Research conducted by The Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) at the University of Johannesburg(UJ) and Sonke Gender Justice Network, involving 40 absent fathers in Alexandra, in Doornkop, Tembisa and Devland (Soweto), shows that fathers are often regarded solely as providers and are not expected to play other roles in their children's lives.
The phenomenon of absent fathers is rife in South Africa, with half of the country’s children growing up with absent living fathers. This has a negative impact on the welfare of the child, the mother and the father and constrains the country’s social development prospects. While this trend of absent fathers is often lamented, there are seldom discussions with the fathers themselves as to why this occurs.
The CSDA at UJ, in partnership with Sonke Gender Justice Network conducted an exploratory study with the aim to examine absent fathers’ understandings of fatherhood, their perceptions of the causes and consequences of being an absent father, and their proposed solutions to this problem.
It was found that fathers are generally perceived, and perceive themselves, primarily as “providers”. This term is broad but overwhelmingly fathers defined this as being a financial or material provider. The fathers interviewed did not object to providing material and financial support to their families, but argued that there is an overemphasis on the monetary contribution of fathers. They felt that this overshadows other equally valuable roles that they would like to play in their children’s and families’ lives. They felt that their role as fathers is essentially reduced to being ATMs.
The sentiments expressed by absent fathers demonstrate the huge pressure men feel to be providers no matter what obstacles are faced. As one father put it: “whether you are unemployed or employed, you should provide”.
Given the high unemployment rates in South Africa, it is unsurprising that many of the respondents buckled under this pressure. As a result, many have strained relationships with the mother of the child or her family and they have limited interaction with their children. This was explained by a father in these terms: “As you lose your job, you start feeling the distance, you start making the distance, all the time when I go there, I don’t have anything. I must stop going there, how is my child going to look at me, what will my child say?”
The emphasis on fathers’ financial contribution is also reflected in African cultural practices which require fathers to pay large sums of money before being accepted as a father and allowed to have access to the child. Many absent fathers reported being unable to pay the increasingly high prices asked for lobola, and/or for damages (fines) in those cases where their unmarried partner had become pregnant. Undeniably, for these men, costs related to lobola and damages have become obstacles preventing them from being involved in their children’s lives.
Some of the respondents suggested that their presence as a father should be valued at least as much as whether they are able to provide income or not: “the mother should value more that the man can come, the presence of the person coming. Even if he brings something, if he brings money but what they should value more is the human being coming”.
"These perceptions of fathers solely as providers must be challenged if fathers are to engage more meaningfully with their children and share care responsibilities with mothers," says Desmond Lesejane from Sonke Gender Justice Network. "While it is imperative that men honour their responsibilities and ensure that they prioritise financial contributions to their children, there are many other ways in which a man can be involved in the life of his children, including ensuring that he treats his partner and children with respect and never uses violence”.
Research from around the world shows that fathers’ participation in their child’s care, education and recreational activities greatly benefits both the child and the father, as well as relieves some of the burden which is most often placed on the mother. However, these contributions are seemingly not valued in the way that providing materially is. “When fathers are involved in their child’s care, education and recreational activities, and are more emotionally connected, it is more likely that they will also provide financial and material support”, says Eddy Mavungu from CSDA.
"Men are capable of so much more – but they need to be supported and enabled to do so. Mothers, children and fathers themselves will benefit from closer relationships with their children – but fathers need to know that they can be more than ATMs," concludes Mavungu.
The findings of this research will help inform programmes that promote equitable parenting and especially involved fatherhood and should be taken into account in the formulation of government policies and services.
This research on absent fathers drew from focus group discussions with 40 absent fathers in Alexandra, Doornkop, Tembisa and Devland (Soweto) towards the end of 2011. A full research report is still under development.