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Award Holder: Anushé Hassan
University: London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM)
Title of Research: How much do fathers matter? Paternal investment and child health in rural Tanzania

Studies in high-fertility, high-mortality societies have shown that fathers have surprisingly little impact on their children’s wellbeing. However, existing literature has some limitations: paternal investment has largely been defined using crude binary measures of presence/absence; and there has been a focus on child survival as a proxy for successful childrearing. My PhD research aims to address these issues by studying the relationship between paternal residence, investment and child wellbeing in rural Tanzania. Data were collected as part of the larger Kisesa Family Structure and Wellbeing Project (KFSWP).

We interviewed the mother or primary guardian of 810 children aged under 5 years from 506 Sukuma households in 2 villages within the Magu Health and Demographic Surveillance Site (HDSS) in Mwanza Region. A Household Survey with the household head was also conducted at each household, which included a household roster and demographic, socio-economic, and food security data. Child-level data measured both biological parents’ vital status and place of residence; the child’s relationship with the father, and his whereabouts if he was non-resident; provision of resources and six forms of direct care (cooking/feeding, playing with, sleeping next to, supervising, caring for when sick and washing) from parents and other kin; child’s breastfeeding history and status; and child anthropometrics. Four focus group discussions with mothers and fathers (separately) of children under-5 provide contextual insight into local meanings of fatherhood.

As the fieldwork was situated at a well-established site (the HDSS) and I was based at the Tanzanian National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), I benefited from local knowledge and support while setting up my research. This included translating research material from English to Swahili, enumerator training, hiring drivers and cars for daily transport to the villages, and contacting and making agreements with both the village leaders and elders as well as local HDSS facilitators who took the field team to the households on a daily basis. One difficulty we encountered was we hadn’t anticipated the high rates of migration in one village and were unable to find many households from our initial sample – a large part of this village is on a busy main road and experiences a fast turnover of residents: people tend to rent for short periods before moving on. As we discovered this while in the field we spent some time rethinking our sampling strategy and generating additional samples to meet our original goal. I also felt I should have spent more time improving my Swahili as this would have helped me navigate better in the villages and improved my relationship with the study participants. Moreover, as the main ethnic group in the region are the Sukuma, many of the respondents in one of the villages spoke Sukuma and not Swahili and this was an unexpected barrier – although there were definitely some amusing and fun moments when the fieldworkers tried teaching me both languages simultaneously!

I aim to make both empirical and theoretical contributions to biological anthropology by collecting novel, nuanced data on paternal investment from resident and non-resident Sukuma fathers in north-western Tanzania; and engaging with current debate regarding potential benefits of paternal co-residence for child health. My data reflects diversity in family structure and investment strategies, and I hope to provide a culturally specific understanding of relationships between Sukuma fathers and their young children.

I am very grateful to the Ruggles-Gates Fund for Biological Anthropology and the RAI for supporting my research!