My journey into Gender Activism

By Kevin Rutter, Founder of Fathers in Africa @fathersinafrica

“The deepest search in life, it seemed to me, the thing that in one way or another was central to all living was man’s search to find a father, not merely the father of his flesh, not merely the lost father of his youth, but the image of a strength and wisdom external to his need and superior to his hunger, to which belief and power of his own life could be united.” Tom Wolfe, an American author and journalist.

I distinctly remember driving home from hospital after my first child Tarryn was born, a lot more cautiously than usual. I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility and the thought of making fathering a priority in my life. The truth is… a father was born the same day.

I needed help, and when I started the research into fatherhood, and realised the extent of fatherlessness in our country, I felt a sudden empathy for literally millions of children growing up without a role model for their source of masculinity and identity. Who were they looking to for their developing manhood and self-image? What type of men would they become, and how would this affect women and children in their communities or lives?

In her dissertation – The Social Construction of The South African Male Identity, Cilicia Senta Augustine comments; “The importance of a father figure as a role model has been researched from a number of psychological perspectives. They have discussed the impact of absent fathers and the need for fathers to be more emotionally available especially towards their sons and family in general (Kindlon & Thompson, 1999; Segal, 1990).

Recently, research has focused on the life of a father, the pressure, the fear and the inability to communicate his love because of the masculine code of what society defines as a father and a man, a stoic, rational, inexpressive person who demands respect. Private stories of men in therapy, however, reveal a deep longing for connectedness and nurturing. They are frustrated by their inability to express affection to their wives and children. They fear being perceived as weak if they do so (Allen & Laird, 1991). Such patriarchal sanctions on the behaviour of men have detrimental effects for men themselves as well as their interpersonal relationships.”

When I consider the number of stories which have come out in just this year alone regarding women abuse and violence against women and children, I began to wonder just how much every generation of men is influenced by the one before. Of course there are many men in South Africa today who are both wonderful fathers and good men. However, there is still a gap in our society where this is lacking and all men have a part to play in shaping the future of that next generation.

Renowned family expert, David Blankenhorn says, “It is no exaggeration to say that fatherlessness is the most harmful demographic trend of this generation. It is the engine driving our most urgent social problems.” Current research backs up his statement. When fathers are disenfranchised for a variety of reasons, here are the results:

In South Africa, the problem is also present. A 2016 community survey released by Statistics South Africa said there were 2.4 million children in South Africa who either have no parents at all or are being raised by a single parent.

Research also conducted in the past five years by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and the South African Race Relations Institute (SARRI) found that 60 percent of SA children have absent fathers, and more than 40 percent of South African mothers are single parents.

I firmly believe that prevention is preparation for the future and there is some serious work with young men which needs to be done, particularly through offering up different models of masculinity. For example, promoting men as caring and non-violent. It is only by examining the “man box” and traditional patriarchal views of masculinity, and ways that our boys are being socialised into potentially toxic masculinity, that we can begin to challenge these influences.

Our work through Fathers in Africa is dedicated to healing men and helping men challenge their own thoughts or perceptions of masculinity. We need to shift our attitudes to fatherhood, and it starts with each individual: whether you are a father figure who models good values or a mother who raises a boy to be a good man. In the midst of the overwhelming women abuse crisis in South Africa, it is time to really question how South Africa’s future generation of men is going to be influenced by today’s generation and what we, as a community, should be doing about it.