African step-parents and step-children: the uneasy fit!

In traditional African communities a child’s parents are not only the biological parents; virtually every adult in the community is accorded the same respect given to one’s birth parents. Children can be placed within and outside kinship whenever perceived beneficial for the child, parents or the proposed adoptive/ foster parents. Such arrangements may be temporary while the child attends school or needs to be nearer a clinic for a period while undergoing medical treatment or semi-permanent when they are offered to childless relatives.

In cases where judged necessary to move a child, either temporarily or permanently, the feelings or opinions of the child are hardly solicited. Our society trusts adults to make the right decision, with the best interests of the child being the main consideration. However, without independent and professional adjudicators of these decisions, the reality is often that the adult(s)’ interests are the main consideration in most cases thereby leaving children vulnerable to potential emotional and/ or physical abuse.

I want to argue that step-children tend to be mistreated because African society does not formally recognise or take pride in step-parenthood. Arguably the most vulnerable children are those living with step-parents. Societal definition of a step-child is that they are a child not any different from any other within a family yet directly involved individual parents see a step-child as someone else’s child.

Most African languages do not have a noun for a step-child or step-parent. The child has a dilemma of what to call the step-parent especially if the adult rejects being referred to as ‘dad’ or ‘mum’. I wonder if the absence of a noun that denotes the proper relationship of the adult to the child is due to the value placed on having one’s biological children hence people are not keen to publicly acknowledge the true relationship they have with the child in public yet finding it hard to accept being the child’s parent in private.

It is difficult to formally monitor the welfare of children let alone step-children within African society; lack of direct state emphasis on upholding children’s rights means poor awareness of child protection laws and legislation. Child safety is rightly placed on parents and/ or adults with little to no safeguards; it is only in extreme cases of abuse that a child’s word may be taken seriously over and above an adult’s.

Step-children on the main get abused by their step-parents. The abuse varies according to what the step-parent can get away with and the level of protection from the child’s biological parent. Abuse can take the form of constant verbal threats, disproportionate workload, physical assaults for minor real or manufactured offences, psychological and emotional abuse. Cases of step-children being denied access to formal education, food and other provisions are not uncommon.

Perpetrators of the abuse can be either men or women although most culprits will tend to be women. This is a mere societal coincidence and not that men are more tolerant of their step-children than women; the tendency in most customs is that on separation or divorce men are almost always given the custody of children hence tend not to live with step-children.

In cases where the woman has custody of the child, on getting into a new relationship the child is often left in the custody of maternal grandparents. The most unfortunate aspect is that the child often gets very minimal support if anything from their biological parent who is keen to protect his/ her relationship. If anything, the biological parent ends up being complicit in the abuse to preserve their relationship.

The absence of established formal social services means that it is left to concerned neighbours to report to community leaders any concerns about a child’s welfare. However, people tend to keep out of what they view as private family matters. Also the fear of straining relations with neighbours may mean cases are left unreported even if known.

Can the resentment of step-children be the fact that they expose the status of the spouse of the step-parent? In most African societies there is status in marrying childless partners. Men take pride in marrying younger childless women, if not a virgin; marrying a woman who has a child from a previous relationship is seen as a failure especially by young previously unmarried men. Women do also take pride in marrying a childless groom.

It has to be noted that having a child somehow ‘disqualifies’, particularly women, from being young irrespective of their age. That is why there are cases where parents have colluded with their daughters/ sons to ‘conceal’ a child from a previous relationship to a prospective spouse. Arguably, the presence of a step-child somehow hurts the ego of the step-parent as the child saves as evidence that their spouse is not ‘pure’ in the eyes of family members who may despise the marriage.

There is too great an importance and pride placed on having biological children in most black African societies. Children are ‘loved’ more for their biological connection to both of the parents. The way forward would be for African states to prioritise the protection of children’s rights. Although signatories to various conventions on children’s rights, African states do not take these rights seriously.

I will suggest that states take a greater role in the welfare of children by training and employing social workers to work with local community leaders in educating communities and ensuring the rights of children are upheld.

In cases where child abuse is suspected, social workers should be given legal powers to investigate and adults should be bound by law to cooperate. Children’s welfare should preclude the right of family privacy hence full access should be given to social workers by the parents. I think consideration should also be given to using safety institutions for the most vulnerable children.

While institutions may not always good for children’s welfare, there are extreme cases where family homes are worse places for some children; it is those exceptional cases that should be considered. There should be clear guidelines regarding the work that the child can legally do because there is a fine line between child work and child labour. Step-children are often exposed to child labour practices under the guise of child work.

The resentment of step-children by most black African step-parents coupled with weak state regulation leaves children exposed to routine violence by adults who should be protecting them. There is a conflict between what society expects of step-parents and what step-parents’ perceptions of the step-children. While society perceives a step-child as good as one’s biological child, individuals feel no obligation to play a real parent’s role to what they see as ‘someone else’s child’. It is for this reason that I think more governmental involvement in child welfare protection is required to root out the abuse of step-children.

Published by RESEARCH HUB

a political and policy research hub with interest in Mthwakazi human rights, safety and security.


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