By Anastasia Roscia.
Fathers’ rights movements are political and social groups of activists that declare themselves to be defenders of gender equality for men, especially in matters such as financial support and child custody after divorce and separation. They are a truly international movement and can be found under different names and associations in many jurisdictions. Many commentators argue that their arguments can shed a light on common cultural attitudes which are both problematic, and also characteristic of our post-feminist society.
When approaching the fathers’ movements for the first time, I was quite curious to identify the argumentative techniques this movement engages with, and to see if there are substantial differences among them. In the UK, the most famous branches are “Fathers 4 Justice” and “Families Need Fathers”; the former is seen as the most extreme version of fathers’ movements, whereas the latter is seen as the more moderate and reasonable version. If we look beyond the UK, there are many groups that share the same goals and arguments. For instance, in the USA there are many different associations across various states, including self-help groups, activist movements and legal support services. However, they are also consistently criticised by a range of womens’ rights associations and charities as being misogynistic; they are accused of advocating for a traditional, patriarchal view of family which goes against a modern vision of society and a defence of women’s and children’s rights.
These fathers and men are accused of having appropriated and manipulated equality arguments (which feminists have previously employed) to put forward their misogynistic and anti-woman agenda. In the UK and internationally, courts and legislators alike have been interpreted as being receptive to father’s rights movements’ arguments. Women’s charities such as Women’s Aid in the UK have emphasised that family law courts are keen on retaining the presumption that the best interest of the child is being in contact with both parents, even when, for instance, the father has a proven record of violence against the mother and the child.
Most of the time, the fathers’ movement’s activists tend to emphasise how men are equally victims of violence; moreover, they selectively manipulate statistics to prove that women are in a position of advantage when guaranteed divorce. They also argue that women tend to make up domestic abuse claims and emphasise that current laws are damaging for fathers who want to be involved but end up being economically drained by legal proceedings and excessive child support payments. However, in order to put forward these arguments, they end up minimising women’s claims of being disadvantaged, abused etc. By claiming it is wrong to generalise from statistics and to use them as conclusive proof of men’s inherently violent nature, they end up perpetuating equally damaging stereotypes on women. While I get where they’re coming from, it is ironic that men’s rights groups can often perpetuate the very generalisations they lament being the victim of.
Many of these movements cite a number of examples of fathers being mistreated by the mothers of their children and the legal system. A cursory Google search for these organisations reveals endless stories of mothers committed to excluding fathers from their children’s lives. Revealingly, these interviews often present near identical scenarios: the wife is usually found to have been cheating on the husband; she moves houses and location so that she can not be found by the ex-husband and/or she is committed to “destroying” the man, financially and emotionally. These are, of course, “extreme” examples of some of the stories I have read. Attacking women’s sexuality, infidelity and character is an old practice: by using the same old imagery and stereotypes (even when representing real-lives stories), they end up detracting from the real matter in hand. By shifting the focus to “typical” female misbehaviour in the collective imagination, they detract from what is in children’s best interests, namely a safe and stable family.
We cannot ignore that legal scholars and academics, as well as social workers, women’s charities and family law commentators, seem to believe that women are not protected enough under the current regime (no matter what men say about the apparent favours women enjoy at the expense of their ex-husbands). In 2017, the UK charity Women’s Aid claimed that 19 children have been killed by violent fathers after courts established that they had to have regular contact with their fathers. Furthermore, they highlighted that vulnerable women can be victims of assault and violence by virtue of these orders. There is an international consensus that children and mothers alike suffer tremendously when violent fathers use these contact orders to harass and abuse their ex-partners. Indeed, even when not directly affected by their parents’ violence, these children are said to be negatively affected, both emotionally and psychologically, especially when witnessing abuse. In a recent article published on the Family Law and Social Welfare Journal, Hunter, Barnett and Kanagas expressed concerns over the lack of good practices in jurisdictions such as England and Wales, New Zealand and the USA when facing domestic violence cases. Family courts are persuaded that it is still a good thing to arrange regular contact with violent fathers. This is in sharp contrast with these movements’ claims that courts favour mothers and ex-wives in excluding fathers from their children’s lives.
It is easy to get lost in the multitude of arguments employed by fathers and mothers alike to show how children benefit or suffer from fathers’ absence, depending on the “ideological” side considered. But one cannot forget that fathers’ rights movements tend to dangerously minimise statistics on domestic violence, nor ignore the fact that legal systems systematically fail to protect women and children from domestic abuse. They accept equality arguments only when it is beneficial to their political and social aims, and aggressively reiterate stories of men mistreated by the system to cause a powerful emotional reaction in their audience. In this rather ironic manner, they do not end up appearing as the serene, strong foundations of family stability they wish to represent – on the contrary, they end up appearing aggressive, misogynistic and biased.