By Mohamed Mukhtar
Thursday, January 17, 2008
One cold winter evening, a friend of mine and I were chattering inconsequentially of nothing in particular when we entered his house. Dead silence welcomed us at the door except a voice coming from one of the rooms. The house used to be noisy and the presence of the children used to animate the house. But they were nowhere to be seen. We started a search mission. We went to the room which the voice was coming from. We found all his family keenly listening to a Somali radio program. We greeted them and they retorted “Hush”. My immediate thought was the radio program must have pressed an interesting button. Having a whole family glued to the radio is unusual nowadays. My friend and I had no choice but to show smile and sit with the eager listeners.
The program was about family issues and the topic question was “Are Somali fathers failing?” Apart from the studio guests, listeners were calling in to ask questions or make comments. It seemed the battle line was gender based. Most of the women were emphatically saying ‘yes’ while the men were on the defence. Commenting females were saying Somali men are not only failing as husbands but they are also failing as fathers. Men were saying that fathers are systematically marginalised and how the society undervalues their contribution affects their role within the family household.
This was interesting listening and painfully real. Family breakdowns are the propelling forces of many of the community’s problems and the Somali children are the ultimate victims.
Before delving into the issues of Somali families, it is important to note that the importance of fathers and their involvement with their families in Britain has been declining steadily. In 2007, a survey conducted by the BBC Newsround, found 26 percent of children do not consider their fathers as immediate family. Boys see football players as role models rather than their fathers and only 10 percent of children would go to their fathers first if in need.
It becomes easy to notice the failure of many Somali fathers when there are observable facts: children, especially the boys who are academically underachieving, are progressively ending up behind bars and increasingly yearning for role models. However, it is unfair to tar all Somali fathers with the same brush. There are good fathers who act role models not only for their families but for the whole community.
It is always in a child’s interest to do well in education but when parental support is absent, children find themselves in at a disadvantage. Most Somali children come from a female-led household. Jill Rutter writes, “Between 20-70% of Somali households are being headed by women. This may be as a result of men being killed in Somalia, families being split up as a result of working in the Gulf States and also divorce.” As in most cases, there are few statistics available regarding the underachievement of Somali children in general. However, the following chart shows how Somali children in Lambeth, one of London boroughs, are trailing behind other children
It seems Somali boys are even greater underachievers. For example, a report commissioned by London Borough of Camden notes, “In 2000 only three out of 30 Somali boys entered for GCSEs attained five or more at grades A*-C. The number of boys entered in 2002 was only 23 and of these only two gained five or more “good” GCSEs.”
The increasing incarceration of Somali youth is a symptom of boys without fathers. In Britain, there is real concern for young Somali males who are either already caught up or at risk getting involved in drugs, gang related activities and extremism. For example, the number of Somali boys in Feltham Young Offenders Institution is disproportionately high. Somali boys are not only imprisoned for minor crimes but they have recently been connected to serious crimes such as murder. Somali boys have also started forming neighbourhood-based youth gang.
Lack of male role models is another problem that Somali boys face. Children particularly boys look up to their fathers but as they grow older they start to compare their fathers with other fathers. And if the father fails to be supportive and caring, boys start to disrespect his authority and seek other role models outside the family. Outside role models can not only shape personal characteristics of young boys but can form their identity. Dr Chris McDowell, head of the Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees says, “I think many of these young people try to find a group they can ally with. Gangster culture provides that identity because it's about male power, is about making people scared and it seems that some Somali boys gravitate towards it because it allows them to be in control.”
In short, when fathers fail to fulfil their obligations it is the whole family especially the children that pay the price. Washington Post writes, “Boys without fathers at home are much more likely to become incarcerated, unemployed and uninvolved with their own children when they become fathers.” Is this what we want for our children?
Email: [email protected]