Editor’s Note: Michael Alandu is the governance advisor for CARE International in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He wrote this open letter to his three-year-old son, John Paul, explaining why he won’t be at their home in the Atlanta suburbs for Father’s Day. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Michael Alandu: Son, I'll be gone for Father's Day, working to help women in DRC
He says life there is hell for many, particularly women who are vulnerable to attacks
He aims to educate men that respecting all, including women, uplifts the community
Alandu: Son, when you are grown, you must treat everyone, including women, with dignity
Dear John Paul,
Father’s Day is here. I know you will once again be wondering why Daddy doesn’t come home from work. I know this makes you sad. It makes me sad, too. I want to see you. I want to help you dress, brush your teeth and drive you to school. I want to take you outside so we can tend to your garden of tomatoes and peppers or ride your bicycle. Since the last time we were together, I am sure you have gotten better at applying the brakes. I bet next time I see you I won’t have to keep yelling “Pedal backwards! Pedal backwards!”
I am writing this letter to explain to you why my work takes me away from home for so long. You may not understand everything I’m saying now, but I hope one day you will.
I work in Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. This country looks like heaven, but for too many people here, it feels like hell. There is stunning natural beauty, but it seems like so many of its 77 million people are simply trying to survive. Their daily life is defined by extreme poverty, sickness and constant fear of marauding militias of men who roam the country molesting women and kids with impunity.
John Paul, my job is to try to make life better for mommies and kids. Women in DRC, as they do in so many countries, work farm fields, bring home firewood, fetch heavy buckets of water, cook for the entire family and take care of all the children. Even though women do that work, they earn very little money and are often treated very badly. Men receive the money earned by women. Men decide how it is spent.
Much of the time, men don’t even listen to what women and girls have to say about how the family money is spent. Women are excluded from many of the family’s most important decisions – even decisions that directly affect their own lives.
I try to help women and girls in Congo go to school, visit the doctor and earn money so they can take care of themselves and their families. I got into this line of work because when I look back on my own childhood in northern Ghana, I realize that I could’ve easily been one of those people that organizations like CARE are trying to help.
To help women and girls, I spend much of my time speaking with and educating men. Just as men here have the power to make life very difficult for girls and women, they also have the power to support the girls and women around them. We are most successful helping daughters and mothers when sons and fathers are working alongside us.
We talk to husbands about the community-wide benefits of supporting girls’ education and their wives’ efforts to save money and start small businesses. We show men how violence undermines the families and communities they value. I like to remind men that the women they can help lift from misery and despair are their mothers, aunties, daughters and sisters.
I also tell them that being a responsible man requires being respectful of everyone. Manhood is not about physical strength or the power to bully others. Rather, it is working to make society better for everyone, including women and girls. That is a lesson still being learned not only here in the DRC but also there in the United States and the rest of the world.
When you grow up to be a man, John Paul, you will have a right to be free and make decisions for yourself. But you should not take rights away from girls or women. Robbing a girl or women of her rights is like robbing yourself. When a man takes away a girl’s right to go to school, he is taking away a girl’s right to do what she wants when she grows up – her right to be a doctor, engineer, pilot, teacher, nurse or university professor. He is robbing his community of her talent and contributions. Work for the freedom of others, John Paul. Freedom is like a boomerang. What you throw into the world comes back to you.
I’m sorry I won’t be home for Father’s Day or to open the card you made for me at school. But I’m proud to be part of a movement of men working with women around the world to make sure everyone – regardless of gender – is treated with dignity and respect. I may not come home in a uniform, but please know that our family’s sacrifice is for the most important struggle of our time. I know it makes you sad today, but I hope one day it inspires you to help others.
I am so looking forward to spending future Father’s Days with you. And watching as you grow into a good man.