As is true in other countries, the makeup of South Africa’s families is diverse. The “nuclear” family (two biological parents and their children) has become an outdated framework in which to view the composition of households.
That’s why all caregivers, no matter their age and gender, are entitled to receive the country’s child support grant, to provide for the children in their care. More than 12 million child support grants are disbursed every month.
The design of South Africa’s grant highlights the fact that looking after children is not for women only. When initiated in the late 1990s, this was unusual: peer countries that were also expanding their child-centred social assistance at the time, like Brazil and Mexico, explicitly stated a preference for mothers as beneficiaries of the grants. They still do so.
While the South African grant is progressive in its gender-neutrality, only 2% of those who collect the child grant are men. This reflects widespread father absence and the fact that South African women continue to bear overwhelming responsibility for the care of children.
My PhD study is a first attempt at knowing more about the minority of men who receive the child support grant.
The study mined insight from analyses of both the National Income Dynamics Study – a nationally representative household survey that tracks people over time – and interviews held with men who receive the grant in Soweto, the sprawling black urban settlement southwest of Johannesburg.
The survey analysis debunks the myth that men are more likely to spend the money on alcohol, tobacco and gambling. Their children are also not more likely to be malnourished. These findings are important because, around the world, grants are explicitly targeted at women. Or, in South Africa’s case, male uptake is not encouraged despite equal eligibility. This is frequently justified on the grounds that men are less responsible, less capable, or more self-oriented parents than women.
But this simply reflects traditional and artificial ideas about the gendered division of labour within the household: women are often regarded as naturally more altruistic and caring, and therefore best suited to childcare.
Men, on the other hand, are considered to be more competitive, and more suited to the cut and thrust of the world of work and politics. These ideas are frequently invoked to justify an unequal status quo where women are expected to sacrifice time and resources to childcare when men don’t have to.
The views of men
In-depth conversations with 13 men revealed that they all believed that taking responsibility for one’s children, and being involved in their lives, was an important part of what constitutes being a man and a father. In most instances, this was the first idea expressed in response to questions about the kind of fathers they saw themselves as.
Nevertheless, half the men in the survey held onto the idea that women are primarily responsible for raising children, and that the work they were doing is “feminine”. These men were raising children because they believed they have no other option. In addition, raising children was embarrassing for some, who had isolated themselves from their male friends. Some had made peace with being caregivers by recasting their work as “masculine”: a person who takes responsibility and rises to challenges.
How money is spent
The men we interviewed said the spending of the child support grant money was linked to the child’s needs. Questions about how the grant was used were almost always followed by a detailed description of spending on food and schooling, and how the grant was a useful income supplement to defray these substantial costs.
This suggested that the men were using the grant for its intended purposes. This echoes the findings of multiple studies that have shown that this is what women do.
While we cannot rule out bias in the responses, some factors mitigate against it. One was the level of detail with which most of the men talked about care work. They provided detailed descriptions and schedules relating to cooking, cleaning, and ironing, along with discussions of what is difficult and what’s not.
Another factor was the consistent linking of care work with the responsibility and perseverance that are universally regarded as the central components of being a good man and father. Finally, the statistical findings - which indicated that there isn’t a tendency for male grant recipients at the national level to misspend household income - provided a source with which we could triangulate the findings from the interviews in Soweto.
Food for thought for policy makers
The rationale for focusing on men receiving the child support grant was that the roles of men in child-centred social assistance are under-studied.
The evidence shows that men are capable of parenting and wouldn’t necessarily spend the grant money any differently than women would. This suggests that more men should be motivated to claim the grant and to enact associated caregiving roles. This could relieve women’s burden of childcare.
In addition, this study highlighted that men needn’t be bound by the damaging norms and beliefs they would have grown up with. In particular circumstances, men can reconstruct their notions of gender and care because of their own experiences, and because of their perceptions of what their children need. This points to the flexibility of what are often assumed to be rigid gender norms, and to the possibilities for men to reformulate and redefine for themselves what masculinity and fatherhood means and how they should enact it.