Absent fathers, crime, and the stigma of being a single father

Gosiame Masike, the head of Heartlines’ Department of Correctional Services Unit, and a single father raising a daughter, says we all have a role to play in promoting positive fatherhood narrative in SA

I recently had the opportunity to visit several schools in Gauteng. When I stood up and asked a small group of children about their experience of having a father in their lives, many met me with blank stares. They simply didn’t have a response because they weren’t growing up with one. They had never had a consistent father by their side.

The figures back this up. According to Statistics South Africa, half of all children in the country don’t live with their biological fathers. My experience working in the correctional services space has taught me about the far-reaching implications of this.

Absent fathers and crime
There’s a clear link between the access and relationship children have with their fathers and how likely they are to commit a crime — either as a child or later in life. Studies have shown that youths with the highest incarceration rates are those who never had a father living with them. Among female inmates, more than half come from absent-father homes.

In my work with juvenile inmates in South Africa’s prisons, I’ve seen this first-hand. When you engage with these youths, when you start asking, “What happened? Why are you here?”, and learning more about their childhood, it almost always involves an absent, neglectful or abusive father.

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Very few of them have had a father to guide, support and encourage them. A father to show them right from wrong, and to demonstrate this in his own actions. And it’s not just about biological fathers — the young people I work with tend not to have positive male role models in their lives generally. The men they do interact with often promote arrogant and chauvinistic behaviour as a minimum. In worst case scenarios, they are misogynistic, abusive and violent.

When I was growing up, I was betrayed by the adult men I confided in when I hit adolescence. Rather than counsel me through the changes I was going through, they revealed the secrets I’d shared publicly — much to my humiliation. I also thought beating a woman was normal. I witnessed it all the time. None of the men in my life taught me differently. These incidents have an enormous impact on how young people learn to behave and what they believe to be acceptable.

Stigma and scepticism
South Africa’s longstanding and ongoing gender-based violence epidemic has inevitably led to a mistrust between men and women. (It’s worth stating that while people of all genders perpetrate and experience intimate partner violence, men are most often the perpetrators and women and children the victims.) This epidemic, combined with traditional patriarchal views on the roles of men and women, which are deeply entrenched in South African culture, have contributed to a scepticism towards single fathers.

I am a single father to a young daughter, and have personally attracted the unjustified suspicion of my community over the years. Being a single father in South Africa is often seen as taboo, especially if the child is a girl. It’s simply not the norm. In the past, people around me have thought that I was hiding something. I’ve even had the police come to my door for no other reason than my neighbours thought my situation was unusual — and that something must therefore be wrong.

While I understand and will always support public concern about keeping children safe, I think we need to be careful about alienating and ostracising loving single fathers. This social stigma runs the risk of making a difficult situation worse. Instead, we should be supporting single fathers — or any father for that matter, and any parent or guardian. Being responsible for a child is a challenging experience that can be made so much easier if parents are educated and guided.

I think South Africa is seeing signs of change. A new generation of fathers is emerging. Men who are looking back at the behaviour of their own fathers and deciding to change the narrative. We don’t want to be absent or abusive. We want to be present, engaged, a force for good. We want to protect our children from harm, give them a fair chance in life, and guide them away from the influences that may lead them to crime and incarceration. 

There’s hope for transformation. But it is our collective responsibility, in our families, communities and broader society, to create it. 

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