An unbalancing act: gender and parental division in childcare in South Africa

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Michelle Hatch University of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa

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The South African Children’s Act, 2005 defines ‘care’ to include safeguarding all aspects of a child’s wellbeing. Despite this obligation falling equally on both parents, studies have shown that mothers in South Africa continue to take greater responsibility for childcare than fathers. Using the most recently available nationally representative quantitative data on physical and financial childcare, collected for the National Income Dynamics Study, this article presents a detailed overview of the involvement in childcare of men compared with women, and fathers compared with mothers. The article includes examining the gender and parental division in assistant childcare, investigating the role played by absent parents in regular physical and financial care, and analysing the gender division in household income of households in which children live.

Abstract

The South African Children’s Act, 2005 defines ‘care’ to include safeguarding all aspects of a child’s wellbeing. Despite this obligation falling equally on both parents, studies have shown that mothers in South Africa continue to take greater responsibility for childcare than fathers. Using the most recently available nationally representative quantitative data on physical and financial childcare, collected for the National Income Dynamics Study, this article presents a detailed overview of the involvement in childcare of men compared with women, and fathers compared with mothers. The article includes examining the gender and parental division in assistant childcare, investigating the role played by absent parents in regular physical and financial care, and analysing the gender division in household income of households in which children live.

Introduction

From 1948 to 1994, the South African political and socioeconomic landscape was shaped by institutionalised racial segregation under the apartheid regime. The Group Areas Act of 1950 introduced far-reaching legislation that required population groups to live separately and forced Africans (the majority of the South African population) to live in underdeveloped and impoverished rural areas with few job opportunities (Horrell, 1956). African workers were permitted to relocate temporarily to urban centres in search of employment, but they were prevented from settling there permanently or from taking their families with them. Decades of family disruption resulted, with migrant parents only able to return home to see their families for a few weeks every year (Turshen, 1986). South Africa’s first democratic election in April 1994 formally ended the apartheid era but the scars of discriminatory policies remain.

Temporary labour migration continues to the present day, with an unemployment rate that is among the highest globally, further impacting household structure. Unemployed adults residing with family members for financial support have contributed to the common practice of extended family living. Being at the epicentre of the HIV/AIDS pandemic/epidemic has left many South African children orphaned, with an expansive social grant system playing a critical role in relatives becoming primary caregivers of children (Posel and Hall, 2021). In South Africa, the majority of children do not live with both biological parents. This irregularity in family formation provides an interesting context in which to study the nature and implications of the provision of childcare (Wilcox and DeRose, 2019).

The release of the South African National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) in 2008, the first national panel study, provided researchers with nationally representative quantitative data to analyse physical and financial childcare. NIDS has the unique characteristic of identifying the primary caregiver of a child aged 14 and younger, and providing information on the relationship between the child and their primary and assistant caregiver(s) (which may include any form of help). Information is also available on financial childcare, including contributions from absent parents. Using this data, researchers have shown that the primary responsibility for childcare in South Africa rests with women, and that, among children with absent fathers, which is the majority of children, most receive no financial maintenance (Hall and Mokomane, 2018; Hatch and Posel, 2018). South African Time Use Survey data from 2010 supports these findings by showing that men, on average, spend less time on childcare than women do, and in-depth interviews have elucidated the adverse effects on women of having to financially support their children (Hall and Budlender, 2016; Horwood et al, 2019).

This study used the most recent wave of NIDS to examine two aspects of childcare that have not been fully investigated in the literature. First, it examined how the gender division in assistant childcare varies by the co-residency status of parents, and it determined the types of households in which men partially compensate for their lack of involvement as primary caregivers by assisting with care. In line with prior analyses, four household types were identified: both parents are co-resident, only the mother is co-resident, only the father is co-resident, and neither parent is co-resident (Hall, 2019). In all household types, other adults may or may not be co-resident. The study also examined the involvement of mothers and fathers in assistant childcare.

Second, the study examined the gender imbalance in household income, shedding light on whether children are more likely to be supported by the resources of women or men. Other than payment for educational and medical expenses, data constraints make it impossible to determine precisely who is paying for all child-related expenses. The study provides insight into the extent to which children receive regular financial support from an absent parent. While existing quantitative studies have examined whether an absent parent provides any financial support to their child(ren), little attention has been focused on the regularity of payments.

Literature review

Determinants of family structure in South Africa

The present-day living arrangements of African children are a consequence of both historical and contemporary factors. Traditionally, the rights and responsibilities for African children have rested not only with parents but with the broader kinship group. The patrilineal extended family system emphasises blood relations and does not have the marital unit at its core (Russell, 2003). It is common for African children to live in an extended household, which includes one or both of their parent(s) as well as other relatives (Statistics South Africa, 2021). Furthermore, children have customarily been sent to live with family members who have sufficient resources for childrearing, resulting in children living with neither of their parents (Hall and Mokomane, 2018).

