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Mr. Amadou Tanimoune is a 45-year-old farmer living in Badifa, Niger, a village of 1,550 people located east of the capital of Niamey. Badifa’s population is primarily from the Arawa Hausa ethnic group, and most make their living by farming and raising livestock. 

Tanimoune and his wife, Ahi, aged 33, have five children. Women like Ahi face many challenges in ensuring the health and well-being of their families. Food insecurity is common, making efforts to keep children properly nourished a daily struggle.

This is why Helen Keller International is sending husbands to school. When men have an opportunity to learn why taking an active role in their homes is so important, they soon see how their increased involvement has many positive outcomes for their families. Through lessons about family planning, hygiene, nutrition and health, fathers learn how to support the needs of their wives and children. And when they advocate among their peers, it creates a ripple of change that often sweeps through entire communities.

Tanimoune is well-known in Badifa and surrounding communities for his efforts to make Ahi’s life easier. Even before joining the husband school, Tanimoune swept his courtyard, fetched water, occasionally cooked, and undertook other tasks to support his wife. But the husband school increased his knowledge about the health benefits of exclusive breastfeeding, improved hygiene, and family planning and birth spacing. Now, he is educating his peers and encouraging them to make decisions jointly with their wives, as he and Ahi do.

Niger ranks 187 out of 188 countries (for which data are available) on the United Nations Human Development Index and near the bottom of the Gender Inequality Index. It has the highest fertility rate in the world, with women of reproductive age experiencing 7 pregnancies on average. Poverty, inadequate birth spacing, malnutrition, food insecurity, and cultural imperatives like child marriage all play a role in high rates of maternal and child mortality. Most women in Niger lack running water and household appliances, and they must spend hours each day fetching water and firewood.

The demands on women’s time, combined with the effects of gender inequity, often result in poor conditions for promoting children’s health and growth. Considering that the quality of children’s earliest nutrition lays the foundation for their futures, their first thousand days comprise a period of great opportunity — and great vulnerability. Many pregnant or lactating mothers and their children lack proper nutrition and do not have adequate knowledge about key nutrition and hygiene practices, such as exclusive breastfeeding up to six months of age or handwashing before preparing meals.

Husband schools increase the chance of a family’s success in raising healthy, well-nourished children. In Niger, Helen Keller International’s efforts are promoting the adoption of a range of positive behaviors in fathers, thanks to generous support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation. We train our field agents and government health workers to provide essential nutrition and hygiene interventions. These workers, in turn, pass this vital knowledge on to the members of the husband schools and provide regular support to facilitate the men’s successes.

Our approach relies on building a cadre of ten husbands per village who model best practices and advocate for maternal and child health. These men are chosen on the basis on their good standing in the community, their willingness and work ethic, and their leadership ability. Given cultural misgivings about family planning, some husband schools also include local religious leaders. To facilitate conversation and adoption in as many households as possible, the learnings in men’s groups complement those provided in women’s groups. Husband schools can even become a nexus of social capital and collective action, promoting good deeds around the community such as repairing health center buildings, putting up shaded enclosures to protect sick people and their companions, constructing latrines, and safely disposing of medical waste, among other things.

Tanimoune’s ten-month-old daughter Cherifa is the first of his children to be exclusively breastfed for the first six months. She is cheerful, doesn’t cry, and is healthier than his older children were at the same age. “My other kids never went more than 40 days without having to go to the clinic,” he says. Thanks to Tanimoune’s example and advocacy, other men in the village are promoting exclusive breastfeeding, family planning, and better health practices.

With continued high rates of poverty and population growth, much remains to be done to improve the health and quality of life for women and children in Niger. Sustainable improvements depend on the buy-in of men, and husband schools are proving to be an exciting innovation — giving women vital support for ensuring their families’ health.