Family policy out of date?

2012-08-27 00:00

THE government’s Green Paper on families has been described as “staid”, “unimaginative”, “pretty conservative” and “retrogressive”.

The presidency released the document on Friday amid debate about the president’s comments on marriage. It said the document would provide the “opportunity for meaningful dialogue” around the “need to define the South African families together”.

President Jacob Zuma attracted a torrent of criticism when he told talk show host Dali Tambo during an interview screened People of the South last Sunday night that he was happy his daughter Duduzile had married “because I wouldn’t want to stay with daughters who are not getting married … that in itself is a problem in society. I know that people today think being single is nice. It’s actually not right. That’s a distortion. You’ve got to have kids. Kids are important to a woman because they actually give an extra training to a woman, to be a mother.”

The presidency said the “comments of the president are informed by the need to strengthen the family as an institution”.

“The debate around what the president said on People of the South should go deeper and wider, and hopefully ignite stakeholders to discuss the Family Green Paper in the public domain, and help the process of defining, building and strengthening the South African family as an institution,” the presidency said.

The Green Paper aims to create a new dispensation that “deliberately supports and strengthens families in the country by eliminating all conditions eroding the family”.

Among these conditions are “poverty and inequality, unemployment, HIV and Aids, gender-based violence, domestic violence and child abuse”.

Discussion was crucial, gender activists told City Press, but the document in its current form was the wrong starting point, they argued.

Mbuyiselo Botha of the Sonke Gender Justice Network said his organisation attended some of the consultations, but had “always raised our discomfort”.

The Green Paper focused too closely on the “nuclear family” — a father, a mother and children. “We don’t have a one-size-fits-all scenario. We must always acknowledge different family units. Diversity is critical,” Botha said.

Botha also questioned the timing of the presidency’s announcement. He said Zuma’s comments on People of the South “don’t take into consideration that women make choices”.

“Women don’t have to respond to social scripting.”

For the Green Paper to be “useful and progressive”, he said, South Africans would have to “honestly interrogate the role of men”.

Lisa Vetten, senior researcher and political analyst for the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, said the Green Paper was “pretty conservative” and “a staid and unimaginative piece of policy”.

She said a much deeper analysis was needed to understand, for instance, how culture shapes family and whether more people were rejecting marriage because it “doesn’t meet their needs”.

“It entrenches a very particular view of families,” she said, suggesting that religious groups seemed to have had a particular hand in consultations.

She said the Green Paper had actually been released last year “with very little fanfare”. However, it had the potential to “kick-start discussion” around family issues.

Melanie Judge, a board member of the Triangle Project, which campaigns on behalf of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people, said the Green Paper was a “deeply conservative document that reads like a religious doctrine” and “reproduces the mythology of the family”.

She said Zuma’s comments had provided “a coarse summary of the ideological essence of the Green Paper”. She asked: “To what end is this ideological framework being pushed into public discussion now? We need to join the dots around conservative forces’ anti-democratic claim on families.”

Colleen Lowe Morna, the CEO of Genderlinks, said: “We welcome the fact that the rather paternalistic statements made by President Zuma on the People of the South debate are being broadened into a debate on family, which includes parenting and recognises the gendered division of labour in SA that places huge burdens on women, especially female-headed households.”

Gender Links wanted to see “a much more in-depth discussion on different family forms” in the Green Paper. These forms included same-sex marriages, polygamous marriages, single-parent families and child- and grandparent-headed households. “The romanticised nuclear family is clearly not the norm in South Africa.”

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