BOGOTÁ, Colombia — As class begins at Sanitas University, a cohort of young men gathers the supplies they'll need for the lesson: a plastic doll, rash ointment and diapers.

Felipe Contreras, 30, their teacher, guides the men through the steps. First, they name the dolls, then clean the dolls' bottoms, change the diaper, apply rash ointment and cradle the doll, remembering to hold the head gently.

At Bogotá's Care School for Men, an innovative city-led program, men learn how to tend to their families and homes and to step up to do their share of housework and child care — from changing a diaper to styling a ponytail. This latest class of participants consists of all medical students, but the usual enrollees are just ... dads.

The program, the first of its kind in Colombia, addresses one of the most lingering aspects of gender inequality globally. In countries around the world, women shoulder three-quarters of all unpaid caregiving, according to a report by the International Labour Organization.

And in Bogotá, for instance, women on average spend five hours and 30 minutes on unpaid work a day — more than twice the time that men do, according to a 2017 study conducted by Colombia's national statistics agency. This unequal division of home labor reduces women's time for paid work, education and self-care and is driving higher rates of female poverty, according to a study published in the Journal of Global Health.

Even as women enter the workforce in greater numbers and secure better pay, experts in Colombia say that the domestic gender gap has remained largely unchanged, citing differences in societal expectations of men and women. That's because prevailing cultural beliefs dictate "that women are naturally better suited to housework and caregiving, while men are better suited to paid work outside the home," says educator Juan David Cortés, the Care School for Men's strategy leader.

But the Care School is dedicated to the belief that such norms can be changed.

A school is born

The idea for the school originated, in part, during the COVID-19 pandemic when mothers, who usually undertake all family caregiving, often fell ill or, in some cases, died, leaving their male partners to assume their role. Distressed men called a city-run men's hotline, promoted online, for support.

"They called with the pain of losing their partners but also with frustration at being unable to take care of their children," says Cortés.

Because many men did not learn caregiving skills as boys and were never expected to carry out the housework, the callers would complain that they just didn't know what to do, says Cortés. The school opened in 2021 to help men learn basic caregiving and household skills and also gain confidence.

In the free one-day workshops, men practice how to change diapers and how to style hair on dolls and mannequins. In the longer six-to-eight-session programs, students learn to clean a bathroom, iron clothes and wash dishes. The training is also paired with conversations about defying gender norms and traditional notions of masculinity.

"Something fundamental that we talk about in the program is that there are diverse ways of being men, without having to fulfill expectations," says Cortés.

You're not the only guy who needs a diaper tutorial

The program's focus on men follows a global trend. For more than four decades, nonprofits in the United States have offered training to support men in their transition to fatherhood and have brought the model to countries around the world. A review by Equimundo, a research institute focused on gender equality, looked at eight such programs in 12 countries and found them to be effective in shifting men's attitudes and behaviors toward child care.

The Care School builds on this model and extends beyond the scope of a fatherhood program by inviting men of all ages to be caregivers. It's also city run, amplifying its reach. The city has spent the equivalent of half a million dollars on the program since 2021.

At first, enrollment was low. But it began to pick up in 2022. Since then, 7,300 men have attended in-person classes, according to Cortés. Another 50,000 men have completed the online version of the course, and 160,000 have viewed the city's video series on caregiving.

In part, the rates of participation are owed to its partnerships with private institutions that bring classes to universities, work offices, community centers and even prisons.

According to Cortés, another advantage is the program's messaging. Men who are new to caregiving may be ridiculed by male peers for engaging in activities usually associated with women — and even criticized by their partners for their poor caregiving skills.

But the Care School takes a different approach. The city describes the workshop as "educational and fun," engaging men in exercises that are inviting and challenging.

And the overall vibe is upbeat. At a September workshop at Sanitas University, the teachers, all of them young and male, rewarded participants with prizes like aprons, cleaning supplies and reusable grocery bags — to encourage the men to do more chores. The students laughed as they fumbled through the lesson, quipping that the dolls resembled their respective "fathers" and taunting each other as they made mistakes. The teacher reassured students, with jokes of his own.

"Be careful," said Contreras, the instructor, teasing a participant who lifted the doll by the wrist. "If you hold the baby by the arm, its arm is going to fall off."

When students admit to not knowing how to change a diaper, Contreras emphasizes that they are not alone.

The program's designers also point out that there are benefits not only to the families but to the men as well.

"[We're] framing this as an opportunity to not only reduce gender gaps but also to improve relationships with our partners, with our families," says Cortés.

It's an argument that has resonated with Ferley Sáenz, a 40-year-old coordinator of Bogotá's transportation system, who took part in the Care School's six-session program. Along with 21 colleagues, Sáenz initially enrolled to improve his stress management skills but was pleased to engage in discussions about caregiving and masculinity.

A father reconnects with his sons

A husband and a father of two, Sáenz admits that his wife assumes most of the child care and household chores. For years, he considered this the norm, spending most of his days at work or with friends. Then his eldest son, 7-year-old Martin, began withdrawing from Sáenz, crying whenever his mother left the two alone. Their relationship deteriorated to the point that Sáenz could no longer eat with Martin, play with him or drop him off at the day care center unless his wife was present.

"I felt like a stranger in my own home," Sáenz says.

At the Care School, teachers convinced Sáenz that to repair his relationship with his son, he would need to take a more active role at home.

Since finishing the program, Sáenz says, becoming a better father has become his priority. He now helps Martin with his homework and visits his school for teacher-parent meetings. He also tends to the child care for a few hours on the weekends, freeing up time for his wife, who is a full-time caregiver for the family.

"Dedicating quality time to [my children], participating in their development and learning process, has made us closer. My eldest son tells me about his day at school, which he didn't do before," said Sáenz. "It's an incredible feeling."

While individual accounts from male participants of the program are promising, Cortés says the program is striving to transform attitudes toward caregiving at a societal level, a feat that he admits will require years of effort. Over the next six years, he hopes that the program will expand to cover 40% of the city's male population, a jump from the fewer than 1% enrolled now.

"This is like growing a bamboo plant. We are only now sowing the seed," said Cortés. So far, Bogotá's new mayor, Carlos Galán, who pledged to champion gender equality and caregiving programs after taking office on Jan. 1, is going along with the program, says Cortés.

Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab, the work-family justice program at New America, a nonpartisan think tank, says, "If the men who go through these classes become more equal partners in their families, that's a success on a private level." She emphasizes that "if you want to go to scale and you want to see more families and make a difference in gender equality, then you absolutely have to follow that with public policy and workplace culture change."

To meet its long-term goals, the Care School for Men is also running pop-up workshops, like the one at Sanitas University, to recruit new participants. Luis Rodríguez, a 17-year-old medical student, stopped for a Care School lesson at the encouragement of his friends. Rodríguez says he hadn't ever reflected on his mother's workload, caring for Rodríguez, his father and his younger sister.

But as he untangled a mannequin's tresses at the Care School, he thought of the long list of tasks his mother is responsible for. He says he felt the urge to do more at home.

Rodríguez scooped up the mannequin's hair into an elastic band and smoothed the bumps with a brush. He looked back at the doll, beaming with pride. Even though he had tried to do his sister's hair before, this was the first time he had felt confident about the final result. "It looked really, really good, the way my mom does it," he says.

And now he's asking himself: "I wonder what else I can do?"

Christina Noriega is a freelance journalist based in Colombia, where she reports on human rights, gender equality and the environment.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit

300x250 Ad

300x250 Ad

Support quality journalism, like the story above, with your gift right now.