By Midanna de Almada
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017
The state of fatherhood in Africa is in dire need of a transformation. Across the continent, an average of 50% of biological fathers are absent from their children’s lives; this compares to 25% in the US and a 15% average in other developed nations. The definition of paternal absence varies, but generally it is seen as a father not having day-to-day contact with his children.
Studies have shown that children who grow up in female, single-headed households, without a father figure, face more challenges than their counterparts raised by two parents. For example, boys with an absent father are more prone to substance abuse and girls are more likely to have unhealthy relationships with men as adults. Indeed, the consequences of an absent father transcend an individual’s childhood and adolescence, having a profound impact on their life trajectory.
Among African countries, South Africa has the second highest percentage of absent fathers owing in large part to the country’s unique history under apartheid. During the 19th century, native African men were stripped of their land and unable to find work in their respective rural areas. In order to provide for themselves and their family, they migrated to urban metropoles and mining towns for long periods of time. This geographic disruption, which occurred for the better part of a century, has indelibly affected young people’s perception of what it means to be a parent, with the idea of fathers as merely a form of monetary support widespread.
MenCare is a global fatherhood campaign bridging the gap between the current state of fatherhood across the world and the ideal that children should have two active and emotionally involved parents. Implementing interventions in over 40 countries across the globe, MenCare aims to highlight the critical role that men play in child protection and uplift fathers to reach their full potential. In South Africa, the campaign encourages men to be actively involved in the lives of their partners and children, through MenCare+ programming, arguing that there are many positive outcomes when this occurs. Children have higher self-esteem, better social competence and language abilities, increased independence, and higher motor skills. It can also reduce complications during their partner’s pregnancy.
Careworkers play a vital role in MenCare+’s success through their work with expectant and young fathers in communities in South Africa. One community they work with, Khayelitsha, located just outside of Cape Town, is one of the largest townships in South Africa and has an extremely high incidence of poverty and absent fathers. Through group sessions, fathers in Khayelitsha are brought together and given a safe space to voice their concerns, challenges and aspirations. Careworkers also provide training on various topics, including family planning, caregiving, non-violence, gender, the needs and rights of children, and divisions of caregiving. These sessions emphasize inter-generational parenting and highlight the difference between being present in a child’s life and being a positive presence. Furthermore, they take a holistic approach; rather than solely focusing on fathers, they also address some of the barriers present in the household and community. For example, in meetings, many fathers mentioned that some clinics in the area do not allow men to accompany their partners to screenings. Careworkers were then able to offer training to healthcare workers, informing them of the importance of involving fathers.
Following twelve weekly meetings, there was a drastic improvement in the fathers’ outlook on parenting and in their idea of what it means to be a father. They demonstrated more favourable attitudes towards gender equity, condom usage and contraception, and supporting their partners during prenatal visits. In addition, the sessions helped reduce substance abuse and increase involvement in caregiving challenges. MenCare+ and careworkers are also helping fathers overcome other challenges, such as increasing access to contraceptives and addressing cultural and traditional beliefs regarding a father’s role, which are heavily engrained in some communities.
MenCare+ has thus far shown immense promise in reversing South Africa’s current epidemic of absent fathers. By empowering men and communities, the campaign is providing more children with the prospect of having a caring and involved father in their lives.
To learn more about MenCare+ programming, please visit: http://men-care.org/what-we-do/programming/mencareplus/.
To learn more about MenCare in Khayelitsha, and how one man inspired his younger brother to become a better father with the campaign’s help, watch their story below:
 Bertelsmann, Margot. “Where Have Our Fathers Gone?” Parent 24. N.p., 17 Feb. 2016. Web. 10 July 2017.
 See: Mandara, Jelani, and Carolyn B. Murray. “Father’s Absence and African American Adolescent Drug Use.” Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 46.1-2 (2006): 1-12. Web. Also see: Del Russo, Jennifer Marie. Emotionally Absent Fathers and Their Adult Daughters’ Relationship with Men. Diss. Chestnut Hill Colege, 2009. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.