Why is it difficult to interview young fathers about fatherhood, and why is it important that we keep trying?

Francis Bravo
13 August 2019

Many researchers hesitate to share difficulties experienced in fieldwork in case the credibility of field teams or of the research findings is called into question. I believe that sharing our experiences will contribute to better research, and therefore benefit all those involved and invested in the research.

The idea for this blog came from two contrasting experiences I had as a researcher and fieldwork coordinator for two qualitative studies undertaken over the past year, with a group of young people from the Young Lives/Niños del Milenio sample in Peru.[1] The first, a study of young parenthood and marriage/cohabitation[2]; the second, a study of youth skills and transitions to the labour market.

Whereas we struggled to recruit young men into the young parenthood and marriage/cohabitation study (despite much effort and flexibility in approach), it was not a problem to involve young men in the work study. Such differing experiences made me realise the importance of finding ways to include young men’s voices in gender-sensitive research, especially on topics traditionally considered ‘feminine’.

Fieldwork challenges

The study about young marriage/cohabitation and parenthood tried, from the outset, to incorporate young women’s and young men’s experiences about the gender roles in these relationships. We did this through fieldwork involving interviews with male and female youth from three communities and by carrying out focus group discussions in each of the sites.

Although we knew that men's participation was very important, achieving this goal was a challenge for two reasons. Firstly, a practical barrier: due to the traditional gender roles in the communities, which demand that men more usually work outside the home, they had little time to be interviewed by researchers. Secondly, a cultural barrier: it is widely believed that marriage, cohabitation and parenthood are female concerns about which men have little to say.

I believe that one way to secure young men’s participation in research like this is to clearly communicate the research objectives, as well as to highlight the importance of having their points of view and voices on such a complex issue as this one in order to feed into policy discussions.

When we encountered some difficulties, many people in the three communities suggested that we offer young men small financial compensation for the interviews. We decided not to do this, because of the possible ethical implications. Instead, we were extremely flexible in our timing and locations the interviews. For example, we always told them that we could adapt our time to their schedules and free time.

However, this only worked with some of them. We continue to ask ourselves: How do we include more male voices regarding parenting and parenthood issues? I do not have a clear answer to this, but I think a good way to start is by making their voices more visible in discussions about teenage pregnancy, parenthood and sexual and reproductive health.

The value of young men’s voices

Despite the challenges, our interviews with young men showed that they have much to contribute to the debate about young marriage/cohabitation. For example, it is striking that they found cohabitation at 18 years old a challenge, especially as some young women are cohabitating as young as 14.

Although young men desired living together with their partners, they ideally wanted to do so once they had finished higher education. Yet, most of them were forced to start cohabitation due to unplanned pregnancies or family pressure, which also meant that some of them had to leave secondary school to assume new roles as partners and providers.

Arturo, a young man from Sullana, who regrets having started a relationship with his partner, was pressured by his partner’s father to start cohabitation, after having arrived late from a party: “Time passes by and I cannot continue to regret it. However, I wanted to study”. In Sullana, when a young woman does not arrive home after having gone to a party, her family assumes that she has been “robbed” (or escaped with her partner), because they both wanted to start cohabitation. 

Socially, men are expected to fulfill the role of providers and demonstrate that they can take care of a family. A young man from Pangoa told us: "Now that I am a father, I am learning how to be more responsible, how to get on well with my partner so that my daughter feels well (...) (I became more responsible) to economically support my family. I try that they do not miss anything. However, this can be tough for them, especially if they are young.

Similarly, women should take care of everything related to home and childcare, including sexual and reproductive healthcare. In that sense, men assume that responsibility for the use of contraceptive methods does not belong to them.

More committed fatherhood

Although the traditional gender roles in these communities are widely accepted, we found that some young men place great value in being more active and committed fathers. This finding challenges the assumptions widely held that young men don’t take responsibility for their families and children, or that they always have violent relationships with their partners.

Every young man we interviewed talked about the importance of good communication with their children, and, above all, to being committed to their upbringing. They expressed their desire to share more quality time with them. A young man from Sullana stated that a father ‘should relate well to his children and try to know more about them. He should be seen as a friendly figure not an authoritarian one’. Also, when asked if he would change any aspect of his relationship with his daughter, he said: "(...) spend more time with her.”

Why it’s important to keep trying?

We cannot give up on involving young men in studies like this. Although it is well-known that young marriage affects first and foremost young women, young men can also be negatively affected. A recent UNICEF global report reveals that around 115 million male adolescents and young men got married before the age of 18. Young marriage has been shown to negatively influence male adolescents’ schooling and employment chances because it is also associated with parenthood which as we have already seen, forces them to shoulder responsibilities they are not ready for.

Our study challenged notions of men’s roles in marriage/cohabitation; they can take responsibilities seriously, they want to spent more time with their children, they also feel pressured since fatherhood wasn’t necessarily what they would have chosen at the time. It is important to understand these perspectives and to put into place measures that would support young men in their transitions to parenthood.

It is also important to carry out more studies from a gender perspective, with the aim of gathering both young men’s and young women’s voices and experiences in order to have a more complete idea of these issues. In that sense, it is also important to note that while we find positive discourses that suggest certain changes regarding fatherhood and masculinities, we also found other cases in which violence is still present in relationships.

This is also particularly important in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), especially Goal 5, on gender equality and elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls. If we want to achieve these goals, men’s voices must also be included in order to rethink masculinities. If all the reflection on gender only takes women into account, then we cannot really talk about equality.

 

[1] Young Lives is a 15-year study of childhood poverty, in Peru known as Niños del Milenio.

[2] The research was carried out as part of the multi-country Young Marriage and Parenthood Study (YMAPS),a collaboration between Young Lives and Child Frontiers involving case studies from Ethiopia, India, Peru and Zambia, funded from 2017-2020 by IDRC.