Saturday, May 30, 2020

Deadbeat fathers or ATM machines ÔÇô Child maintenance debate through a gender lens

BY MPHO KUHLMANN

“He feels that I will be using the money for my benefit but he left a toddler behind who needs constant care. I don’t ask much of him. I want nothing for myself ÔÇô it’s just the things my daughter needs.” Single mother Tidimalo Setso is echoing the protest of thousands of Batswana women who have trudged the beaten path to the court chasing deadbeat fathers for child support.

And the “he feels that I will be using the money for my benefit” is a sentiment shared by many Batswana man who feel women have turned them into sperm donors and ATM machines.

The self employed mother of one who is a regular on those long wooden benches lining the wall outside the door of the Gaborone magistrate court’s revenue offices told Sunday Standard Lifestyle that, “we aren’t married. Unfortunately we broke up before we could walk the aisle. He always supported his child when we were together, anything the child needed he made sure she got and when we parted ways I struggled with raising the child by myself which I’m still essentially doing.” Initially the estranged couple agreed on an arrangement, but the thing about friendly arrangements between people who aren’t very friendly is that they can disappear overnight.  Setso never dream of going to court, it was a last resort.

“The court ordered him to pay child support and it has been a battle ever since”, she lamented.

In a country where most men don’t think much of walking out on their children, Setso is just another statistic. A study conducted a while ago in Botswana, Swaziland, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, revealed that Botswana is the worst country in child support. Because the culprits are more often than not men, there is a growing concern among men folk that their experience is not included in the construction of the national narrative of child support.

As a lawyer, Thabiso Gulubane of Khumomotse Law Practice occupies the front row seat in the ongoing duel between abandoned mothers and deadbeat fathers. Contrary to the view held by most men that the country’s maintance laws are stacked against them, Gulubane insists that Botswana’s child maintenance laws are gender neutral. “Women can also pay child maintenance if the child lives with the father; it’s not based on gender but on custody. Whoever has custody of the child can ask for maintenance. It’s just that typically the woman has the child.”

Gulubane however points out that sometimes men are forced to support children who are not theirs because they cannot afford the expensive paternity tests.

“We have as the putative father, say you’re living with a man and you two are together and there’s a child. The assumed parent will then be liable to pay for child maintenance for the child whether you live with the child or not, if you dispute the paternity of the child you then do blood tests or DNA depending on your financial position. Unfortunately not many people can afford these things so you find that there are some men who pay child support for kids that aren’t theirs simply because they can’t afford to prove otherwise. The idea is to share needs of the child, if it is an infant you look at what the child needs ÔÇô diapers, milk, clothes etc. You look at the monthly expenses towards the child and then you cut them in half. If the child consumes P1, 500.00 you cut that in half and that becomes P750.00 that the father has to pay.”

Gulubane whose line of work places him at the centre of the debate on child maintenance confirms concerns by some men that sometimes women see them as ATM machines. “There are situations locally where child maintenance is viewed as some kind of economic opportunity, say you’re a well off man who earns P60,000.00 and you’re ordered to pay P5,000.00,  the P5,000.00 wouldn’t hurt you but that doesn’t matter, what matters is what the child needs. Maintenance is tied to access, locally there are situations where women want to be paid the money but deny fathers to see the child. Legally speaking the right to see a child and to access a child is tied to maintenance, you pay you see the child; you see the child you pay that is how it goes in Botswana. A lot of people misunderstand the whole child maintenance process; a lot of them see it as a chance to see how much they can take. There are a lot of issues with child maintenance, typically the women say the money is not enough whereas the men feel the money is being misappropriated that women are paying rent and doing other things with the money that isn’t intended for its use. Maintenance creates two obligations in our law; there is a criminal offence under the penal code arising from failure to pay maintenance. Once there is a maintenance order and you fail to meet that order then you can be arrested depending on the amount.”

Dr Sethunya Mosime, senior Sociology lecturer at the University of Botswana says “while it is intended that child support monies will be used for the children’s expenses, the state does not monitor how the money is spent or require any proof of how the money is used.”

Dr Mosime however takes a gender neutral role in the debate. “When a child has been born to a couple who are now desiring a divorce, or who have been together in a relationship and are leaving that relationship, there is always the issue of child support. The amount can be raised or lowered depending on the needs of the children, the amount of income each parent makes. Child support monies are to be used for the care and nurturing of minor children, and the expenses related to the upbringing of the child such as health insurance and daycare up to the age of l8. Sometimes dependent children in college or children with special needs, which will continue into their adult years, will also be part of a child support decision. While it is intended that child support monies will be used for the children’s expenses, the state does not monitor how the money is spent or require any proof of how the money is used. Child support judgments can also contain the method of payment from one parent to another, the most popular method being the paying parent giving the court the amount due and the court then forwarding that amount to the receiving parent. This method provides a paper trail of proof, which will be needed if arrears become apparent.”

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