The migrant labour system also contributed to children’s living without their parent(s), placing the duty of primary childcare or assistant childcare on relatives as parents left the household in search of work. While the post-apartheid era has witnessed a decline in the share of households with labour migrants, there has been an increase in the proportion of migrants who are women. Although mothers now have the freedom to take their children with them, they face practical hurdles which include a lack of support structures and affordable childcare in the destination location (Hall and Posel, 2019; Posel, 2020).

South Africa remains one of the countries most highly affected by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), which is a core reason behind the high proportion of children – approximately 14 per cent – who have lost one or both parent(s). Caring for these children invariably falls to kin (Department of Social Development of South Africa, 2021; Hall, 2022). South Africa’s high unemployment rate has further contributed to children’s living in extended families as unemployed adults might remain in a parent’s household or move in with kin to receive financial support (Klasen and Woolard, 2008). Recent data from the World Bank indicates that, at 33.6 per cent, South Africa’s unemployment rate exceeds other global estimates (World Bank, 2022).

Since the transition to democracy, the social grant system has expanded significantly, with approximately 18.44 million recipients in 2021 compared with 7.9 million in 2003 (Posel and Hall, 2021). This was augmented by the COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress grant which reached between 4.4 and 6.1 million beneficiaries throughout 2020 (Parliament of the Republic of South Africa, 2021). Thus, even in households that receive no labour market income, a grant recipient can provide income support. The social pension, in particular, (currently valued at approximately ZAR2000/USD110 per month), has become a key source of income in households that contain children (Mtshali, 2016; GroundUp, 2022).

Paternal absence continues to be more common than maternal absence, with a decline in marriage rates and high rates of nonmarital childbearing contributing to fathers’ being absent from their children’s lives (Biney et al, 2021). There is evidence of fathers wanting to be involved in childrearing, but they can be discouraged by a perception that fathers are financial ‘providers’ and that physical caregiving is better fulfilled by mothers (Morrell et al, 2016). High unemployment and poverty rates mean that fathers may lack the necessary resources to pay for their children (Clark et al, 2015). Feeling ashamed of their inability to be a ‘provider’, these fathers can withdraw from their children’s lives (Patel and Mavungu, 2016).

Further obstacles to fathers’ involvement stem from customary practices such as men being required to pay lobola, or ‘bride price’, to a woman’s family to be able to marry her. If a man impregnates a woman outside marriage, he is required to pay ‘damages’ to the woman’s family for his paternity to be acknowledged (Clark et al, 2015: 576). For many men, these amounts are prohibitively expensive and maternal kin can then act as ‘gatekeepers’, keeping fathers away from their children. Fathers may also be excluded from their children’s lives if mothers conceal a pregnancy, or if they perceive fathers to be emotionally or financially unsupportive (Makusha and Richter, 2016).

Legal responsibilities of South African parents

Notwithstanding the above reasons for parental absence, the physical and financial contribution of both parents to childcare is required by law. Chapter 3 of the South African Children’s Act 38 of 2005 sets out parental rights and responsibilities and stipulates that these include, ‘the responsibility and the right to contribute to the maintenance of the child’ (Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, 2005: 25). The South African Constitution guards the rights of children, stating that ‘A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child’ and that a child’s rights include the right ‘to family care or parental care, or to appropriate alternative care when removed from the family environment’ (Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, 1996: 11–12).

International law also places the obligation of care equally on mothers and fathers. Article 27 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that ‘parent(s) or others responsible for the child have the primary responsibility to secure, within their abilities and financial capacities, the conditions of living necessary for the child’s development’ (UN, 1990a: 12). South Africa ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1995 (UN, 1990b), effectively indicating consent to be bound to it by international law.

The South African Maintenance Act 99 of 1998 affirms that ‘the duty of supporting a child is an obligation which the parents have incurred jointly’ (South African Government, 1998: 14), regardless of the residency status of a parent. The amount of financial maintenance an absent parent is required to pay is generally determined by the child’s food, accommodation, clothing, medical and educational expenses, and other child-related costs (Proudfoot and Rohrs, 2018). Unfortunately, the system is beset with problems including a shortage of correctly trained investigators and maintenance officers, difficulty in tracing maintenance defaulters, and impunity for defaulters (De Jong, 2009; Carnelley, 2012).

Burden on women and the state

The Constitutional Court has highlighted the gendered effects after a relationship breakdown, given that most children live with their mothers, and statistics have indicated that 90 per cent of maintenance defaulters are men (Carnelley, 2012; Parliamentary Monitoring Group, 2015). As the co-resident parent, a mother is required to initiate legal proceedings, incurring the high financial and emotional costs of doing so. Absent parents may claim they cannot afford maintenance, placing the burden of proof on co-resident parents. Amounts settled on can be insufficient to meet children’s needs, and ultimately the financial burdens are borne by women who, on average, are less likely to be employed than men are, and, if employed, who earn less on average than men (Statistics South Africa, 2019)

Further obstacles are created by errors in the maintenance payment process, resulting in administrative burdens and costs (De Jong and Sephai, 2014). Withholding maintenance can also be an act of retaliation against a former partner in cases of acrimonious relationship breakdowns (University of Johannesburg, 2013). Despite amendments proposed by the Maintenance Amendment Bill, the frequency of maintenance default persists, as evidenced by the emergence of non-profit organisations and television programmes which attempt to address the failings of the system (Ajoodha, 2015; News24, 2019; No Excuse Pay Papgeld, 2022).

