"Child divorce": a break from parental responsibilities and rights due to the traditional socio-cultural practices and beliefs of the parents

03 September 2012

In a recent ground-breaking case the South African courts were for the first time requested to use their discretion to interfere in the parent-child relationship due to the traditional socio-cultural beliefs of the parents. In what has been described as "every parent's nightmare; the fancy of many teenagers", a 16 year-old schoolgirl from Milerton in the Western Cape asked to be "freed" from her parents to live semi-independently from them because of her unhappiness with the conservative manner in which her parents treated her. After considering the matter the judge assigned to the case granted her request to live semi-independently with a school friend and her family (called by the judge the host family) until she reaches the age of 18 (her majority). Her parents were accorded permission to have limited contact with her. This case represents an example of the difficulties involved when balancing the rights of a teenager against those of the parents in matters of socio-cultural practice and belief. In a multi-cultural society such as South Africa the case raises numerous serious questions for other families. For instance, what standards will a court use to determine if parents are too conservative in bringing up their children and what factors will be taken into account? How much freedom and autonomy should children be given? How will courts prevent children from misusing the system just to get what their friends have, and - the ultimate question - are the rights of children superior to the traditional rights of parents in matters of socio-cultural practice, with specific reference to their upbringing? In this context it is the aim of this contribution to focus primarily on the questions asked above. Possible solutions for striking a balance between the rights of children and their parents are explored. The submission is made that the best interests principle is still the most important factor to be taken into account when balancing or weighing competing rights and interests concerning children. The principle of the best interests of the child, the founding principle of children's rights, however, is anchored in the family, and any break between the two should be carefully considered. It is concluded that in an attempt to resolve disputes between parents and their children the relevant provisions of the Constitution and the Children's Act must be considered and must be balanced and tested in relation to each other for constitutional consistency and compliance. It is also submitted that caution should be taken by the legislative framework not to encourage children to break the parent-child relationship on a mere whim, as an overemphasis of children's rights might result in the dilution of the sense of the value of the family in society.