Fathers, the importance thereof

It was memorable visit to the doctor for a couple of reasons, starting with the cause: a dodgy samoosa eaten at the  table of a senior official who likes to order in.  My symptoms would have triggered a gag reflex in  Florence Nightingale herself.

Then there was the conversation with the doctor after he’d prescribed an antibiotic generally regarded as the last line of defense against anthrax . We talked about AIDS. He had a lot of patients in Soweto infected with HIV.

He wanted me to deliver a message.  “We have got to have a campaign to restore fatherhood in this country.”  Fathers in the parenting rather than the simpler wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am sense could do a lot to stem the transmission of HIV, he believed.  But in SA they were scarce.

This conversation came back to me on Sunday as I watched Senator Barack Obama’s Father’s Day speech on YouTube, another great one, delivered to 3000 plus African-American worshippers at Apostolic Church of God in Chicago.

“Too many fathers are MIA (missing in action),  too many fathers are AWOL,” Obama intoned, departing from his text, real passion in his voice. “There’s a hole in your heart if you don’t have a male figure in the home that can guide you and lead you and set a good example for you.”

“You and I know how true this is in the African-American community,” he continued.  “We know that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled – doubled – since we were children.

“We know the statistics – that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime, nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.”

Some commentators called this a cheap play for conservative votes, but not the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne. “It matters that a presidential candidate is taking the costs of fatherlessness seriously,” he wrote.  “Every social problem is made much, much worse by the abandonment of children by their fathers.”

Does the same apply in SA, as the good doctor suggested? “Baba: Men and Fatherhood in South Africa” published by the Human Sciences Research Council in 2006, points to some answers. The numbers are stark.  In 2002, 77.5 per cent of children under 15 in rural areas had no father in the home. In urban areas the proportion was somewhat smaller, but grim nonetheless, at 55.9 per cent.

The majority of South African children grow up without their biological fathers, and have been doing so for a long time. For this blame, among many other things, the destruction of family wrought by poverty, apartheid and the migrant labour system. Then factor in a shrinking supply of men who have known fathers, who would thus have some idea about how to be fathers themselves and who would therefore be desirable as marriage partners. This is not simply a crisis of men abandoning women. The cycle is vicious.

The literature suggests pretty consistently that children turn out better when both parents are around, behaving like parents. They have a better sense of self-worth and are less prone to depression. Girls are less likely to engage in sexually risky behavior.  Boys score higher marks at school and are less likely, in the words of Baba contributor Linda Richter,  “to engage in stereotypically masculine behaviours…Father availability tends to have a modulating effect on boys’ aggressive tendencies by providing a model of culturally appropriate behaviour.”

There is a lot of sexually risky behaviour going on out there and a lot of male aggression in the form of rape and other violent assaults on whoever is at hand as a source of swag or an easy object of impotent rage.  Could more and better fathers, and greater reverence for fatherhood, help? What would it take?

It’s a minefield. In the US, Obama, himself the son of a deadbeat dad, has had the courage to enter it

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