Africa: Fathering a child does not make you a father!

Date: February 20, 2012
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Nairobi – 20 February: I will never forget the chilly evening of late last year when I got home to the heart-breaking news of the disappearance of “my daughter”, Doris Okwemba. She had left the house that afternoon to buy something at the shop, promising to be back within minutes. She never came back. Around 7.30 pm she made contact with her sister assuring us of her safety.

The next thing her phone went off. I tried calling her several times without luck. That evening I did not eat or catch any sleep as I recalled the sacrifices that I had made to give Doris a sound start to life at the expense of my own family. I have tried my best to ensure they do not feel that I love my three-year old biological son more than them.

I had adopted a five-year old Doris after the death of her mother, my elder sister. I doubled as a father and mother for Doris for more than ten years. You can understand the pain I went through when I heard she had not come back home.

The following day I went to Doris’ school to talk to her friends and investigate her movements. For the first time, I came to know that the man who had abandoned my sister on her deathbed and declared publicly that he did not want anything to do with his daughters, had started sending emissaries to talk to Doris.

Apparently, Doris had confided in two of her classmates that her so-called “father” had been sending her money through a female workmate. After a decade of absence from her life, Doris’ father now had to buy her love!

I also learnt that Doris’ “father” had told her that I had blocked him from seeing his daughters. Yet, for the 12 solid years I have raised the girls he has never – contacted or contributed towards. Had the sudden interest in the girls come about because Doris is in high school and her sister has just acquired a tertiary qualification?

Hours later after speaking to Doris’ classmates and reporting the matter to the police, Doris called. She said that unknown people who were not allowing her to use her phone had abducted her. She had obviously been told to lie. I sent her a message that the matter had been reported to the police and the “father” replied that he had claimed back his child.

I started seeing the masculine tendencies that characterise our society. Many men think they are powerful, ultimate decision-makers and rational leaders whose actions should not be questioned even when they err. At the police station, the police officer insisted that Doris’ father had the right to unfettered access to the girls. My uncle and two cousins also agreed. They said that in our culture: children belong to their father and I did not have any reason to fight this battle.

Here were four men who had mistreated my sister notwithstanding that she had taken a loan to help complete their house. My cousins, uncle and a few female relatives never questioned this. Instead, they were lecturing me on outdated traditions that affirm patriarchy. One of my uncles found it difficult to reconcile my argument that the act of fathering a child does not qualify one for the title of father.

I finally managed to track Doris down. After two weeks of not talking to her about the incident, I finally had a conversation with Doris, her sister and their aunt. A remorseful Doris also requested a meeting with me after one week and admitted that the incident made her a wiser young woman. We agreed to put it behind us and move on.

I learnt that as gender advocates, we have to work extra hard to make our families, friends, and communities understand that culture is dynamic.

Should men, by virtue of fathering children have legal or moral rights to be accorded the parent title, even when they do not play a role in their upbringing? Do I not have the right to claim Doris as my own daughter?

Doris’ case is a classic example of how society bestows sole “ownership” of children to the man even when he has not provided for them. It is also the reason why families will go to great lengths to establish the real father of the child or his whereabouts if the child is born out of wedlock. Paradoxically, the same society does not entertain searching for the mother in cases where she is absent. Why do we apply double standards?

Our patriarchal society grants men unquestionable entitlement to the children. It makes it easy for men to escape responsibility and only emerge when the same children are productive members of society. These men, like Doris’ father are opportunists.

Men like Doris’ “father” should be subjected to a rigorous evaluation using a comprehensive scorecard before they claim to be “real” men and fathers. Advocates of gender justice should rebuke such men and traditional tendencies that perpetuate inequalities. The road to real fatherhood is long, but one step at a time will create a better place for women and men in Africa.

Arthur Okwemba is a journalist with the African Women and Child Feature Service in Kenya. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday views.


0 thoughts on “Africa: Fathering a child does not make you a father!”

Seele rampape says:

A lot needs to be done regarding issues concerning traditional beliefs and traditional ways of thinking. I can imagine the agony that the father went through when Doris went missing. After taking care of the child for so long, and somebody just springs from nowhere and claim to be the father, it is so anoying.

Collins says:

Sad story indeed. Much as we condemn such men,lets as well condemn children such as Doris. She knew that the father abandoned her but she never minded. Our society should advocate for laws that restrict such men to benefit from such children when they grow up.

Mary Njau says:

This story is very painful. Doris’s father could have taken steps to come home and claim the daughter ammicably and pay the necessary cost which have been inccured to raise the child and educate her.

Doris’s father is cruel and cannot make the daughter progress. I said pole to her uncle and that african culture is lucking development and it must be dynamic rathert than being rigid

Pelonomi says:

The issue discussed is a complex one. I do understand the pain and frustration expressed by Okwemba. For me I think really children need the support of both parents. The law has to make sure that both parents support their children financially, whether they want to have a relationship with them or not. History has proven that in the long run they(fathers) do want to be involved in their children’s lives, especially when children are older and when they stand to benefit from such involvement. So they should support the children financially so that when they resurface women should not feel cheated. But children deserve or have the right to know them even if its later in life, no matter how painful it is for the women. They can then decide how far they want to take the relationship. As women we need to also encourage children to forgive such men- for the sake of the children. We women should also forgive them for our sakes too- not that they deserve it, but we do deserve the peace that comes with forgiving them! having worked with children’s and women’s organization I have seen a lot of such cases and I know they pain it causes all the parties. After all I am a woman and a mother too! So Okwemba, the fact that your daughter wanted to have a relationship with the father does not necessarily mean she did not appreciate what you did for her. She does and will always do. The father will somehow also pay for his mistakes. God cannot be mocked!

Tafadzwa Muropa says:

This is an interesting article. personally, I do agree with what the author has written. A real father is the one who not only takes part in pro creation but who also ensures that his child is taken care of by him and the mother , from birth until the child grows up.Just because he is the biological father does not mean that he has full rights to the child, until he plays his part and become a responsible dad….That for me, has to be addressed by men’s organizations fighting for gender equality, in the African region and beyond!

Wokoro says:

I seem to quite agree with this notion. I was disturbed by what is currently happening in Muvhango that is regarding baby Dakalo. Tshivhu has to be respected about giving the child up for adoption. There is no action that has been portrayed about Sizwe making any efforts after the birth of the Child save for the legal and cultural claims he is now seeming to push.

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