By Sinéad Nolan

Carpenter and father Petter Westerlund, 27, says
he and his partner equally shared parental leave to
care for their son Philemon.

Matts Berggren is a pioneer in Sweden’s fathers’ group movement, and a staff member at Men for Gender Equality Sweden. He recently talked about the history of the country’s fathering groups, their expansion around the globe, and the current challenges they face.

In Sweden, PappaGrupp (fathering groups) encourage men to be more active during their partner’s pregnancy, as well as during the birth, and afterward involved in childcare. The male-only classes were started a quarter century agoby Swedish men who recognized that most men were not attending prebirth classes and decided to do something about it. “We found that there was an information gap between men and women in terms of knowledge and preparation for parenthood,” Berggren explained, “and that men felt either excluded by traditional classes targeted at women, or were unable to freely express their concerns in the traditionally female setting of maternity centers.”

Fathers’ groups are facilitated by male psychologists in collaboration with staff at local health centers and midwives, and bring together groups of new and expectant fathers to learn about childcare, and to share their experiences of fatherhood with one another. They seek to highlight how important involved fatherhood is for children, strengthen partner relationships, reduce fathers’ feelings of exclusion, prevent fathers’ postpartum depression, and communicate to men the broader benefits of gender equality. “It’s important that these groups are male-only spaces, as they allow men to open up and speak freely. However, we give men homework assignments in which they discuss what they learned in class with their partners. This way we ensure that women’s voices are heard.”

Berggren has been working with fathering groups since the 1990s. His program Dads for Real ran in seven municipalities in Sweden between 2002 and 2007, and was the first to have broader gender equality objectives. An evaluation of the program showed positive effects on the health and well-being of fathers, mothers and children. Participants reported closer connection to their children and partners, were more likely to take parental leave, had more gender egalitarian attitudes and were less likely to engage in violence, Berggren reported. “The program is unique in the sense that we do not tell fathers-to-be how they should live, act, and build their life and relations. Instead of lectures we engage men in discussions, offering open-ended workshop topics so they can draw their own conclusions on how best to be closer to their child and improve family climate.”

Since their inception, the groups have become an integral part of parental training within Sweden’s national mother and child healthcare system. A lot has changed over the last 25 years in Sweden, thanks in part to the work of the fathering groups. New parents have come to expect there will be activities available for both women and men in health centers. Because of the demand from so many men, maternity centers around the country are approaching Berggren’s organization, Men for Gender Equality, to collaborate.

However, despite positive evaluations, and the growing demand, securing government funding remains a challenge. “Even though we have a progressive government in Sweden, it can be hard to get funding locally. In some municipalities, the work is government funded but in others we rely on volunteers. We can’t keep up with the demand.” In some regions, he said, despite operating fathering groups for years, they are closing. “We have to continue advocating for institutionalizing our approach so that it is sustainable.”

Sweden’s fathering groups have been replicated, inspiring similar programs around the world. Berggren and Men for Gender Equality Sweden have provided guidance and capacity building to emerging fathers’ groups in Russia, Belarus and Botswana, among other countries. “I’ve trained hundreds of facilitators and I’ve met over 5,000 fathers around the world,” Berggren said, noting that while “in every country the context is different, we have similar results in all cases.” The success of their approach was a major source of inspiration for the global MenCare campaign, a fatherhood initiative active in more than 40 countries across five continents that promotes men’s active, equitable and nonviolent involvement as fathers and caregivers.

“Most men know they want to take part in caregiving, but [if] their own father didn’t they have no role model at home,” Berggren explained. “Most men get confirmation for what they are thinking and feeling by meeting others in the same situation. These days, fathers can find all the information they need on the Internet but it means more coming from others who have gone through the same experience.”

He says fathering groups are “such a great way to reach men and open up a conversation not only about fatherhood but about gender equality more generally. People are talking about reaching gender equality in Sweden in 40 years,” Berggren said, “but it is still only women talking about it. We need to get more men talking about gender equality and what’s in it for them. There’s still a long journey ahead of us if we want to truly transform gender norms.”