Hall (2021) showed that almost 61 per cent of children live in income-poor households. This is not surprising given that the majority live in female-headed households, with the adverse socioeconomic status of female-headed households well documented (Hall and Mokomane, 2018; Statistics South Africa, 2019). The Child Support Grant (CSG) is a means-tested grant that is paid to the child’s primary caregiver, who, in the majority of cases, is a woman (NIDS-CRAM, 2020; South African Government, 2022). Although the CSG occupies an essential role in helping to cover the costs of childcare, the low value of the grant makes it insufficient to meet all a child’s needs. In 2022, the value of the grant was only ZAR480/approximately USD26 per month (Malatji and Malatji, 2021; GroundUp, 2022).

A further problem is that the CSG may crowd out maintenance payments by absent parents who would leave it to the state to pay for their child(ren) (Patel and Hochfeld, 2011). This would place undue pressure on already strained government resources, and it could deprive children of support from absent parents who can afford to pay. While social grants are an essential source of income, greater resilience against poverty is achieved from access to labour market earnings, in particular those from the formal sector (NIDS, 2019b). For many children, their sole way of gaining access to labour market income is through maintenance payments by absent fathers.

Data and sample

This study presents a cross-sectional, descriptive analysis of childcare using the most recently available data collected by NIDS. NIDS is a publicly available dataset implemented by the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) at the University of Cape Town’s School of Economics. Starting in 2008 with a nationally representative sample of approximately 28,000 individuals and 7,300 households, the survey was repeated every two to three years. Wave 5, conducted in 2017, provided data on approximately 39,400 individuals across 10,800 households (NIDS, 2022). Thereafter NIDS was discontinued. Wave 5’s publicly available datasets include the indderived dataset, which includes the best estimate of a variable’s value, the link dataset which provides details on individuals in each wave (including when they died), the child and the adult datasets (NIDS, 2018). The more recent NIDS-CRAM (Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey) was not used in this research as it excluded detailed childcare questions (NIDS-CRAM, 2023).

Households in the NIDS sample were selected using a stratified (at the South African district council level), two-stage cluster sample design developed by the government agency, Statistics SA. Quality control measures were implemented and documented by SALDRU (NIDS, 2009). Included in the NIDS datasets are weights which can be used by researchers to adjust for unequal probabilities of household selection and household non-response, and to calibrate results to the Statistics SA midyear population estimates (NIDS, 2019a). This study used STATA software to assign the clustering, stratification and weights, calculating nationally representative summary statistics using the svyset command. Accounting for stratification and clustering (the likelihood of individuals located in the same cluster being more similar than those drawn at random) ensured that appropriate standard errors and confidence intervals were calculated.

Data for this study was obtained from the child, adult and household questionnaires. The final sample consisted of 9950 African children aged 0 to 14. Given the legacy of apartheid policies, it is insightful to analyse population groups separately. Mid-2017, the South African population was estimated at 80.8 per cent African, 8.8 per cent coloured, 2.5 per cent Asian/Indian and 8 per cent White1 (Statistics South Africa, 2017). Small samples in NIDS make it difficult to generate robust results for non-African sub-populations, thus, this study focussed on African families. Researching African women and children is valuable as they are disproportionately impacted by poverty (ERSA, 2018; Hall, 2021). The gender imbalance in childcare is likely to compound this problem, therefore, it is necessary to continue to interrogate the extent of these imbalances.

Results

NIDS defines a household ‘member’ as someone who has spent 15 or more days in the last 12 months in the household, sharing food and resources while there. A ‘member’ is a ‘resident’ if they usually reside at the household for four or more nights a week. Someone who is a ‘member’ but not a ‘resident’ is a ‘non-resident’ household member. A non-member is considered ‘absent’ (NIDS, 2018). Wave 5 includes the indderived dataset, the child dataset, and the link dataset, which were used to determine the residency and mortality status of parents. Children are listed in the child dataset alongside their individual and household identifiers (the household in which they are resident). They are matched with their parents via the parent’s identifier in the indderived dataset, which gives the best estimate of a variable’s value and indicates an individual’s household of residence. Non-resident parents are identified via the child questionnaire:

E9. Does the child’s ‘mother/father’ live in this household?

