A new kind of fatherhood can prevent violence

  • Wessel Van Den Berg

I heard a familiar complaint from a new father recently: ‘My baby’s asleep when I leave in the morning and by the time I get home, he’s asleep again. The only time I get to interact with him in the week is at night when he cries for us and I get up to put him back to sleep.’ This speaks to more than a new father’s struggle with his schedule. It shows up a fault line in society, and represents a potential opportunity to reduce the high levels of gender-based violence (GBV), including violence against children.

The “16 days of activism” to end violence against women and children annual global campaign is bracketed by two significant days: On November 20, 25 years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history), to which South Africa is a signatory. The 10th of December, the last day of 16 Days, is International Human Rights day.

In South Africa, we are still trying to connect the two, and make children’s rights be respected and understood as human rights. We have a long way to go. According to a recent KPMG study (with input from Sonke Gender Justice), GBV costs South Africa 20 – 40 billion Rand per year (using conservative estimates). Despite this massive human and financial cost, we do not yet direct resources and attention to effectively prevent violence in South Africa.

An obvious step to preventing violence against children is to improve the care that they receive. This will prevent violence in the short-term as it will reduce the ill-effects of neglect and enhance the protective role of caregivers in the child’s life.

More than half of all children in South Africa do not have their fathers present at home, with most of these fathers living apart from the children, and with many fathers deceased.

A leading factor in the use of violence by adults is childhood exposure to violence as shown in several studies, including the recent International Men And Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES). Improving care and reducing children’s exposure to violence will therefore have a long-term preventative effect. It follows that preventing violence in South Africa requires men to get more involved in caregiving of children. But this should not be misinterpreted as the old call to bring back the “head of the household”. The message that fathers are needed in families is often conflated with the myth that we only need to return to how things were when men were in charge. What we need is not just fathers. We need “new fathers.”

New fathers can mean two things: it can mean a man that has just become a father and it can also mean a man can be a father that doesn’t conform to old ideas of the father as merely a breadwinner who is hands-off with the nitty-gritty carework of raising his children. The new kind of fatherhood has gender equality, and a good relationship between parents, regardless of whether it’s a romantic relationship or not, as cornerstones. The new fatherhood also expands the definition of father to include young fathers, old fathers, gay fathers, single fathers and non-biological fathers. In addition to meaning more kinds of fathers, it also means new kinds of fathering. The new father expands his contribution to care from the usual financial role of ‘caring for’ to a more engaged role of ‘giving care’. Caring for requires that you take responsibility for the wellbeing of a person. Giving care refers to actually being physically in touch with the person – in the same space, with you physically and directly providing care to them, like washing, or feeding, or holding.

So, with so many unemployed fathers, and so many children in need of care, one may wonder why so many fathers do not spend their time giving care to children. The answer has to do with gender and how we perform what are often considered as our male or female roles. Unfortunately the caregiving role is still seen as female, and the caring for role is still seen as male. This is one reason we see that maternity leave is so much longer than paternity leave in most countries.

When we asked young absent fathers why they were absent, the most frequent response we heard was that a father is someone who provides money (or cares) for a child. With no money, they felt they couldn’t be fathers. Herein lies the opportunity: If we can succeed in including actual caregiving in the notion of men’s care, and to popularise this, we may be able to get more men involved in the care of children, since financial support would not be seen as the only way to support children. This is the new fatherhood, with men actively involved in giving care.

When men are more involved in care children benefit from the care and protection of more caregivers, men benefit from the relationship they have with their children and their role as fathers, and mothers benefit from more opportunity to spend time in the workplace. There is a reduction in the risk of children being exposed to violence, as well as the use of physical punishment as the more involved parents are, the more time they give to positive parenting, and the less they resort to physical punishment.

A shift to the new fatherhood in South Africa will not just depend on the few fathers that are lucky enough to take time off to give care. It will require social shifts as well as a shift to more parenting-friendly workplace practices, such as increasing paternity leave.

But we can start the shifts in our own lives now. As the 16 days campaign draws to a close, and as we move to holiday time, the perfect opportunity arises for men to spend more time doing the care work at home, with their children. And besides being on the PlayStation or in front of the TV, to spend a few moments each day really being in touch with their children and building the bonds that will help their children avoid exposure to violence and that will benefit all the family, including the fathers who will realise that time with children is not just work, but is also love.