Do Caribbean courts discriminate against fathers?

The European Union Delegation to the Caribbean recently announced that it has awarded 55,000 euro to Trinidad and Tobago’s Single Fathers Association to further its work on gender equality.

Loop T&T reported that a representative from the EU stated:

“Some eighty percent of child custody cases in Trinidad (and Tobago) are judged in favour of the woman. So the reality is that many willing fathers are deprived of the opportunity, pushed aside and not allowed to play a meaning full rolled in the lives of their children.”

I was taken aback by this rhetoric from the EU representative. First it seemed profoundly ignorant of the fact that the majority of women with custody of and primary care for children were not awarded such by any court. It also seemed to suggest that either women themselves or the state deprived men of a relationship with their children. Lastly, there was no mention of a research report from which this figure was drawn.

Hazel Thompson-Ahye, who conducted research on gender bias in courts in T&T, found that fathers were awarded custody in 50% of cases where custody was contested. However, fathers were unlikely to contest custody.

We do not know why fathers are unlikely to contest custody.  Perhaps they feel that the children are better off with their mothers, perhaps they think that to contest custody would be vindictive, perhaps they recognise that sole custody and primary care for children entail very hard work, perhaps they assume, incorrectly,  that they would lose in court. Perhaps they subscribe to gender norms that see mothering as a natural, everyday 24/7 non-negotiable activity and fathering as an activity that is negotiable, awarded special status and which doesn’t require 24/7 engagement.

Recently, a Barbadian father who is facing charges after leaving his two-year-old and four-year-old children at home alone while he went to the shop to buy bread and rum was quoted as saying:

 “I now realise how hard women does got it.” 

A very honest admission of both the gendered nature of caring work and the difficulty of it.

Thompson-Ahye goes on to state:

What I found a bit curious during my research was that in every case where the father was granted custody, the judge had made mention of a mother figure in the father’s life — his own mother, his second wife, sister or nanny — as though the father needed some female to assist him in his parenting role.

Women do a disproportionate share of unpaid care work.  This responsibility for care has adverse economic consequences for women. Women also do a lot of gendered kin-keeping work that facilitates men’s fathering. And should they choose not to, this cannot be viewed as an act of discrimination against men.

I hope that despite this very shaky start the Single Fathers Association of Trinidad and Tobago will do some genuine work towards greater gender justice within families, more equitable distribution of caring labour and a greater valuing of that labour.

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