If E9 indicates a parent does live there, but the parent is not resident according to the indderived dataset, then the parent is defined as ‘non-resident’. E9 also identifies absent parents. Deceased parents are identified via unique identifiers in the link dataset. Parents whose identifier is unknown, or whose mortality status is not confirmed, are defined as deceased if indicated as such by:

E5.1a / E19.1a We were informed before that [...]’s mother/father is deceased. Is this correct?

Or the confirmatory question:

E5.1c / E19.1c Is the child’s mother/father alive now?

Table 1 shows that the largest proportion of African children live with their mother and not their father; 22.1 per cent live with both parents and 20.3 per cent live with neither parent.2 Only 3.2 per cent live with their father and not their mother. Where parents are not resident, they are more likely to be absent rather than deceased or a non-resident household member. Just over 70 per cent of African children live in female-headed households; however, this varies by household type. In ‘mother only’ and ‘neither parent’ households, 85 and 75.1 per cent of children live with a female head compared with 32.7 and 49.8 per cent in ‘both parent’ and ‘father only’ households respectively, with differences between all household types significant.

Table 1:

Household characteristics of African children aged 0–14: proportions of children by household type

Household type




Both parents Mother only Father

only
Neither parent All
Proportion of children 0.221 (0.202–0.243) 0.543 (0.521–0.565) 0.032 (0.026–0.041) 0.203 (0.186–0.222) 1
Mother resident 1 1 0.764 (0.745–0.782)
Mother non-resident 0.127 (0.058–0.254) 0.155 (0.133–0.181) 0.036 (0.030–0.043)
Mother absent 0.621 (0.500–0.729) 0.654 (0.618–0.689) 0.153 (0.139–0.169)
Mother dead 0.252 (0.157–0.377) 0.190 (0.163–0.222) 0.047 (0.040–0.055)
Father resident 1 1 0.254 (0.232–0.277)
Father non-resident 0.053 (0.041–0.070) 0.027 (0.018–0.041) 0.035 (0.027–0.044)
Father absent 0.846 (0.827–0.863) 0.787 (0.751–0.819) 0.619 (0.598–0.640)
Father dead 0.101 (0.087–0.116) 0.185 (0.157–0.218) 0.092 (0.082–0.104)
Female household head 0.327 (0.282–0.376) 0.850 (0.826–0.871) 0.498 (0.387–0.610) 0.751 (0.716–0.784) 0.703 (0.677–0.728)
N (unweighted) 1,728 5,158 323 2,741 9,950

Note: Column headings indicate whether both/one/neither parent(s) is/are resident.

Source: NIDS (2017). 95 per cent confidence intervals in parentheses.

A child’s primary caregiver is determined via the child questionnaire:

E1. Who is the person that is currently responsible for this child?

The individual identifier of the caregiver is given. In most cases, the caregiver is resident with the child. Gender information is available in the merged dataset for all primary caregivers who are household members, but not for the small minority who are absent. Assistant caregivers, who can be household members or absent, are identified by their relationship to a child via:

E3. Who else helps to care for the child? (Maximum of three answers).

Questions are posed to the ‘mother/caregiver of the child or another household member who is knowledgeable about the child’. Reporting of mothers and fathers can differ, thus the involvement of absent parents (mostly fathers) may be misrepresented (Mikelson, 2008). This may be mitigated by respondents’ being able to list multiple assistant caregivers, as well as the questionnaire’s use of specific questions on financial support from absent parents.

Table 2 shows the gender and parental division in primary and assistant childcare by household type. As found in previous research, for the overwhelming majority of children, the primary caregiver is a woman. A degree of gender balance in childcare involvement is achieved in ‘both parent’ households where 74.6 per cent of children under the primary care of women receive assistance, and out of this group, at least one man assists in 89.2 per cent of cases. In ‘father only’ households, a gender imbalance exists, with the responsibility of childcare falling more on men, but this represents only 3.2 per cent of children. Overall, a greater proportion of children with male, compared with female, primary caregivers receive care from more than one individual – 72.7 per cent compared with 55.9 per cent. There is variation by household type, with a lower proportion of children with women caregivers receiving additional help in ‘mother only’ and ‘neither parent’ households – 50.7 and 51.3 per cent, respectively.

Table 2:

Individual(s) aged 15+ responsible for the care of African children aged 0–14, by household type

Household type
Both parents Mother only Father only Neither parent All
Woman is primary caregiver 0.845

(0.813–0.872)
0.992

(0.988–0.995)
0.425

(0.340–0.515)
0.945

(0.925–0.960)
0.932

(0.921–0.941)
Man is primary caregiver 0.155

(0.128–0.187)
0.008

(0.005–0.012)
0.575

(0.485–0.660)
0.055

(0.040–0.075)
0.068

(0.059–0.079)
Proportion of women caregivers who are assisted 0.746

(0.698–0.789)
0.507

(0.465–0.548)
0.689

(0.582–0.780)
0.513

(0.478–0.548)
0.559

(0.528–0.590)
Proportion of men caregivers who are assisted 0.827

(0.735–0.892)
0.966

(0.859–0.993)
0.491

(0.339–0.646)
0.724

(0.568–0.840)
0.727

(0.650–0.793)
Proportion of assisted women caregivers helped by:1
women only 0.108

