The Jamaica government plans to make it mandatory for fathers’ names to be recorded on birth certificates. The Minister responsible for the legislation stated that:
Vaz said if the mother is unable to disclose the father’s name, she would have to provide the reason on the appropriate section of the birth registration form.
Out of wedlock births in the Caribbean can run up to 75% of all births. Most Caribbean countries do not permit a single father to register the birth of a child but a single mother is permitted to do so. (If the father is present at the registration his name is recorded and the child bear’s his last name, if he isn’t no name is recorded for the father and the child gets her mother’s last name). Hence, there are many people with birth certificates which do not bear their fathers’ names.
This does not mean that they do not know who their fathers are, do not or have not lived with him or his relatives at some point or do not have the financial or emotional support of their fathers.
My father taught me how to read, walked me to school daily, supported the family financially for a time, all without his name being on the birth certificate. Perhaps, since legally only a single mother can register the birth of child, many fathers are not present at the registration of the birth. (Being named on the birth certificate is not seen as proof nor a requirement of fatherhood). This does not mean that they are not present in the child’s life, nor does it explain the absence of those fathers who choose to not to be a part of their child’s life in any way or who eventually end up having little contact with their children.
At first glance then, the Jamaica legislation seems a step in the right direction. Single fathers would be required by law to be part of the registration process of their child’s birth.
However, the Minister’s comments reveal that these legislative changes actually mean increased responsibility for mothers which is best understood by examining Caribbean welfare policies. Michelle Rowley has argued that Caribbean welfare policies reveal “the fear of supporting non-performing or deviant masculinity. […] welfare policies bring women into a complicit relationship with the state in so far as they are now invested with the responsibility of disciplining deviant masculinity if their own needs are to be met.”
Jamaican women will now be forced to name the father of their children or to give account of why they cannot do so. The burden of naming falls on the mother as does the punishment for refusing to name or naming fraudulently. In this way the legislation serves to entrench existing inequalities based on gender and class.
Ultimately, more is at stake than just birth certificates. Afro-Caribbean, working-class families have been deemed dysfunctional since the anthropologists first got a glimpse of them. Fathers were understood to be marginal to their children’s lives, expected to provide financial support but largely failing to do so. The pathological black family became the scape-goat for all of societies ills with black mothers receiving most of the blame.
And mothers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Also in Jamaica newspapers this weekend was the report of a study which claims that whether or not young men from the inner-city are able to escape a life of crime and violence is due to the presence of male figures in their lives:
A boy from the inner city who beats the influence of the street usually has a male influence somewhere. A male teacher, pastor and uncle are the three we usually find in studies. So when a mother comes out and says ‘is me and God alone’, it’s a lie…”
Mothers just don’t have this same kind of influence on their children’s lives because, according to the researcher, they cannot serve as role models for their children:
A number of studies show that three-quarters (75 per cent) of boys want to be like their fathers and more than half of girls want to be like their fathers. So once a father has a job and is stable and spends a lot of time with his son, that boy is most likely to be stable,” Gayle, an anthropologist of social violence, told the Sunday Observer.
“It is not the same thing for his mother. So the mother can have a stable job and thing, but the boy is still problematic because the mother is not a role model for her son. Very few boys choose, (for example), the careers of their mothers,” he added.
I really don’t have time to unpack the many stereotypes, assumptions and unexamined sexism in the statement above. I trust you good readers are able to do so. Just as (some of ) the readers of these newspapers where able to grasp the gendered implications of the new legislation and the way in which they ultimately serve to coerce the most vulnerable. They spoke of cases of incest, inter-generational relationships and child abuse:
yes I guess there will be many reference to incest in the explanation section. Everybody must have had crazy juice the day this was decided. Punish the mother and having to state possible shameful details on what can potentially be public record? How awful it will be to have to present such a certificate in any setting. Freedom of choice (a Go Jamaica commenter).
Barry Chevannes’ analysis of teenage mothers accessing services at the Women’s Centre of Jamaica during 1989-1994 revealed that 75% of baby-fathers stood by the baby-mothers during pregnancy with 46% of young women reporting that they saw the baby-father everyday during their pregnancy. If this research is still relevant today, surely all it would take to get more fathers’ names on birth certificates would be a public education campaign encouraging them to do so. Getting fathers to go the distance in terms of parenting would require appropriate policies, programmes and support for families. This requires a greater investment of time, resources and changing understandings of parenting and fathering. It requires genuine commitment by the state. Co-opting/coercing women into disciplining delinquent masculinity is not the answer.