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It’s Father’s Day — but South African society suffering profound absence of father figures

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Medical doctor Garth Japhet is the CEO of Heartlines, a social and behavioural change organisation that encourages people to live out positive values to deal with society’s big issues. Japhet was the founding CEO of the health promotion and social change project Soul City, which has played a pivotal role in activating behavioural change around HIV and Aids and other key health issues in South Africa.

Many men who are absent fathers had absent fathers themselves. Since they’ve never experienced the advantages of a present male figure, they don’t know what these advantages are — or how to pass them on.

Father’s Day almost always conjures up a particular version of dads in our society. The media is awash with images of present, loving men helping their children with their homework, teaching them how to ride a bicycle, and sharing home-cooked meals as united families.

The lived experience of the majority of South African children, however, isn’t quite as rosy.

According to the Human Sciences Research Council, most children in South Africa — over 60% — don’t live with their biological fathers. And 20% only have contact with their biological father twice a week. This isn’t to suggest that they don’t have other male figures in their lives, but it does point to an imbalance in the distribution of parental responsibilities. The reasons behind this are complex, and the consequences are far-reaching.

Why fathers aren’t present

The importance and value of mothers are well known, and what follows isn’t meant to undermine the extraordinary role they play. Instead, what we’re attempting to understand is why less attention is typically given to the role of fathers, and why they often aren’t as present in their children’s lives.

Financial constraints

A deeply held cross-cultural belief is that, in a family, men should be the providers. Where once this provision was primarily about hunting and protection, today it’s increasingly about money. Men are expected — interestingly, often by women — to earn an income that can support their families. And if they can’t, they’re often shunned and their role as fathers called into question.

Part of what needs to be dismantled here is the understanding of what children need. Yes, money is necessary for a home, food to eat and education, but if men can’t provide all of these things financially, there are other roles that are equally important. Ultimately, children want their parents’ time: someone to play with them, to read to them, to share in their thoughts, fears and dreams. Simply being present, even if there are financial difficulties, is still important.

A lack of awareness

Together with the point listed above, this is perhaps the most critical issue at play today. Fathers — and parents and guardians more generally — aren’t aware of why fathers should be active participants in their children’s lives. They don’t know what the benefits are. If they did, fathers would likely be encouraged to be more positively involved in any capacity, even if they didn’t live with the co-parent or couldn’t offer financial support.

The many benefits are often interconnected, but three of the most important outcomes for why a caring father should be involved in a child’s life are:

  • It reduces the risk of violence, including gender-based violence: Children are at much greater risk of being victims of violence if they grow up in father-absent families. Girls in particular are more likely to get involved in abusive or exploitative relationships, and boys could go on to become perpetrators of violence, including gender-based violence, themselves. Growing up with a positively involved father, however, reduces these risks, and helps to nurture long-term violence prevention strategies.
  • It lowers levels of substance abuse: While substance abuse has many complex causes, teenagers with absent fathers have been shown to be a high-risk group — boys in particular. Children are also likely to follow in their father’s footsteps if he battles with substance abuse. With a supportive father present, these issues dissipate, and children are generally less prone to substance abuse, and the related issues of addiction, depression and suicide.
  • It improves mental health: Absent fathers can exacerbate depression, anxiety and mental health disorders in children, and worsen their academic performance. When fathers are involved in a positive way, on the other hand, children’s mental health improves. They have greater faith in their own value, tend to do well at school, and are able to form secure attachments as they grow.

A deficiency of role models and resources

Many men who are absent fathers had absent fathers themselves. Since they’ve never experienced the advantages of a present male figure, they don’t know what these advantages are — or how to pass them on. This absent or skewed role modelling is only made worse by the fact that fathers don’t have enough resources to help them navigate this unchartered territory.

There are many tools and support groups for mothers, but very few for men. Breaking the cycle, therefore, takes enormous initiative, and a deliberate drive to go beyond their own experiences. Women are in a position to help here — by opening up space for the fathers in their children’s lives and facilitating access.

The journey from absence to presence

None of this is to suggest that mothers, and single mothers, aren’t exceptional parents. In many instances, they create healthy, safe and secure environments for their children, often amid challenging circumstances. Positive father figures, however, offer additional benefits and can help to share the weight of parenthood and enhance their children’s physical, mental and emotional well-being in meaningful ways.

The journey starts by emphasising that fathers matter — and making this something we talk about not only on Father’s Day but every other day besides. Fathers need to be positively involved and to be present at every stage.

Together, we need to facilitate networks of support so that all parents, mothers and fathers alike, have the tools and resources they need to give their children the best chance in life. DM

Fathers Matter is a Heartlines initiative to promote the positive and active presence of fathers in children’s lives. At the centre of the project are the Heartlines Fathers Matter Films — six anthology films set in various contexts around South Africa. Each short film is a compelling drama that explores the complexities of fatherhood in South Africa today, where most children grow up in homes without their biological fathers.

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