(0.072–0.158)
0.529

(0.481–0.577)
0.213

(0.098–0.404)
0.602

(0.546–0.655)
0.422

(0.384–0.462)
men only 0.793

(0.737–0.839)
0.344

(0.304–0.386)
0.490

(0.303–0.680)
0.210

(0.172–0.253)
0.444

(0.410–0.479)
at least one man & one woman 0.099

(0.074–0.131)
0.127

(0.105–0.153)
0.296

(0.150–0.502)
0.188

(0.148–0.235)
0.134

(0.117–0.153)
Proportion of assisted men caregivers helped by:
women only 0.923

(0.857–0.960)
0.873

(0.692–0.954)
0.770

(0.597–0.883)
0.745

(0.587–0.858)
0.863

(0.805–0.905)
men only 0.064

(0.032–0.127)
0.057

(0.017–0.178)
0.132

(0.047–0.319)
0.139

(0.059–0.294)
0.088

(0.055–0.139)
at least one man & one woman 0.012

(0.003–0.050)
0.070

(0.015–0.274)
0.098

(0.043–0.210)
0.116

(0.057–0.220)
0.049

(0.030–0.081)
Relationship of primary caregiver to child:2
Mother 0.835

(0.804–0.863)
0.928

(0.916–0.939)
0.0113

(0.004–0.033)
0.0503

(0.035–0.071)
0.699

(0.679–0.719)
Father is assistant to mother1 0.658

(0.606–0.705)
0.195

(0.172–0.221)
0.475

(0.098–0.883)
0.097

(0.055–0.166)
0.316

(0.290–0.344)
Father 0.155

(0.127–0.186)
0.0043

(0.002–0.010)
0.562

(0.472–0.649)
0.0053

(0.001–0.015)
0.056

(0.047–0.066)
Mother is assistant to father1 0.733

(0.634–0.813)
0.761

(0.272–0.965)
0.152

(0.094–0.238)
0.061

(0.010–0.303)
0.534

(0.446–0.619)
Grandmother 0.001

(0.000–0.005)
0.043

(0.034–0.054)
0.246

(0.169–0.345)
0.617

(0.584–0.650)
0.157

(0.141–0.175)
Other woman 0.008

(0.004–0.019)
0.017

(0.013–0.023)
0.168

(0.103–0.261)
0.276

(0.248–0.306)
0.073

(0.066–0.081)
Other man 0.000

(0.000–0.002)
0.004

(0.003–0.007)
0.012

(0.004–0.040)
0.050

(0.037–0.069)
0.013

(0.010–0.017)
Father is assistant to any primary caregiver1 0.560

(0.514–0.605)
0.186

(0.164–0.210)
0.196

(0.140–0.267)
0.080

(0.066–0.098)
0.248

(0.227–0.270)
Mother is assistant to any primary caregiver1 0.146

(0.118–0.179)
0.044

(0.036–0.054)
0.164

(0.107–0.243)
0.244

(0.215–0.274)
0.111

(0.099–0.124)

The gender of assistant caregivers is identified by their relationship to the child. The relationship categories for assistant and primary caregivers differ; e.g., the former separate ‘biological/adoptive/foster/stepmother’ and ‘biological/adoptive/foster/stepfather’ while the latter groups ‘mother or father’ together.

A child’s parents’ identifiers are used to identify mothers and fathers. For other categories, the caregiver’s gender (determined via their individual identifier) is required to differentiate; e.g., ‘grandparent’. If the identifiers of a child’s caregiver and parents are unknown, the caregiver is assigned to an ‘other’ category (not shown).

Non-resident household members.

Source: NIDS (2017). 95 per cent confidence intervals in parentheses.

The gender division in assistant childcare appears more balanced when women are the primary caregivers. In the case of 42.2 per cent of children, assistance is rendered only by women and 44.4 per cent only by men. The remaining 13.4 per cent are assisted by at least one man and one woman. The majority of children living in ‘mother only’ or ‘neither parent’ households have women primary caregivers who are assisted solely by women (52.9 and 60.2 per cent). In contrast, children in ‘both parents’ households have women caregivers who are helped predominantly by men (79.3 per cent). Across all household types, over 80 per cent of children with men as primary caregivers receive additional help from women only.

A small minority of children are cared for exclusively by men – overall, 6.8 per cent of children receive primary care from a man, and of the 72.7 per cent of children with male primary caregivers who are assisted, only 8.8 per cent are assisted solely by men. In contrast, 93.2 per cent of children are cared for by women, and of these, 55.9 per cent receive additional help, 42.2 per cent of the latter group are helped only by women. When fathers are absent, men play a minor role in assisting with care. In ‘mother only’ and ‘neither parent’ households, only 50.7 and 51.3 per cent of children with women as primary caregivers respectively receive assistance, and less than 50 per cent of them are helped by at least one man. By comparison, when mothers are absent, other women step into the roles of primary and secondary caregivers, as observed in ‘neither parent’ households.

