Has paternity denial become the norm in SA?

Men denying paternity has become normalised and the lack of research around this, as well as women’s disempowerment, makes matters much worse, panelists at a debate at the University of Witwatersrand said on Thursday.

The panel was debating the value of increasing access to DNA paternity tests in South Africa. “It has become normalised that fathers are not involved in childrens lives … and there’s this norm that women need to constantly prove that the father is the father even if they both know that he is,” Khanyee Bujela, a researcher in the Wits psychology department told the audience.

“DNA paternity tests can assist a woman to prove that a man is the father, and hold him accountable.”

The department conducted studies that suggest there is an “unmet demand for free paternity testing facilities in the country”, according to a press release from the university on Tuesday. The studies, which were conducted in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu Natal, Mpumalanga and Gauteng showed that teenage mothers and their children suffer the shame of denied paternity when men refuse to acknowledge their role in the pregnancy.

“The plight of young mothers and their children could be alleviated by the provision of free DNA paternity testing facilities to facilitate quicker recourse.”

But while DNA paternity testing is available in South Africa, it still remains inaccessible to most young women due to costs. A test costs approximately R1 600 and is mostly only available in private clinics.

Professor in the department, Mzikazi Nduna, said an important part of the context of paternity denial is how society has framed women, and how it has caused women to view themselves. “If you are a woman in our culture and you don’t have a child, that is a problem … People think you’re selfish … after a certain age people start asking why don’t you have a  child. You are treated with suspicion. But if you have a lot of children you are also treated with [disdain]. You are treated as if you haven’t learned your lesson, you didn’t plan ahead. Wherever you stand, there’s a problem.”

Magnitude of the problem
Women therefore often blame themselves for their pregnancy, whereas men are “innocent until proven guilty”. “Women have resigned themselves to a position where they feel they can’t resolve disputed pregnancies,” she said.

She said one interviewee in the study said: “Men love to have sex with you and will leave you with a tummy just like that.”

Another woman said: “Men have rights – if he says it’s not his child then it’s not his child”.

She said a third woman described the father of her child as “patient” when he accepted his first child, but left her after the second child. She said part of the difficulty of addressing denied paternity was that there were not enough quantitative studies “to tell us the magnitude of the problem”.

She referred to a study in the Eastern Cape done by the Medical Research Council in Pretoria in 2003, which found that 26.9% of young men who were interviewed had denied a pregnancy.  She said the negative effects of denied paternity are felt by mothers and children throughout their lifetime. Phyllis Ndlovu, a clinical psychologist reinforced this saying it was “very important for young children to have a paternal and maternal figure in their lives”.

“You can’t replace the feeling of finding who birthed you …  reconnecting and restoring what is lost is important for people. In African culture, a lot of people looking for fathers say things like I need to have rites done … people also need to just establish the truth.”

Denial of paternity and the lack of free DNA testing facilities can be interpreted in a number of ways, the press release said. “It could indicate the lack of political commitment to Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) service provision as this is one of the services pertinent under SRHR or it could imply the State’s collusion and reinforcement of traditional ways of resolving contested.”

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