Jorge Lyra, a trained psychologist, is cultivating a more active role for young fathers in Brazilian society. He hopes to increase men's access to networks of parent support services, which are typically reserved for new mothers. By promoting responsible fatherhood, Jorge intends to improve family healthcare significantly and ameliorate some of the problems associated with absentee parenthood.
The New Idea
Jorge offers young men the opportunity to learn about and reflect on their experiences as fathers, as well as to discuss the meaning of having a child, how to consider if they are prepared to do so, and different methods of contraception. His efforts are the first in Brazil to recognize that male participation in public and family health planning is absolutely fundamental to the prevention of adolescent pregnancy and the promotion of responsible, committed parenting.
By addressing the needs of young fathers through outreach, training workshops, and advocacy, Jorge also effectively addresses the needs of their children and partners. In addition to new services arranged through his network of healthcare professionals and child development specialists, Jorge helps adolescent fathers tap into valuable family services and public health resources. Through his initiative, Jorge is helping young men begin to formally participate in the process of childbirth and learn about their own bodies and reproductive rights, often for the first time.
The 1996 National Study of Demography and Health in Brazil showed that, since 1985, birthrates have decreased by about 30 percent among most of the country's population. However, the rate among Brazilians between 15 and 19 has steadily increased, marked by a total of 709,000 babies born to adolescent girls during that period. Although extensive data have been compiled on the sexual behavior and needs of teenage females, there has been no research on, or services provided to, teenage males in regard to parenthood and reproductive awareness.
Mainstream Brazilian society generally denies young men the information needed for responsible parenting. Schools, family health units, nongovernmental organizations, and public agencies focus entirely on the role of women in parenting, reenforcing the misconception that men are not responsible for pregnancy. Stereotypes concerning the role of fathers in raising children have also led to popular attitudes among teenage boys that although sex is socially acceptable, association with pregnant women and even their own children is not. In the rare cases where there is desire for male participation in such programs, there is no funding to carry it out. Although this belief is not condoned by the public sector, it prevents the allocation of funding to engage adolescent males in topics of reproductive health, family planning, and childcare, even when there is an interest.
Brazilian women's gradual shift in gender roles has not been matched with a similar shift among the roles for men, further contributing to absentee fatherhood and domestic abuse. As more women enter the workplace, unemployment rates continue to increase, particularly among uneducated young men who populate the unskilled labor force. When coupled with the traditional role of man as provider, unemployment leaves young men with a sense of disenfranchisement and devalued self-worth, causing family abandonment and increased violence in the home.
Jorge has developed and is expanding an array of activities directed, first and foremost, at young fathers. His program–Project to Support Fathers, or Papai (meaning "daddy" in Portuguese)–begins with a direct service component to engage young men and help them question their roles as fathers, companions, husbands, and sons. Jorge works with several hospitals' adolescent health programs to address themes of sex, reproduction, and responsible parenting. Services for expecting and current fathers include training in childbirth and childcare, in addition to an orientation to the available health, education, advocacy, and employment assistance for new parents. He is also conducting a pilot project to work with young fathers at the Recife Public Hospital and the Center for Adolescent Health. Jorge finds that, without exception, moral support is vital to the permanent engagement of young fathers in the lives of their children.
The second major component of Papai deals with reproductive health and the prevention of unwanted pregnancy. Jorge moderates discussions and group reflection activities about sexual health and diseases, sexual pleasure and desire, marriage and fatherhood, conception and pregnancy, and accountability–topics which are often prompted by films, visits to nurseries or daycare centers, and slide presentations. Based on his expertise in men's health and reproductive rights, he emphasizes both the importance of fatherhood and the value of preparation. He helps young men come to independent conclusions about their responsibilities to sexual partners and facilitates more open relationships with service providers, essentially dealing with the issue before it becomes a problem. Jorge presents his work to citizen and governmental forums and has built partnerships with the Brazilian Adolescent Health, Health of the Family, Community Health Agents, and One Health System programs. Moreover, he is working with several public schools to incorporate male body familiarity, reproductive wellness, and sexual education into health curricula, similar to that currently offered to female students.Cognizant of his mission to resituate young fathers within society at large, and not just within their own communities, Jorge's program includes projects directed at young mothers, health professionals, and adults. He has already mobilized the Integrated Movement of Professionals, the Adolescent Health Program, the Health of the Family Program, the Community Health Agents Program, hospital prenatal departments, the Orientation and Counseling Center, and governmental HIV and AIDS programs as partners in this endeavor, and he regularly hosts discussions and workshops for their participants. He also organizes lectures, trainings, and counseling sessions for the general public, targeting members of the military and health professionals for fatherhood education and inclusion services.
In order to work with the problems of absentee fatherhood and stimulate male participation in family development, Jorge is combating prejudice and misconceptions at their roots in healthcare institutions and community attitudes. He reaches out to hospital reproductive health departments to participate in workshops and discussion groups and offers professional consultation on how to better incorporate men into prenatal and postnatal care. A special marketing campaign uses various media to introduce new, more positive images of fatherhood and encourage community members to embrace young fathers and recommend sexually active adolescents for prevention programs. Jorge has also made his advertising resources available to the press in other countries as a first step toward international expansion.
Jorge became interested in the themes surrounding adolescent fatherhood well before he became a psychologist. As a youngster, he had positive traditional role models in his life, but still struggled with gender roles and society's perception of the male-female dynamic, particularly in the home. He found early success in jobs that involved working with children, first as a clown performing at parties and later as the only male teacher at an elementary school. However, peers questioned his masculinity and encouraged him to pursue more manly careers. Jorge studied air-conditioner repair but failed miserably, as he was not interested in simply fulfilling stereotypes.
He decided to pursue a degree in psychology and delved deeper into the field of child development. In 1993, while completing an internship in child psychotherapy, Jorge first came into contact with children of adolescent parents. He requested interviews with these parents, already adults by this point, and was struck by the fathers' misinformation about, and tension caused by, family responsibilities. Jorge won an academic scholarship to conduct a formal study on the topic of paternity and its implications for the identities of young fathers. While working on his social psychology master's thesis in São Paulo in 1997, Jorge found that little research had been performed on the topic of adolescent fatherhood and that there were no programs addressing it. Committed to the development of a program dealing with this major issue, Jorge won a MacArthur Foundation grant and put his master's thesis conclusions into practice as Papai. After only four years, Jorge's innovation has begun to change the way young men view their role as parents and partners and is creating a more welcoming place for fathers within their communities around Brazil.