Almost 70 per cent of African children receive primary care from their mother. This is more common in households where mothers are resident, that is, ‘both parent’ and ‘mother only’ households where 83.5 and 92.8 per cent of children have their mothers as primary caregivers, respectively. Although fathers are resident in ‘both parent’ and ‘father only’ households, only 15.5 and 56.2 per cent of children have their fathers as primary carers.

A parent is more likely to assist the other parent if the assisting parent is resident. Parental sharing of childcare is most evident in ‘both parent’ households where in the case of 65.8 per cent of children with maternal primary caregivers, their fathers are in assistance, and 73.3 per cent of children with paternal primary caregivers have their mothers assisting. Unlike for primary caregivers, the individual identifier of the assistant caregiver is not given, and biological, adoptive, foster and step-parents are grouped. Thus, results show the maximum possible involvement of an absent biological parent as an assistant caregiver. The role of female kin in childcare is evident in ‘neither parent’ households where 61.7 and 27.6 per cent of children are cared for by grandmothers and other women respectively.

To gain insight into the relative contribution of men and women to children’s household income, the proportion of children living in a household that included at least one female and/or male resident who received labour market, grant or remittance income was determined, as indicated in Table 3. The remaining components of household income include other government, investment and subsistence agriculture income (which are excluded from the analysis as relatively fewer households receive these income sources) and imputed rental income (which is excluded from the analysis as it represents a less disposable form of income). While it may be difficult for a non-co-resident parent to take responsibility for primary or assistant childcare, financial childcare is logistically easier to achieve. To get an indication of whether absent parents regularly contribute to their child(ren)’s households, receipt of remittance income was analysed. The relationship between the respondent and remitter is given but, with no category for ‘ex-partner’, it is not possible to deduce the exact amount received from an absent parent.

Table 3:

Gender division in household income of African children aged 0–14, by household type

Household type
Both

parents
Mother

only
Father

only
Neither parent All
Absent father pays Absent father does not pay Father non-resident/deceased
 Proportion of children 0.221

(0.202–0.243)
0.223

(0.207–0.240)
0.236

(0.222–0.251)
0.084

(0.074–0.095)
0.032

(0.026–0.041)
0.203

(0.186–0.222)
1
 Children:
 Avg per capita household income1 2519.772 (2197.842–2841.703) 1773.698

(1364.454–2182.942)
1262.018

(1139.146–1384.891)
1267.703

(940.061–1595.345)
1581.879 (1349.999–1813.76) 1148.177 (1046.94–1249.414) 1642.360 (1492.618–1792.102)
 Median per capita household income1 1508.633 (1375.976–1641.289) 1024 (924.987–1123.013) 760.596 (697.936–823.255) 770.832 (666.554–875.110) 1185.858 (836.000–1535.715) 786.969 (730.480–843.459) 951.529 (880.618–1022.441)
Proportion of children living in households receiving income from:
 Labour market2 0.889 (0.858–0.914) 0.623

(0.578–0.666)
0.637

(0.595–0.676)
0.622

(0.547–0.692)
0.816

(0.725–0.881)
0.498

(0.455–0.540)
0.666

(0.637–0.693)
 – women3 0.467

(0.415–0.520)
0.566

(0.519–0.612)
0.551

(0.504–0.597)
0.560

(0.483–0.634)
0.297

(0.227–0.377)
0.347

(0.304–0.393)
0.487

(0.456–0.518)
 – men3 0.782

(0.737–0.821)
0.194

(0.158–0.236)
0.236

(0.200–0.276)
0.164

(0.120–0.220)
0.759

(0.662–0.835)
0.258

(0.224–0.296)
0.363

(0.334–0.393)
 Grant receipts4 0.736

(0.682–0.784)
0.883

(0.853–0.907)
0.927

(0.904–0.944)
0.908

(0.865–0.939)
0.820

(0.743–0.878)
0.859

(0.830–0.884)
0.856

(0.836–0.874)
 – women3 0.726

(0.672–0.774)
0.876

(0.845–0.902)
0.924

(0.902–0.942)
0.901

(0.856–0.933)
0.693 (0.550–0.806) 0.827 (0.796–0.854) 0.840

(0.820–0.859)
 – men3 0.113

(0.087–0.144)
0.098

(0.077–0.123)
0.116

(0.094–0.144)
0.077

(0.053–0.110)
0.299

(0.209–0.407)
0.244

(0.207–0.286)
0.140

(0.123–0.159)
 Remittances5 0.143

(0.115–0.178)
0.449

(0.403–0.495)
0.263

(0.228–0.302)
0.303

(0.243–0.370)
0.159

(0.105–0.232)
0.357

(0.322–0.394)
0.297

(0.275–0.320)
 – women3 0.100

(0.077–0.130)
0.438

(0.393–0.484)
0.253

(0.218–0.292)
0.292

(0.234–0.359)
0.141

(0.092–0.212)
0.323

(0.288–0.360)
0.274

(0.253–0.297)
 – men3 0.049

(0.033–0.073)
0.036

(0.025–0.051)
0.024

(0.016–0.036)
0.031

(0.011–0.083)
0.033

(0.017–0.061)
0.069

(0.053–0.089)
0.042

(0.034–0.053)

The data represents the ‘regular income received by the household on a monthly basis’ (NIDS, 2018). All monetary amounts are deflated using the price index from the national headline consumer price index (CPI) published by Statistics South Africa, and calibrated to April 2017.

