Six of every 10 Kenyan women are likely to be single mothers by the time they reach 45, one of the highest rates for single-parent families in Africa.
According to new research that reveals an astounding new face of the Kenyan family, an increasing number of women are drawn into single parenthood as more men abandon their traditional role as providers for their children.
An array of factors, including irresponsible fathers, peer pressure and the struggle to cope with modernisation, are blamed for the trend, in which three in 10 Kenyan girls become pregnant before the age of 18.
The pan-African study by two Canadian sociologists shows that Kenya has one of the highest levels of children born out of wedlock on the continent.
Sociologists warn that this trend could have a deep impact on society because studies in other parts of the world have shown that a significant number of children brought up in single parent families have lower life prospects than their peers brought up in two-parent families.
Pastor Simon Mbevi of Mavuno Church, who also runs a programme called Man Enough, says he is worried that the trend will continue because women are internalising the gospel of “freedom of choice.”
“The modern Kenyan will opt out of a marriage if confronted by a little trouble,” he argues. “This was not the case with our parents who remained in their unions amidst bigger challenges.”
The survey, conducted last year by Prof Shelly Clark, an associate professor of sociology at Canada’s McGill University, and Prof Dana Hamplová from Prague’s Charles University and Institute of Sociology, found Kenyan women have a 59.5 per cent chance of being a single mother by the age of 45 either through a premarital birth or dissolution of a union.
The research, believed to be the first of its kind carried out in the country, also established that about 30 per cent of women in Kenya are giving birth before they are married.
Comparatively, only 18 per cent of women give birth before marriage in Tanzania and Zimbabwe, 5 per cent in Ethiopia and slightly more than 10 per cent in Malawi.
The study established that a Kenyan woman is more likely to be rendered a single mother by bearing a child out of wedlock than other, more unavoidable causes, like the death of a spouse or divorce. In the four other countries in which the survey was conducted, death and divorce rank higher than premarital births as causes of single motherhood.
ROLE OF FATHER
These new figures are likely to alarm traditionalists and provide yet more evidence of the rapid change in Kenyan family patterns. The role of the father in traditional African settings was considered vital in the upbringing of a child and that has continued even under the nuclear family which became common after the introduction of Christianity.
The trend is also likely to cause head-scratching among scholars to determine who is to blame for this phenomenon and why Kenya is faring worse than other countries in Africa.
Dr Ken Ouko, a sociologist at the University of Nairobi, says there are no easy answers although he mainly blames the trend on irresponsible men who desert the woman when told she is expecting their child.
“Women are caught in the web of pre-marital pregnancy especially due to irresponsible men who vanish and fail to commit,” he said. “But there is also the category of men who actually get married, but they then somehow just pack up and leave after childbirth.”
Prof Clark, one of the study’s authors, told the Sunday Nation the survey examined the triggers for women being left to raise children on their own.
“Kenya has roughly equal proportions of women becoming single mothers before marriage as those who become single mothers after marriage, primarily from divorce or separation,” she said.
Alarmingly, the study found that, compared with children whose mothers were married since their birth, children of never-married mothers faced a significantly high rate of mortality in Malawi, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.
While the research offers scientific evidence of this trend, it only confirms a shift that has become more and more visible in recent times.
A random look at profiles of most women in their 20s on social media, for example, shows that many comfortably claim the title of a mother and not wife.
Innumerable women are also posting pictures of their children while their relationship status on sites such as Facebook remains “single”.
However, women’s rights advocates have rushed to caution against demonising the institution of single parent families.
“There are children raised by both parents who end up worse than those of single parents,” said Ms Ann Njogu, chair of the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW).
In Kenya, the most affected are women in their late teens and early 20s who are increasingly being left to raise children single-handedly after their male partners flee.
The 2008/09 Kenya Demographic Household Survey (KDHS) revealed that 18 per cent of women between 15 and 19 have already begun child-bearing: 15 per cent are mothers and an additional three per cent are pregnant with their first child. In the KDHS survey, 26 per cent of women surveyed between the age of 20 and 24 had given birth before turning 18.
Interviews with researchers, family experts, sociologists and ordinary wananchi pointed to modernisation as one of the causes for this situation.
Some pointed to the fact that many women are faced with pressures to beat a “winding down biological clock” – period when they are most productive and without the danger of developing complications like urinary incontinence, which come with giving birth at an advanced age.
Men are also increasingly refusing to enter into formal marriages for various reasons, including economic factors.
As a result, more people are developing alternatives to conventional married life, according to Prof Clark.
While there are women who set out to have a baby with the intention of raising it alone, others are having babies in the hope that the men will agree to a marriage.
Ms Angelina Nandwa, the founder of the Single Mothers Association of Kenya, said some women are sucked into unwanted pregnancies due to societal pressure.
“Some say it’s out of peer influence when all their agemates have children and people start accusing them of being barren,” she says. “So they will trick a man just to get pregnant and prove they are fertile.”
Some men interviewed by the Sunday Nation said the proposed Marriage Bill is an attempt by the State to rein in irresponsible fathers. A clause in the Bill says that if you promise a person marriage and renege, that person has a right to seek compensation.
It says: “… damages may be recoverable by a party that suffers a loss when the other party refuses to honour a promise to marry.”
In November last year, the Bill contained a clause that automatically converted six-month cohabitation into a legal marriage.
Ms Mary Nduku, a single mother, says the clauses should remain so as to restore discipline in dating.
“Some men tell you that you must have a baby with them first before you get married,” she said. “If you get one, they flee.”
Mrs Nandwa says that during a past workshop organised by the association, some men admitted to deliberately impregnating women they had no intention of marrying.
“They said the reason was because they wanted to leave a “duplicate” in case they died young,” said Mrs Nandwa.
Prof Clark said some of the causes of premarital births include limited access to contraception for young and unmarried women as well as high unemployment rates.
She adds that the high bride price makes marriage economically unattainable for young men even if they want to marry their pregnant partners.
She also says many women in marriages are increasingly being deserted by their spouses.
“Women often report that their husbands left them because they had formed new relationships with other women and started new families,” she says.
“In other instances, women report that they kicked their husbands out because they drank too much alcohol, failed to provide economic support, or became violent towards her or their children.”
Prof Clark argues that single motherhood is responsible for poor outcomes among children.
“Single mothers tend to be economically disadvantaged ... we find that single motherhood is strongly associated with greater poverty,” she said. “Moreover, while single mothers are working (if they are fortunate to find paid employment) it can be hard for them to find reliable childcare.”
In Dr Ouko’s assessment, the trend is problematic.
“The Kenyan women have unashamedly downgraded Kenyan men and opted to worship at the altar of Nigerian men yet the latter, while being admittedly more romantically flamboyant, have never proved their staying power as husbands,” he argues. “They are more of the happy-go-lucky kind who invariably take off as soon as they smell offspring-related commitment.” Then there is the psychological effect on the children involved.
A study conducted in the UK in 2010 showed that 12 per cent of children brought up by one parent had serious behavioural problems by the age of seven, compared with just six per cent of those raised by both natural parents. It found that step-children and children with lone parents were most likely to be badly behaved.