The role of fathers in their families and in their children’s development is often underestimated and marked by cultural attitudes and socio-economic factors. In Albania, SOS Children’s Villages has seen the need to actively reach out to fathers to strengthen their involvement in their families and their children’s development and has been working with men in so-called Fathers’ Clubs.
“All our work is ultimately aimed at the children’s well-being,” says Julian Uka, SOS social worker and family strengthening coordinator in Tirana. “But you cannot make a significant change if you only focus on the children, you also have to bring about change in the parents.”
SOS Children’s Villages Albania has been working with families in vulnerable circumstances since 2004, supporting them so they can give their children the best possible care and protection.
When Julian started working with the families in 2008, he soon realised that the fathers did not take on a very active role in their children’s upbringing and development.
“I immediately saw that fathers were under-represented in the workshops, counselling sessions and overall support we provide for families,” he says. “That’s why we began designing a special programme to motivate fathers to take on a more active role in the lives of their children and families.”
Although often underrated, fathers have a direct impact on their children’s well-being, including their cognitive abilities, educational achievements, their psychological well-being and social behaviour, he explains.
“The relationship between fathers and mothers directly affects the behaviour of children, who see them as role models.”
New perspective on the role of fathers
The first Fathers’ Club was launched in 2010. Initially, some groundwork had to be done to overcome preconceptions and stereotypes the men had about the role of fathers in their families.
“The men are usually the dominant figure in the family and take on the role of the breadwinner. Working on your soft skills can be perceived as a weakness,” Julian explains.
Through intensive outreach efforts, including visiting fathers at home, the SOS team started building a relationship with the fathers and collected information about what kind of support they would need and how they could be motivated to engage more actively.
As many of the fathers whose families are enrolled in family strengthening have a low level of education and struggle to find employment and earn an income, employability support was one of the first topics addressed in the Fathers’ Club. The participants received training on how to write their application documents and how to present themselves in job interviews.
“The response was very positive,” Julian says. “The fathers said that no one had ever offered them such training. They felt respected, they were genuinely satisfied, and they were eager for more.”
Breaking the vicious cycle
Poverty and unemployment can lead to a number of problems such as fathers having poor relationships with their wives and children, depression, abuse and addictions, explains Julian.
“It’s a vicious circle in which most parents grew up, but we are here to break this cycle,” he says.
Julian Uka has worked with fathers to strengthen their involvement in their children's upbringing.
This is why the SOS family strengthening programme offers holistic support, including psychological counselling. But at the beginning, the fathers considered such sessions a weakness. Seeing the benefits, their reservations gradually faded.
“We have now reached a stage where the fathers no longer consider psychological counselling a taboo. They see it as a means to improve the lives of their families,” Julian says.
Over the last few years, the Fathers’ Club has led to visible changes in the families. The fathers now take their children to activities such as speech therapy, educational activities or psychological sessions and are more involved in their lives.
“Before participating in the family strengthening programme and being active in the Fathers’ Club, I thought that child education is typically something that women must be responsible for. I understood that was wrong,” says one of the fathers.
“I’m happy that my son will have better models in life. This is a result of what I have learned through the Fathers’ Club,” another participant says.
In addition, the Fathers’ Club has created a network between the participants, which can be an additional support system for the families in the future.
“Twice already the fathers organised themselves to help a family who was struggling with difficult living conditions. They fixed the roof of an old house in which one of the father’s family lives. They developed a strong sense of empathy and solidarity and began looking for solutions on their own,” says Julian.
Even when fathers are no longer in the SOS family strengthening programme, they still meet and maintain contact with each other.
The Fathers’ Club started out with seven participants. Since then, over 60 fathers have participated in the Fathers’ Club in Tirana. Because of the positive results, SOS Children’s Villages Albania is assessing the possibility of expanding the concept to more remote areas.
“We are considering introducing mobile teams to reach families who need support in the more remote areas of Tirana so they do not have to come to us,” Julian explains.
Photos: Bjorn-Owe Holmberg