The Question of Child Support in West Africa

Single parenthood is a situation that results from divorce and separation or death of a partner, among other reasons. There are also single-parent families where there was no union between the parents to begin with. The responsibility of taking care of children can be hectic, even for couples, and previous studies have associated single parenthood with adverse effects on children’s health and wellbeing. This has prompted governments in some countries to implement policies that compel nonresident spouses or parents to contribute financially towards the care of their children. Child support policies vary worldwide but have an underlying goal of augmenting single-parent families by regularly providing dependable financial support for children from their noncustodial parents and assisting families to be self-sufficient.

In the UK, New Zealand, Germany, China and Canada, child support liability is computed based on factors such as the gross or net income of the payer, the number of children being supported, the age of the children, whether or not the payer has dependents in another family and whether or not custody of the child is shared between the parents, with very few variations. Usually, the level of support required from the nonresident parent is not meant to exceed half of the estimated cost of raising the child. Much like in the above-listed countries, child support computation in Australia is also based on the number of children, the cost of caring for the children, the number of nights the child spends with each parent and the income of the parents, with the higher-earning parent often paying more. Child support policies are implemented with varying sanctions in different countries including incarceration for a short term and confiscation of passports. European countries, except the Netherlands, guarantee child support payments to custodial parents even if the noncustodial parent fails to pay or only makes part payment. Sweden goes even further to provide a guaranteed assistance program in which all custodial parents get a child support payment from the government no matter what, and the government then collects what it can from the noncustodial ones.

In Southern Africa, legislators also recognize the importance of ensuring that the biological parents or the people that have a duty to meet the basic needs and provide care for children do so without failure. The government of Namibia, for instance, has a maintenance act that holds both parents of a child liable to make maintenance payments to provide for a child who is unable to support himself/herself. The government of South Africa also enforces a child maintenance act that ensures that children below the age of 18 years are financially supported by their biological parents, whether married or not.

Child support in West African countries is regrettably not as formalized as other parts of the world, as there are few policies governing its regulation. In Nigeria, for instance, child maintenance is not defined by statute. The duty to claim child support payments from the parent of a child vary, depending on whether the claim is based on the English law, Islamic law or the specific customary laws (mostly determined by the tribe). Under the Islamic law for instance, a father has the mandate to financially support his child until the child reaches maturity. Under the various customary laws of Nigeria, the proof of paternity of a child gives the mother claim to regular child support payments from the father of the child. The Children’s Act of Ghana and Liberia mandates parents to care for their children, indicates the duties of a parent or person legally liable to maintain a child and designates the parent with custody to receive the payment. The support is determined based on the income of both parents, the cost of living of the location where the child resides and other matters considered relevant. There are however no clear sanctions that deal with parties that fail to make payments.

It is evident that a majority of sub-Saharan African countries lack comprehensive laws that explicitly state, and adequately ensure that following the termination of a marriage or relationship, periodic child support payments are made by the non-resident parent for the financial benefit of the child. The responsibility of providing food, clothing, education, medical care and reasonable shelter for a child should not lie with a single parent. Sadly, this is the situation that prevails in many West African countries and mothers are often left with the greater (if not sole) responsibility of providing for their children. Studies have shown that the larger percentage of children born and raised in single-parent families in sub-Saharan Africa are raised by mothers.

Child maintenance laws (or the lack of it) is an issue that holds back many women across the globe. With the number of single mothers steadily increasing, now is the time to re-examine the laws that are meant to protect the interests of these women and their children. What statutory laws can be put in place to ensure that nonresident parents continue to financially provide the quality of life that their children need? This also raises the question of the role of the society and societal norms in effectively implementing child maintenance laws. In a typical African society, where mothers cannot afford to seek legal action, how can community leaders, such as chiefs, elders and religious leaders, hold parents accountable in the issues of child support? What can be done to change the narrative?

There are many other countries where the laws on periodic child maintenance payments only exist on paper. What is being done to ensure the full legal enforcement and institutional implementation of these laws in such countries? Are the single parents in these countries even aware of the provisions made by the law to support them to cater for their families? Single mothers and their children should not continue to be victimized due to the systemic failure of their governments and societies.

What do you think policy makers, governments and community leaders can or should do about these issues? Kindly share your opinions and thoughts with us in the comment section below.

Researched by: CSMR Africa and COAWM
Analysed and Written by: CSMR Africa for COAWM

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