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New research pokes holes in the idea that men don’t look after their kids

Men who had to take responsibility for younger siblings growing up were not concerned about conforming to dominant ideas about manhood. shutterstock

South Africa has one of the highest rates of absent fathers in sub-Saharan Africa. As many as 60% of children in the country under the age of 10 don’t live with their biological fathers, the second highest rate of absence in sub-Saharan Africa after Namibia. This compares to one third in the US.

South Africa’s statistics are influenced by the history of migrant labour. Expropriation of the land of black Africans by colonial authorities, coupled with the levying of taxes, forced men (and later, women) to move to the growing cities to earn an income, while their wives and children stayed in the rural reserves or “homelands”.

But there are other factors at play too. These include gender norms about childcare and the different roles attached to fathers and mothers. These norms also generally lead to men – even if they are physically present – making minimal contributions to unpaid care and household work.

A large volume of research – including the Centre for Social Development in Africa’s “ATM Fathers” – has shown that among both men and women, fathers are widely considered as primarily being responsible for supporting the family financially. These attitudes frequently lead men – or enable them – to sidestep non-financial care responsibilities.

But in a context of widespread unemployment, inability to earn an income and fulfil the “provider” role often leads men to abandon their children. This leaves women with the double burden of being the sole breadwinner as well as the person primarily responsible for unpaid care and household work. This, in turn, reinforces gender inequality as women have less time to pursue market work, education, leisure and civic life, and are expected to sacrifice their own interests for those of children.

But there are men who choose to be involved fully in the care of their children despite economic difficulty. We have done research into the reasons for this involvement, and the different forms that it takes. The initial research has been done by Masters students Manon van der Meer and Hylke Hoornstra, and forms part of my PhD which is due to be published early next year. We also examined men’s attitudes towards gender, and how they define their masculine and paternal identities in the context of caring for children.

We found that a significant number of men are doing this in progressive ways - ‘doing’ fatherhood and manhood in ways that differ from the patriarchal archetypes that sustain gender inequality. Their examples point to the possibility of creating a more gender equal society.

The research

The first group of men we interviewed were fathers working in low income jobs in Johannesburg – mostly security guards and fast food restaurant staff. All were cohabiting with their partners and children. Almost all emphasised that providing for the family financially was central to their definitions of a good father. Given their low-paying jobs, they were constantly worried about their inability to do this which often led to feelings of inadequacy as a father.

But most men saw their father roles as encompassing more than just financial provision. Almost all spoke of a need to be available emotionally for their children, and to spend time with them. Most also had no problem with performing care work (such as changing nappies, bathing children, helping children with schoolwork) or household work (cleaning, cooking, laundry, and ironing). But importantly, most saw the mother as primarily responsible for this work, only stepping in to help when asked or required. This was frequently related to gendered ideas about competence: that women were naturally more suited to these tasks.

The second group of men we interviewed were receiving a child support grant on behalf of their children. The grant is a means tested monthly cash transfer provided to low-income caregivers to support childcare, and has a value of R380 (around US$29). This group makes up only a fraction of those who get the grants – 98% are women according to data provided by the South African Social Security Agency.

Most of the men we interviewed in Soweto had applied for the grant because a female partner had passed away, or because their female partner was not a South African citizen.

Almost all the men were unemployed. Most put far less emphasis on providing financial support. They considered “being there” for their children – by providing love, guidance and protection – a key component of their masculine and paternal identities.

They frequently described taking care of their children, and not abandoning them or being otherwise neglectful, as central to what it means to be a man.

As with the first group, many in the second group also subscribed to dominant gender norms about who should do what in the household. Care and household work were viewed primarily as mothers’ or women’s responsibility. Nonetheless, almost all regularly carried out these tasks, even those who were either living with female partners or who could rely on the support of female relatives - thus revealing a discrepancy between their beliefs and how they behaved.

Most men in both groups spoke about the pressure to conform to social expectations and the sanctions imposed on them if they didn’t. Sanctions could take the form of disapproval when they were seen to be doing “women’s work”. Also, some men who received the child grant said they were seen as “undateable” by women they encountered at the local social grant offices.

All men said they experienced some form of pressure. But some seemed less bothered by it than others. This was particularly true of those who held gender-equal ideas about “male” and “female” responsibility. Men who had always done this work – for example those who were brought up by single mothers, or who had to take responsibility for younger siblings growing up – were similarly unconcerned about conforming to dominant ideas of what it means to “be a man”.

Doing gender differently

Fathers in South Africa are often denigrated for being un-involved and neglectful. But this research sheds light on fathers who, despite significant economic and social pressure, choose to remain involved in meaningful ways in the lives of their children, and to incorporate traditionally feminine behaviours and roles into their own masculine and paternal identities for the well-being of their children.

We hope that the research findings will inspire other men to “do gender” differently – for the benefit of their children and South African women.

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