Families and children: Promoting family wellbeing and cohesion

Apartheid policies had devastating effects on family life in South Africa; the creation of homelands, forced resettlement and migratory labour policies strained and disrupted family relations. Ben Roberts, Jarè Struwig and Zitha Mokomane draw on a recent study on family cohesion and values, and actions for promoting child wellbeing.

The family is critical to achieving a healthy, cohesive society. Stable, well-functioning families tend to exhibit higher levels of social capital and resilience which, in turn, contributes to greater social cohesion at the societal level. Conversely, the absence of a stable, nurturing family environment has been found to have a profoundly damaging impact on the individual, often leading to behaviour which is, in turn, profoundly damaging to society.

Recognising this, and the importance of families, the Programme to Support Pro-Poor Development (PSPPD) financially supported a project that focused on better understanding patterns of family cohesion and values in South Africa, using data from the 2012 round of the South African Social Attitude Survey (SASAS).

The intention of the project was to design evidence-based policies aimed at strengthening and promoting the wellbeing of South African families.

Children and alternative family forms

South Africans are still relatively prejudiced against certain alternative family forms. Small shares of South Africans believe that a lesbian (23%) or a gay (18%) couple can bring up a child as well as a heterosexual couple. Despite this, trends over the last decade show a softening of negative attitudes toward homosexual marriages and parenting. Other alternative family forms, such as single parenting, are more readily embraced by South Africans, with 69% agreeing that a single parent can raise a child as well as two parents together.

There is also a strong recognition of the role of fathers in raising children, with 72% of adults saying that men should not have less responsibility for childrearing than mothers, 75% saying being a father merits considerable respect, and 88% holding the view that most fathers want a loving relationship with their children. There is, however, widespread concern that men are unable to be co-resident with their children because of various structural reasons, which has resulted in a reasonably strong appeal (56%) for state assistance to support fathers.

A significant majority of South Africans also continue to support efforts to encourage the adoption of non-kin children in need. Slightly over half (53%) of the adult public agree that society should be doing more to encourage the adoption of children in need.

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Gender ideology and work-family balance

The family survey included a number of items examining gender ideology with specific reference to the tensions between women’s economic participation and caregiving responsibilities in families.

Overall, the findings largely point to support for the traditional gendered division of labour, with female employment generally only tolerated due to economic necessity. Thus, while three-quarters of the adult population believes a working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work, 62% express the opinion that most women prefer domestic duties and childrearing to formal employment. There is also ambivalence in responses to statements regarding young children suffering when their mothers work, and family life suffering when the woman has full-time employment.

The data suggest that women’s gender roles have not been fundamentally transformed. The enduring support for the gendered division of labour has a number of implications for both women and men who are unable to break out of their stereotypical roles. Women who work are likely to experience a double burden of domestic and employment responsibilities. In addition, working mothers may experience stigma, with paid employment seen as the antithesis to ideal femininity and motherhood.

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Children in the family

Nearly all South African adults (97%) agree that raising children is one of life’s greatest joys. Large shares also opposed the idea that having children imposes restrictions on the freedoms of parent (63%), imposes a financial burden on families (59%), or restricts parental career opportunities (58%). There is also a deeply rooted notion that adult children are an important source of help for elderly parents (83% agree). Nevertheless, a notable minority share (25-28%) does recognise that having children places constraints on employment and career prospects of one or both parents.

How child poverty affects families

What effect does child poverty have on families? What does the adult population regard as essential for all children to secure an acceptable standard of living? In 2012, 9 of the 25 definitional items were deemed ‘essential’ by at least 50% of the adult population (Table 1). Many of these items relate to basic needs, such as food, hygiene, health care, education and clothing, and these were regarded as essential child needs by the highest share of South Africans.

The results confirm that the public’s definition of child poverty continues to encompass core elements of material deprivation, human capital deprivation and health deprivation, all of which relate to key areas of government intervention to promote child wellbeing.

Further findings show that inability of parents to provide for their children’s basic needs erodes the dignity of the parents and children alike. Poverty alleviation policies are therefore not only fundamental to material needs but there is a clear demand for the state to address family poverty as the basis of preserving dignity.

Key recommendations

Based on the analysis emanating from the research on family cohesion, we propose the following:
•    Child poverty: The socially perceived necessities method, which includes determining fundamental basic needs such as food, hygiene, health care, education and clothing, should be applied in determining the extent and nature of child poverty, vulnerable groups and spatial concentrations of deprivation.
•    Poverty and material inequalities: Government intervention should be implemented that respects and protects the dignity of citizens, which is an important indication that the state is seen as a legitimate authority in providing social protection that ensures that the needs of families are adequately met and quality life is promoted.
•    Diverse family forms: Public support is required for the promotion of non-kin adoption alongside kinship care, which could represent a critical opening the government should build upon to encourage the adoption of children in need. Interventions should be aimed at shifting people’s negative views related to same-sex family rights and at promoting the benefits of family diversity.
•    Policy support for fathers: Policies and programmes should be pursued to promote positive male and fatherhood roles. Mechanisms and policies such as paternity and parental leave need to be put in place to ensure a greater balance between work and family responsibilities and gender equality in parenting.
•    Employment-family policies: Coherent employment policies should strive to promote gender equity in the labour market and family policies need to recognise the significance of the male’s involvement in households, for example, policy provisions for men’s parental leave to promote caring by both parents. Likewise, although family diversity is recognised in policies, the main focus remains on ‘family preservation’ in line with conventional gender roles.
•    Childrearing: Caregivers of children need to be provided with information, knowledge and skills that will enable them to accomplish positive child outcomes without delaying their own career and economic advancement. The availability of state-subsidised services such as affordable child day-care and after-school care would go a long way towards complementing parental responsibilities in terms of children’s wellbeing, protection and development. Evidence-based, positive parenting programmes could also be implemented and made available to parents nationally.

Authors: Benjamin Robert and Jarè Struwig, SASAS coordinators and senior research managers, Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery (DGSD) programme, HSRC; Dr Zitha Mokomane, associate professor, Department of Sociology, University of Pretoria, previously a chief research specialist, Human and Social Development research programme, HSRC.

Acknowledgements: The authors acknowledge financial support from the Programme to Support Pro-Poor Policy Development II (PSPPD II), a partnership between the South African Presidency and the European Union; and financial support from the Department of Science and Technology for a dedicated questionnaire in the 2012 round of SASAS. The content of this article is the sole responsibility of the authors and cannot be taken to reflect the views of the Presidency or the European Union.