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Strengthening fatherhood abroad

As other countries seek ways to help fathers, some, like England, are borrowing ideas from fatherhood groups in the United States. Others, such as South Africa, are looking for broader ways to support families in a variety of forms.

In the northeast part of England, unemployment for men has increased as traditional industries - coal mining, ship building, and steel production - have declined. New industries, such as service jobs, offer opportunities for women but not men. As a result, more men are at home, becoming involved in caring for their children.

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But what hasn't yet changed enough, family advocates find, are the attitudes of agencies serving these families.

"There is this tendency to think it's only the mum you need to talk to," says Joy Higginson, director of Children North East in Newcastle, England. "They don't take many steps to be sure fathers are engaged in their children's care."

Ms. Higginson herself is involved in a three-year-old project called Fathers Plus, designed to encourage men to improve their skills as fathers. Similarly, a program in London, Boys2Men, works with young black men to prepare them for fatherhood. It is the first of its kind in England.

"A major shift in attitudes is coming," Higginson says. "I can see signs of that which are very positive. People are ready to hear the message."

In South Africa, no fatherhood movement exists. Rather, Nazeema Ahmed of Capetown, who works with Parliament on issues involving children and families, thinks the emphasis needs to be on helping vulnerable families. "My premise is that if you strengthen families, you indisputably support fathers," she says.

Many families were weakened by a system of migrant labor that removed men from their homes to work in distant mines and cities. A system of pass laws, established in the 1950s, forced men to carry passes. The government refused to issue them to women.

"They could not join their husbands," Ms. Ahmed says. "There was a deliberate and systematic separation and alienation of fathers from their families." Many men established new, out-of-wedlock families where they were working. They lost touch with their wives and children back home.

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Although pass laws were abolished in 1986, the traditional family form promoted by the American fatherhood movement - "a mom and a dad and kids" - is still not a reality in South Africa. Children, Ahmed says, live in multi-generational households, single-parent households, and, because of AIDS, even child-headed households.

"For us to argue fatherhood involvement, when there may not be a dad around, is a little short-sighted," she says. "Policies need to be able to take into account those diverse family formations. We need an acknowledgment of families in whatever form they may be."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society