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Enforced equality in parenting: The beginning of mandatory paternal responsibility?

Equal parenting is a concept that is gaining traction as more men push for active roles in child-rearing and more women call for a shift in normative parenting roles. In many African countries, this concept could help overturn paternal absenteeism. 

Parenting is linked to many socio-economic challenges for a reason. The numerous and precise actions needed to positively influence a child’s life start from conception and continue well into adulthood. The physical, financial, emotional, social, and intellectual demands are even higher now that societies have become more individualistic. In two-parent households, the burden is shared depending on gender expectations and person-to-person inclination.

“Our culture maintains this hazy misunderstanding about the difficulty of parenting and the amount of strategy and intellectual effort that goes into that work,” says Lisa Huebner, Ph.D., associate professor of women’s and gender studies at the West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

Given the level of difficulty even when the burden is ‘shared,’ it can be argued that for single parents the toll of bringing up a well-rounded and fully functional individual who is an asset to their communities is even higher.

Absenteeism and single parenthood 

Single parenthood can occur for many reasons including the dissolution of marriage or civil unions and the death of a partner. But some single parents were abandoned from the onset. Adolescent and unplanned pregnancy is still an issue because of the complete lack or low rates of sexual education and full-spectrum sexual and reproductive healthcare in many African countries.

Read more: “SHE SOARS” Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights for out-of-school adolescent girls 

These gaps in education and legislation outrightly benefit fathers. Boys and men who sire babies can deny paternity and carry on with their lives. Women, however, do not biologically have the luxury of voluntary participation. More so when they are vehemently denied the right to bodily autonomy.

File picture. Local mothers attend a health community forum on immunization and exclusive breastfeeding held by the Nigerian-based NGO, C.H.I.E.F Photo: Seattle Globalist/Flickr

Women forced into single parenthood must forgo economic, social, and educational opportunities that would improve theirs and their children’s lives. Of course, if absenteeism was punishable and men were required to even partially participate in the child-rearing of every child they sire, then equality in parenting might become a reality.

On the flip side, more men are pushing for active roles in their children’s lives and custody. They are refusing to relinquish access to their children simply because the relationships with their mothers have dissolved.

The ‘female factor’ shouldn’t override paternal care

The same biology that has facilitated parental absenteeism also limits paternal involvement. The belief that moms are innately better caregivers because of pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding has turned fathers who are present into either heroes or glorified babysitters. Men are not expected to want things like extended paternal leave, work options that aid childcare, time off to attend to health or education needs, and so on. Many men also report experiencing discrimination and micro-aggressions or hyper-adulation in hospitals, schools, and other places or instances where maternal care is expected.

This discrimination extends to custody rights. The tendency in the legal system is to grant primary physical custody to mothers specifically in cases of young children because they are ‘more suited’ to cater to their basic needs. 

In Kenya, “both parents have the right to exercise parental care and responsibility over the child; including having custody of the child as both parents have equal rights and responsibilities. Nevertheless, to ensure the best interests of the child are foremost, courts often view the age of young children as a basis to grant wider custody to mothers to cater to the needs of such infants. Thus, the parental right to custody may be regulated by considerations of the best interests of the child,” Legal Resources firm, HG.org says.

The court is therefore likely to award sole custody to the father depending on the “manifest unfitness of the mother.” He (the father) would have to prove this, and in circumstances where both parents are fit and actively involved, there would be no basis.

A court in Nakuru, Kenya, disagrees with this status quo. The area High Court issued a landmark ruling allowing men to have custody of children below nine years of age. Justice Joel Ngugi noted to those present that there is no reason for the legal restriction of custody to one parent, especially in situations where there is no evidence that either parent is unfit or unsuitable for the role of primary caregiver.

With such changes in legal and social biases, we may see the beginning of a movement towards mandatory paternal responsibility.

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