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Johannesburg - Only four out of 10 black children under the age of 15 live with their fathers. Of the remaining six, three do not have regular contact with their fathers and three have absolutely no contact with their dads.

This is either because their fathers - unable to provide for them financially - are barred from seeing them, or because their father’s relationship with their mother floundered and in turn severed their relationship.

In other cases, their fathers are unable to pay damages, according to the cultural norms, and are then stopped from having contact with the children.

Or their fathers struggle to get access to them because their mothers are now involved in a new relationship.

And there are instances where their fathers shy away from them as a result of the pressure of not being able to provide.

The “So we are ATM fathers” study released recently was done by the Centre for Social Development in Africa, the Sonke Gender Justice Network and the University of Johannesburg earlier this year.

The information was gathered through focus groups with fathers in Alexandra, Tembisa, Doornkop and Devland in Gauteng, who had little or no contact with their children. The study hoped to give a voice to absent fathers.

Researchers wanted to understand what motivated their decisions to be absent fathers, what fatherhood meant to them and what they felt were the causes and consequences of being absent fathers.

The study found that one of the major contributing factors to fathers being absent was finances, and, in the case of the fathers interviewed, their inability to provide it.

In a South African context, fathers were primarily represented as providers.

Those who therefore could not provide would shy away from their responsibilities and their children.

Although researchers insisted fathers who were able to pay maintenance but defaulted on these payments needed be held accountable, the study suggested that alternative methods of motivating fathers to pay maintenance needed to be explored.

“We found that fathers who had some emotional contact with their children were more likely to support their children,” said one of the researchers, Dr Eddy Mavungu.

“The fathers thrived on the emotional support and they were more motivated than those who had no contact. That emotional support is very important.

“Valuing a father’s emotional connection with the child may be, in some circumstances, the most effective way to promote their economic contribution,” said the report.

This finding is in line with research conducted by Professor Arvin Bhana, executive director of the Human Sciences Research Council’s Human and Social Development programme.

“The relationship between a father and child cannot be put down to money. That just shuts down future conversations. There are other roles that fathers should play,” said Bhana, who conducted a study into teenage fathers a few years ago.

Part of the problem, said Bhana, was a traditional notion of fatherhood and the roles that parents needed to play traditionally.

Some believed it was a cultural norm, but Bhana has been encouraging new forms of fatherhood.

“The whole purpose of being involved in your child’s life is about attachment and the bonding that takes place,” said Bhana.

It was optimal to have both parents in a child’s life, but there were benefits attached to having contact with a father. “Having a father in the household produces the type of socialisation which is important for a child. It helps improve life skills and levels of emotional stability. It helps them normalise perspectives of life.”

While children from single homes were not prejudiced, they could have the perception that they were missing out,. “In some severe cases, they even have the feeling of being abandoned,” said Bhana.

What many did not realise, said Bhana, was that the relationship between a father and child was not only beneficial to the child, but the positive value of the interaction also benefited the father.

During the focus groups, the participating fathers confessed that they felt women ignored other functions that they could play in a child’s life, practically and emotionally.

Most of them were unemployed and living in townships.

While most still held traditional views about their roles and saw certain tasks, such as feeding, bathing and entertaining a child, as the duty of the child’s mother, very few said they were encouraged to assume alternative paternal roles such as taking part in childcare, in children’s recreational activities or just being there.

Some said it was important to move beyond the role of being a provider and also being the moral teacher and having an emotional connection to their children.

The study suggested that mothers be encouraged to include fathers in their child’s life, as barring the child from their father could cause unnecessary damage to a child.

Absent fatherhood was a vicious cycle that was being perpetuated in South Africa, it said. While 54 percent of the men aged 15 to 49 were fathers, half of them did not have daily contact with their children.

The research reveals that while only 30 percent of black children under the age of 15 live with their fathers, more than half of the coloured children and more than 80 percent of white and Indian children under the age of 15 live with their fathers.

It was conceivable that many young men struggled in the role of a father because they never had this role model growing up.

The fathers – many of whom had fathers absent from their own lives – blamed failure and misfortune in their lives on not having fathers.

They were concerned that their children would end up in a similar predicament.

Most acknowledged that their absence had a negative impact on their children, affecting their behaviour, emotions, socialisation and financial needs.

But among the solutions, said researchers, was that the dominant notions of fathers as financial or material providers needed to be deconstructed.

“An emphasis should also be placed on alternative fatherhood roles such as their ability to provide time, care or affirmation,” it states.

If both men and women did this, it was likely to result in greater involvement of fathers in their children’s lives, the study said. - The Sunday Independent