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

In traditional African communities a child is raised by the village; this is to say a child’s parents are not only the biological parents, virtually every adult in the community bears the responsibility of raising every child and is accorded the same respect given to one’s birth parents. In cases of foster parenting, children can be placed within and outside kinship whenever perceived beneficial to the child, parents or adoptive or foster parents. Such arrangements may be temporary or permanent. Sadly, the safety of children can be compromised in some of these informal arrangements. Arguably the most vulnerable children are those living with step-parents.

Within African communities, in cases where judged necessary to move a child, either temporarily or permanently, the feelings or opinions of that child are secondary and hardly solicited. Our society has blind faith in adults’ intentions and trusts them to make the right decision, with the best interests of the child being the main consideration. In many cases that is the case, the right decisions are made on behalf of the child.

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.

We are in no doubt that there are many exemplary cases of good step-parent/ step-child relationships in our communities, but they are in the minority. This blog seeks not to blame-shame but is an attempt to correct anomalies within our society. It focuses on the bad cases and argues that step-children tend to be mistreated because African society has not formally accommodated step-parenthood within its systems.

The societal perception and definition of a step-child in a family is that they are a child like any other within that family yet directly involved parents view a step-child as someone else’s child.

Step parenthood or childhood is not fairly accommodated in African society. Most African languages/ cultures do not even have a noun for a step-child or step-parent. One wonders if the absence of a noun that portrays the proper relationship between the adult and the child is due to the value placed on having one’s biological children? Thus, 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 involvement and emphasis on upholding children’s rights means poor awareness of child protection laws and legislation. Child safety is often rightly placed on parents and/ or adults with little to no formal safeguards in place; 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 assaults, 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 basic 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. There are no formal arrangements to protect the the child’s welfare; the support is sporadic with the child often getting very minimal support, at best, from the biological parent whose primary concern is often to protect his/ her relationship.

The absence of established or well-funded formal social services means that it is left to concerned neighbours and family members to report to community leaders any concerns relating to 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 and stigma in women having children outside wedlock. 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.

It would perhaps be helpful for governments to 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 all 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. Consideration should also be given to using safety institutions for the most vulnerable children.

While institutions may not always be 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 guidance regarding the work that children can legally perform because there is a fine line between child work and child labour. It can be argued that step-children are often exposed to child labour practices under the guise of child work.

The in-built 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 step-parents’ perceptions of their step-children. While society perceives a step-child as good as one’s biological child, individuals feel no obligation to play a parent’s role to what they see as ‘someone else’s child’. Greater state involvement in child welfare protection is required for the protection of all children.