Maintenance payments used to coerce, manipulate, and punish women – it’s also violence

As South Africans listened to the latest quarterly crime statistics on Friday 19 November, where rape and sexual offences were the contact crimes that showed the highest increase in the three months from July to September, non-governmental organisation Sonke Gender Justice also released its 2021 report, State of South Africa’s Fathers, highlighting the state of fatherhood in the country. 

The crime stats released by Police Minister Bheki Cele pointed to a 7.1% increase in the number of rapes cases reported from July to September (9 556) and a 4.7% rise in sexual offences (11 964).

In its own report, Sonke Gender Justice, working with the Human Sciences Research Council and Stellenbosch University, concurred with Cele — who described the fact of almost 10 000 people being brutalised and sexually violated in just three months as a “disgrace and deeply disturbing — that South Africa remains one of the most violent countries in the world. 

While emphasising positive developments in father involvement and childcare, the report also reports on a case study it conducted on financial abuse — a form of violence against children and women which remains largely under the radar.

The report says such financial abuse occurs when mothers are dependent on maintenance payments from fathers who use this as an opportunity to coerce, manipulate, and punish the women.

The General Household Survey in 2019, reported that 42% of children in South Africa lived with their mothers; 21% did not live with their biological parents; 33% lived with both parents: and 4% lived only with their fathers. This means that 63% of children — more than 11-million — did not live with their biological fathers. 

While the report stresses that children who do not live with their fathers might still enjoy a healthy relationship with them, it also emphasizes mothers’ difficulties in securing child maintenance from the men.

“Financial abuse can be a silent, devastating, and normalised form of gender-based violence. Discussions have shown how traditional gender roles of men as providers and women as caregivers, and the economic exclusion of women, can perpetuate harmful implications for women and their children regarding financial provision,” the Sonke Gender Justice report says.

It draws its discussions on financial abuse from the Facebook group, Child Maintenance Difficulties South Africa.

As a result of not being listed as a severe form of domestic violence, financial abuse does not receive the same recognition as do other more common forms of abuse. But discussions on the Facebook page make clear that many children grow up without regular financial child-support or maintenance from their biological fathers.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country last year, 12.4-million children received a child social grant in 2019. 

“Despite some children receiving grants, the [grant] amount seems insufficient to provide basic necessities for children to reach their full potential, as prescribed by the Constitution,” says the report. 

“As a result, the most vulnerable and marginalised are being pushed further into poverty … some mothers in the lower- and middle-income groups report that they also are experiencing increased poverty and they battle to provide for their children on their own”.

In addition to this, Covid-19 lockdown restrictions have served as an excuse for fathers not to attend court proceedings or to pay maintenance. According to the child maintenance Facebook page, the justice and constitutional development department “did not seem to assist on the matter,” by “passively allowing the abuse to continue by not resolving unpaid maintenance garnished for up to seven months”.

“Due to the structural economic exclusion of many women in society, many men still benefit more from economic privilege, have higher-paid jobs, higher employment rates, and lower rates of unpaid labour,” the report states. “There is not enough research on this important aspect of financial abuse, especially when it comes to parents who are no longer in a relationship or living together.” 

The report reiterates that the child maintenance and custody difficulties, experienced mainly by mothers, point to “the critical need for more research, awareness and advocacy on financial abuse as a form of violence against women and children and to contribute towards campaigns for greater gender equality”.

The Sonke Gender Justice 2021 report is the second since the first one in 2018. It is scheduled to be published every three years with a vision “to facilitate increased public engagement and social change in how to perceive men as fathers, and fatherhood, in South Africa”.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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