Per capita figures are calculated by dividing total amounts by the number of resident household members.

Labour market income was from main and second job, casual wages, self-employment, 13th cheque (an additional monthly salary paid), bonus, profit share and ‘helping friends’.

Indicates the proportion of children living in households with at least one woman (or man) receiving that category of income.

Grant receipts included state old age pension, disability grant, child support grant, foster care grant and care dependency grant.

Remittances included money, food, in-kind contributions and maintenance.

Source: NIDS (2017). 95 per cent confidence intervals in parentheses.

The adult questionnaire asks each resident household member (aged 15 or older):

F3.1 In the last 12 months, did you receive money, food or any other kind of contribution from people who do not usually sleep under this roof for four nights a week? If you receive maintenance for you or your child, please include it here.

The child questionnaire asks the respondent whether a child’s parents live in the household and for those who are identified as absent, the following is asked:

E11 / E25 Does the child’s (mother/father) provide any financial support to look after the child?

Since the majority of children have an absent father, monthly income in ‘mother only’ households was analysed by the payment status of absent fathers (indicated by E25).

Children living in households in which both parents are resident benefit from, on average, a significantly higher mean and median household per capita income compared with those living in all other household types (except for children living in ‘father only’ households in the case of median per capita income). Median income can be a better indicator of central tendency, given that income data in South Africa is positively skewed which indicates that outliers are present. It is noteworthy that the median per capita income of children in ‘mother only’ households where absent fathers pay is significantly higher than the median per capita income of children in ‘mother only’ households where absent fathers do not pay (as well as significantly higher than the median per capita income among children in other ‘mother only’ households as well as in ‘no parent’ households). While household size is likely to be one reason for variations in per capita values, variations are also likely to be driven by differences in total income.

Given the critical role of labour market earnings in insulating households from poverty, it is not surprising that a higher proportion of children living in ‘both parent’ households (78.2 per cent) live with at least one resident male earning labour market income. Similarly, 75.9 per cent of children living in ‘father only’ households live with at least one resident male earning labour market income which is likely to be a reason behind the generally higher per capita income among children in these types of households. Children living in ‘mother only’ households are far less likely to live with a recipient of labour market income, as are children living in ‘neither parent’ households. Children in ‘mother only’ and ‘neither parent’ households are also highly dependent on government grants. With grant income typically lower than labour market income, this also provides a possible reason for the generally lower per capita mean and median incomes of children living in ‘mother only’ and ‘neither parent’ households (Statistics South Africa, 2019).

A key insight of Table 3 is that among children living in ‘mother only’ households with paying absent fathers (compared with those with non-paying absent fathers), a significantly higher proportion of children live with at least one female remittance recipient – 43.8 compared with 25.3 per cent. With the higher median per capita income of children living in the former household type, this result suggests the importance of absent fathers’ paying maintenance to potentially improve the socioeconomic circumstances of their children. However, given that remittance income reflects all types of remittance income, at most, 43.8 per cent of children living in ‘mother only’ households with paying absent fathers receive regular maintenance.

A reason 43.8 (and not 100) per cent of children living in ‘mother only’ households with a paying absent father live with a female receiving remittance income, is that the child questionnaire asks whether an absent parent provides financial support but does not ask how frequently. Table 3 reflects regular monthly income, which suggests that no more than 43.8 per cent of children’s mothers receive monthly maintenance. The remaining 56.2 per cent would receive financial support from an absent father, but this would not be every month. An absent father may also pay for expenses directly, which is not reflected as remittance income (Makusha et al, 2012). Only three per cent of children living in ‘father only’ households reside with a man receiving remittance income, and 35.7 per cent of children living in ‘neither parent’ households live with at least one person receiving remittance income which supports the finding that monthly maintenance from absent parents is low.

Discussion

The analysis of NIDS data showed that women alone are responsible for the majority of African children aged 14 and younger, with very few children cared for solely by men. A substantially higher proportion of children with male primary caregivers receive additional help from women compared with the proportion of children with female primary caregivers who receive additional help from men. Mothers are most often the primary caregivers, with a relatively small proportion of children whose fathers assume this role. An important finding of this research is that the gender and parental division in childcare differs by household type, and when a father is not co-resident, women shoulder a substantial childcare burden. Generally, absent parents play a minor role in assisting in caring for their children.

