities and challenges of men’s closer involvement with their children. For more information see the website.

Baby Makes 3 – promoting safety and wellbeing among new families (Australia). This family violence prevention project targeting first-time fathers seeks to promote safety and wellbeing among new families. Funded by the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, it is a project that aims to identify the means by which first-time fathers can be supported in acting respectfully, responsibly and in non-violent ways through the various phases of starting a family, and ultimately, to develop and implement these strategies. Baby Makes 3 is a collaborative project, building on existing partnerships between health and family violence services.  See the case study in English.
Fathering After Violence (Family Violence Prevention Fund,USA). This national initiative developed with partners aims to enhance the safety and well-being of women and children by motivating men to renounce violence and become better fathers (or father figures) and more supportive parenting partners. Starting in 2002, the FVPF partnered with three Boston-based batterer intervention programmes, a coordinated community response organization and a programme with child witnesses to violence. Together the group produced curriculum guidelines and bi-lingual tools (see the tools section below) for batterer intervention programmes; public policy recommendations for working with men and boys; and a monograph for child mental health practitioners on considerations in working with fathers. This initiative also produced guiding principles for working with abusive fathers. See the full description of the programme in English.
Active Fatherhood (‘Paternidad Activa’), (CIDE, Chile ) is a curriculum with group educational sessions that engage men and social service professionals in discussions about the roles of fathers. The curriculum has the objective of promoting the rights and responsibilities of fathers in providing care for and raising their children. The group educational activities promote, among other things, a reflection about the participants’ own relationships with their fathers, recognizing that both social service staff and men themselves generally need to think about their own attitudes about fatherhood before they can engage others on the issue, or consider their own roles as fathers. While the training sessions were initially directed to men, in practice the majority of participants (staff from NGO and governmental social service agencies) have been women. Rather than seeing this as a failure, CIDE staff acknowledge the importance of engaging women on the issue of fatherhood, recognizing their important roles as gatekeepers to men’s participation as fathers, whether as mothers, partners of men, teachers, child care providers or social service staff. See the facilitators manual and participant's folder in Spanish.

Why is it important to work with incarcerated fathers?

The growing population of imprisoned men in some countries has a direct influence on fatherhood as many incarcerated men have children. Many incarcerated men have also been exposed to violence, both before and during their time in prison, making this an important entry point in addressing both fatherhood and issues of abuse.

Initiatives working with incarcerated fathers

National Organisation for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (NOPCAN, Belize), provides parenting courses for incarcerated men.  More information is available from the website.   

Tools for working with fathers:

OneManCan…Be a Father Figure - Action Sheet for Fathers and Mentors. Developed for fathers to teach boys early and often to respect women and girls.  The action sheet is availabel in Afrikaans, English, French, Xhlosa and Zulu.

Roots of Equality: Tip Sheet for Parents (Springtide Resources, Canada ). This 2-page brochure provides concrete actions that fathers and mothers can take to help their children build positive, healthy friendships, including dating relationships free from violence. The brochure is available in English, Arabic, Chinese, French Punjabi, Russian, Somali, Spanish and Tamil.

Active Parenting Manual for Facilitators (‘Paternidad Activa Manual para Monitores/as’). By Francisca Morales, Sabine Romero y Francisco Aguayo. The facilitators manual and the participant's folder are available in Spanish.

Fathering after Violence: Working with Abusive Fathers in Supervised Visitation (Family Violence Prevention Fund,US ). This guide is intended to assist the grantees of the Safe Havens: Supervised Visitation and Safe Exchange Grant Program (Supervised Visitation Program) that want to enhance the safety and well-being of women and children by working more deliberately with abusive fathers who use the centres to visit their children. This document was designed to target, in particular, visiting fathers who have been violent with their intimate partners. This guide is grounded on two key premises: Men who use violence can be held accountable for their behaviour and simultaneously be encouraged to change it; and women and children can benefit from this approach. The guide is available in English.

Something my Father Would Do (Family Violence Prevention Fund, US). This 15-minute documentary shows the stories of three men from different cultures who grew up with abusive fathers and had to grapple with their own choices as intimate partners and fathers. Though originally designed for use in supervised visitation centres, it can be effectively used in batterer intervention and fatherhood groups, as well as in workshops and community meetings to discuss issues of family violence and fatherhood. Suggested questions to lead a discussion are included. There are three companion posters, in Spanish and English, which invite fathers to think about their legacy to their children with engaging multi-cultural images and open-ended questions, such as: “You are a role model to your children. Is there anything you would like to change?”

Free copies of the DVD and posters are available for purchase.