Broken families, broken morals

2012-05-26 14:18

The story of the gang rape of a mentally disabled girl has drifted out of the headlines almost as quickly as it hit them, but it was part of a problem that will long outlast the public and media’s attention span.

When one looks for them, there are stories of rape every week and sometimes every day in our newspapers (however small a mention they receive). Often the victims and perpetrators are children. But it took a particularly serious case of gang rape, by teenagers of another teenager, to reawaken concern about this problem in society.

Many people were as shocked by the video of the incident – which floated around on social media for nearly two weeks before it was reported to the police – as they were by the incident itself.

There is a danger that we are becoming desensitised to some of the most pressing issues in society. We see accounts of them so often that we are no longer shocked. Rape may be one such issue.

Since the gang rape case made the headlines, there has been much written about where we might have gone wrong as a society.

Attitudes to women, the normalisation of violence and access to pornography have been three of the themes that emerged, but in all of the analyses one word has largely been missing: family.

The idea that families are a key institution for moulding the values in society and for socialising young people may be old fashioned, but the widespread absence of stable families in South Africa may be at the root of some of the disturbing behaviour we increasingly witness in our communities, particularly among young people.

Only one-third of South African children live with both of their biological parents. Nearly one in five children is an orphan, having lost one or both of their parents, many of them to Aids.

Two of five children live in single-parent households, and nearly 10% live with their grandparents. In addition, there are nearly 100 000 children living in child-headed households where the oldest member is younger than 18.

Nearly half of all children have a father who is alive, but does not live with them.

These statistics paint a picture of a majority of our children growing up in disrupted family environments, and have serious implications on several fronts. They may also partially explain the proliferation of sexual offences committed by and on young people.

There is a growing body of research here and in other countries that the absence of a parent, particularly a father, is often detrimental to the behavioural, social and educational development of children.

One study in the US found that boys growing up without their fathers were statistically more likely to display hypermasculine or more aggressive behaviour.

South African research has found that boys who do not know their paternal identity are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.

It has also found that the educational performance of children growing up without their biological father in the household is on average lower.

But there are still many children without a father who grow into successful and well-adjusted adults.

There are also children who do not actually live with their father but benefit from a positive male influence, either through contact with their father or from another male such as an uncle or stepfather.

But the research is a reminder that fathers and family are not to be taken for granted.

Some of the violence and harmful attitudes towards women displayed by our men may be a product of growing up without a positive male role model to guide and teach them to be responsible, and to live with moral integrity.

The same American study found specific trends for girls growing up without their fathers. They were more likely to have problems with relationships, to fall pregnant, get married early and to get divorced.

Once again, without a positive male role model and parental relationship to learn from, many girls grow up without knowing what a stable relationship is like and how they should expect to be treated by a man.

As a result, they may be more vulnerable to peer pressure to have sex before they want to, to be persuaded to have unprotected sex and to be coerced into sex.

Families not only mould the behaviour of children, but also play a crucial role in protecting them.

Children with single parents, without parents or with absent parents may be more vulnerable. It seems no coincidence that the mother of the victim of the gang rape was a single mother. She was vilified by the community for not taking better care of her mentally disabled daughter, but as a single mother her ability to protect her child may have been limited.

We do not know the exact circumstances faced by that family, but it makes sense that children with absent parents may have less supervision and moral guidance at home. Not only could this make them more vulnerable to becoming a victim of crime, but it could make them more susceptible to falling into a criminal crowd.

This hypothesis was supported by a study that compared young offenders with non-offending youth in the country and found that the offending group was less likely to have a father in the household and on average spent less time with their mothers when growing up.

It is all too easy to declare that society is morally corrupt and that we are losing our sense of right and wrong when faced with incidents as troubling as this gang rape, and the distribution of the footage documenting it.

Instead, we need to consider where we learn our morals from.

At an individual level, many of us would say a parent or a significant adult was crucial in guiding us from an early age. Other institutions in society can – and should – play a role to instil morals and values into our young people.

Schools, and religious and community organisations, have the potential to positively influence the behaviour of young people and many are already doing so in communities around the country. Politicians and public figures should also lead by example.

But children learn right from wrong at an early age, and only with constant guidance and discipline. Parents and families are necessary to nurture and guide our children to become responsible citizens of the future.

Without stable families, many young people today will grow up to create unstable families themselves.

If this cycle cannot be broken, we will be reading stories of the rape of, and by, our children for many years to come.

» Holborn is research manager at the South African Institute of Race Relations and author of First Steps to Healing the South African Family, a report published by the institute in April 2011

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