The analysis of monthly household income provided several important insights. First, when fathers are not co-resident, the income received by women (rather than by men) is primarily responsible for filling the financial gaps left by non-co-resident fathers. Second, per capita income is higher among children living in households where fathers are resident. Third, per capita income is higher among children living in ‘mother only’ households where fathers pay, compared with those living in households where fathers do not pay. Fourth, notwithstanding their obligations towards their children, only a minority of absent parents appear to provide financial support for their children on a regular, monthly basis.

A simplistic analysis of these findings would conclude that children should co-reside with both parents, but this is not feasible when the relationship between parents has broken down. A more practical implication, that supports conclusions drawn in other studies, is that closer relationships between resident and absent parents should be encouraged as they are beneficial for the socioeconomic status of children (Richter, 2006). This would also benefit women if a stronger relationship between absent fathers and their children meant men assumed more responsibility for childcare. However, in South Africa, this would take place in a context of high levels of gender-based violence, thus policy makers would need to avoid implementing laws that facilitate any form of abuse against mothers and children (Meyiwa et al, 2017).

In its current form, the financial maintenance system allows for financial abuse against women and children in the form of maintenance non-payment (Mail and Guardian, 2021). Another important recommendation is therefore that the financial maintenance system must be improved. The intention to improve the tracking of maintenance defaulters has been announced (Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, 2021). However, challenges including insufficient funding, delays in training, limited forensic investigation skills and a shortage of laptops, cell phones and vehicles have impeded effective implementation (BusinessTech, 2021).

This research used the most recently available, nationally representative quantitative data to show that women and mothers continue to bear most of the responsibility for childcare and for financially supporting the households in which children live. A limitation of this study is that the data are from 2017. The White Paper on Families in South Africa (Department of Social Development of South Africa, 2021) identifies indicators that should be monitored to ensure families are holistically supported but excludes indicators on gender and parental division in childcare. If data is not collected regularly, and the division in childcare is not monitored, it is unlikely that inequalities will be comprehensively addressed.

Further limitations are that researching only African women excludes almost 20 per cent of the country’s population, and focusing on children younger than 15 excludes older children who still need care and financial support. Finally, this study presents a descriptive analysis, thus the reasons behind, and consequences of, the under-involvement of men and fathers in childcare have not been interrogated.

Conclusion

This study has shown that a higher proportion of children with female caregivers receive additional help from men when fathers are resident, whereas the large majority of children with male caregivers receive additional help from women in most household types. By implication, men appear to compensate for their lack of involvement in primary childcare by being assistant caregivers, mostly in households in which fathers are a resident. Furthermore, the socioeconomic status of children living in households in which fathers reside is, on average, better compared with the status of children living in households where fathers are not co-resident. The findings in this study indicate that a very low proportion of absent parents make regular financial contributions towards their children, and children living in households that do receive contributions are better off than those that do not. The findings of this research support other studies that recommend greater involvement of absent parents in their child(ren)’s life but policy makers are cautioned against implementing legislation that overlooks abusive behaviour by parents when relationships have broken down.

NIDS has made significant progress by including information on childcare in a publicly available, nationally representative dataset, given that prior surveys have lacked data on both physical and financial care (Budlender, 2018). If reintroduced, amendments to the NIDS questionnaire would improve the quality of data collected. Changes should include a separate category for the amount of monthly maintenance received for a child, and information on the relationship of the remitter to the child, as well as distinct categories for the relationship of primary and assistant caregiver(s) to a child, for example, not grouping ‘father or mother’ and ‘biological/adoptive/foster/stepmother’ together. Another limitation of the NIDS data is that it is not currently possible to determine the income of an absent parent, which would verify the validity of claims that absent parents cannot afford to pay maintenance or confirm whether they are evading their childcare responsibility.

To effect change, a procedural and mindset change is needed. For example, absent parents could be required by law to pay a percentage of their income as maintenance, with absent parents having to approach the courts to prove that they cannot afford to pay. Legislation could be introduced that requires that no one can stand for public office until it is confirmed that they pay any required maintenance. At the very least, data on gender and parental division in childcare should be continuously collected and monitored to achieve an equal distribution of childcare responsibilities.

Notes

1

‘Coloured’ is a term used by Statistics SA to describe individuals of mixed race.

2

In all tables, strata with one sampling unit are centred at the grand mean instead of the stratum mean. Differences between point estimates are indicated as statistically significant when the confidence intervals of the point estimates do not overlap. If a confidence interval contains the point estimate from another group, then the difference is not significant. Confidence intervals that overlap require further testing to determine whether the point estimates are significantly different (Greenland et al, 2016). All significant differences are at the 5 per cent level.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their comments, and Dr Ralitza Dobreva and Prof Claire Vermaak for their insightful feedback.

Funding

The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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Michelle Hatch University of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa

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