Historically, women in West Africa have not had a voice. Men decide if their wife or wives can use birth control or have access to money; fathers decide if their daughters stay home from school, marry young, or undergo female genital mutilation. Typically, the outcomes of these decisions tend not to benefit the women.
But some of that is changing now, thanks to an initiative called Husband School. In 2007, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) launched its École Des Maris (literally, the school for husbands) program in Niger as a means of educating men on all things gender equality. A Husband School is formed when UNFPA representatives and community leaders convene with village chiefs to identify eight to 10 “model husbands” — respected men within the village who have the willingness, drive, and progressive point of view required to learn about modern-day practices like family planning, birth spacing, and discontinuation of domestic abuse. After participating in an initial three-day training program, where they learn about reproductive and maternal health, gender equality, genital mutilation and cutting, and other issues that adversely affect women and girls, the model husbands gather weekly, with each session led by a coach and devoted to a different topic. They then return to their community, where they spread the word in an effort to bring other men on board and, ideally, spearhead real change in the arenas of maternal, infant, and women’s health.
There are now more than 1200 Husband Schools in session across West Africa, with most villages seeing promising results. For instance, after the Maiki School for Husbands was established in Niger in 2011, the number of women receiving prenatal consultations (an important marker of women's health) jumped 95% in less than a year; model husbands also secured housing for a local midwife.
In Côte d’Ivoire, which has an extremely high rate of maternal mortality (645 women out of 100,000 live births will die in or as a result of childbirth — that’s one woman dying every two hours) and infant mortality (67 out of 1000 live births), maternal death rates in the rural village of Toumodi have reportedly dropped since its Husband School opened: Record-keeping and reporting methods in rural areas like Toumodi can be unreliable, but one local health official estimates that in the first half of 2016, two women in Toumodi died during or as a result of childbirth, compared with nine who perished within the same time frame last year. “We’ve even seen model husbands escorting women [who are not even related to them] to clinics,” says Doris Bartel, Senior Director of Gender Empowerment for CARE, a global nonprofit dedicated to fighting poverty through gender equality, which routinely partners with UNFPA on global-health initiatives. “So women and men throughout the community, regardless of who they are married to, all benefit from the engagement of men and boys becoming champions for women’s health.”
In May, the members of Toumodi’s Husband School invited me to visit and participate in a session. Read on for a few of their encouraging stories.