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Father's Day?

17 June 2004 Angelo Coppola

Kerry Cullinan, writing for the Health-e News Service reports on Sunday’s relevance.

Shops are full of Father's Day gifts and cards in preparation for June 20. But the sad reality is that millions of South African children have little or no contact with their fathers, and are very unlikely to spend the day with their dads.

By 1998, 42% of South African children lived with their mothers only according to Statistics SA. But not only are many children not living with their fathers, many also have little contact with them.

A study in the early 1990s found that half the 22 000 babies born at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto had no male support.

The "Birth to 20" Study based at Wits University is following 2 500 children across all racial and income groups born in Johannesburg and Soweto in 1990 until they are 20 years old.

"Only 20% of children in the study were living with their fathers at the age of 12. The remaining 80% had minimal contact with their fathers and many expressed a yearning for father figures in their lives," says project manager Shane Norris.

Fatherlessness is creating an impact in many places, including religious organisations. Churches report facing the dilemma of how to get children without fathers to understand that God is a caring, loving "heavenly Father".

"One of the ways that the church sought to remedy this was to de-gender God," says Minister Jim Ramage of the Willows Methodist Church in Pretoria. "So where the child had a problem with seeing God as a loving father, they were encouraged to see him as their heavenly parent, or mother."

But, says Ramage, this has not proved to be a satisfactory solution as "children thrive in an environment where both their father and mother are present and involved in their development".

"We believe that, in order to have a good self-concept, children need both male and female role models," adds Ramage. "This is equally true in a spiritual sense. For us to understand God fully, we need to understand both his male and female nature."

Thus, Ramage's church has actively recruited fathers to its children's ministry, which was dominated by women. It also ensures that fathers are present at weekend outings to act as "camp dads" for all the children.

In addition, it is trying to support families by offering marriage counselling to try to "remedy the problem of marriage breakdown".

Meanwhile, the Fatherhood Project started by the Human Science Research Council (HSRC) is trying to lessen the impact of fatherlessness by encouraging the recognition of "social fathers".

These are men such as grandfathers, uncles, brothers and stepfathers who may play a role in fathering children who are not biologically their own.

Perhaps in time this idea will catch on, and fatherless children will no longer crumple up the father's day cards they have made at school but give them to those men in their lives most deserving of the title of '"father".

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