The gift of fatherhood
June 2014 - More than half of the children growing up in South Africa do so without a father present in the home. A confluence of history, poverty and harmful ideas about manhood has led to more and more men becoming absent in the lives of their children. In 2012, 48 % of South African children had fathers who were living elsewhere than in their home, 16% had fathers who were deceased, resulting in a massive 64% of children growing up without their father in the home. In many of these cases, it means that other members of the family - mostly mothers or older siblings – are relied upon for all the care work.
Children benefit when men are more involved in doing child care work; Women benefit since the work is shared more equally; but men benefit too. Take Themba, a young man growing up in Khayelitsha, in Cape Town, South Africa. Themba is very involved in the care and education of his two daughters, and he describes them as the “light in his life”.
Most of the residents of Khayelitsha have difficult lives – poverty abounds, and so too do the social problems that poverty brings with it. Multiple factors, including a mining economy, legacies of Apartheid, and some local customs feed into family structures where dads are often not in the home. Themba’s brother, Andrew, like many young men in South Africa is faced with several obstacles to being an active father. Andrew works as a security guard in a neighbourhood with one of the highest homicide rates in the world. While doing his best to not join the increasing number of deceased fathers, his job also keeps him away from home for long shifts. He feels though that his responsibility to provide financially is really important to his partner Lisa, and their newly born child. His attitude is not shared by most of his friends, many who prefer to spend their free time in taverns. Themba inspired Andrew to want to be an involved father, not just with money, but with his time. Both brothers have been involved in a programme run by Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa: MenCare. Through MenCare, they have been taken through a fatherhood workshop to engage them in both conversation and learning about fatherhood. They are able to join other men in this fathers' group to talk about the challenges, opportunity, and also the lack of fatherhood in their lives.
Data is scarce on South African men’s involvement in maternal and child health as a long-term predictor of their involvement in their families. Evidence from elsewhere (mostly Sweden and Norway) is, however, encouraging and supports the intuitive idea that an emotional connection during infanthood would lead to long-term involvement in care. At the very least, it’s clear that early involvement lessens the burden of care on new mothers and thereby contributes to gender equality. Policy measures like parental leave that includes fathers also help towards gender equality.
Fathers’ rights activism has often skewed the perspective of fathers’ involvement as an exclusive right of the father. This has unfortunately diverted attention from the opportunity that involved fatherhood presents to improve gender equality between parents, and to satisfy the right of the child to be parented adequately.
In the MenCare film “The Gift of Fatherhood”, the journey that brothers Themba and Andrew face is beautifully chronicled and shows that while sometimes difficult to achieve, fatherhood is a gift to everyone in the family.