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The perils and changing face of Kenyan marriages

Saturday November 3 2018

Marriage is facing a myriad of challenges,

Marriage is facing a myriad of challenges, according to a survey conducted online by the Nation. PHOTO | FILE |  NATION MEDIA GROUP.

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Marriage is facing a myriad of challenges, according to a survey conducted online by the Nation.

Whereas domestic violence remains one of the biggest challenges, as pointed out by an early study by the Federation of Women lawyers — Fida — promiscuity and infidelity are also posing a mortal threat.

About 64 per cent of readers who responded to the survey said promiscuity has changed the nature of marriages, with spouses claiming to be in monogamous relationship when in reality they embrace polygamy or polyandry in secret.

Financial constraints are also a big challenge in urban and rural families, followed closely by a breakdown in communication between spouses.


Ironically, Kenyans who responded to the survey said financial constraints differed from the desire for money, which could mean that the pursuit of cash is in itself a threat to marriage as more spouses spend their time either working or, hustling, a by-word for extra work over and beyond formal employment.


Many also felt that lack of respect is a threat to marriage.

This, they said, was different from mismanaged gender equality, with some of the respondents saying the growing economic power of women has drastically affected relationships.

Independent surveys have shown that one in nine women earns more than their spouses.

The Fida survey, titled Gender Based Domestic Violence in Kenya and Intimate Partner Violence, also paints a damning picture on the state of marriage.

The report shows that men are the leading perpetrators of violence in homes at 79.2 per cent while females account for 14.6 per cent.


In-laws and parents follow at 4.1 and 2.1 per cent respectively.

On circumstances that lead to domestic violence, adultery tops the list at 41 per cent, followed by alcoholism (28.5) and financial situation (20.5). HIV status is fourth at 10.3 per cent.

The survey was conducted in the Coast, Nairobi, Nyanza and Western regions.

According to the report, most domestic violence cases occur once in a while at 48.7 per cent while the number of homes which report regular incidents stand at 29.3 per cent.

Ironically, those who survive and report such cases are perceived as having made a choice to destroy their homes.

To curb the violence, the report recommends public education and improved access to justice.


Since the start of 2018, Fida has had 2,182 reported cases of domestic violence.

In the 2016/17 State of the Judiciary and Administration of Justice report, there were 424 pending murder cases at the Milimani Law Courts. It could not be established at the time or writing this report how many of these cases involved murder of a spouse. However, a court clerk said in a majority of the murder cases, the accused is usually someone in a relationship with the victim, either as husband, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend.

According to investigations by the Nation, the nature of marriage and families has been changing over time due to the pressure of modern life.

Take the case of Jane Wavinya*, a 29-year-old public health researcher, who is an absentee mother. She has been raising her five-year-old daughter with her parents' help as she works in Zambia. She is in constant contact with them and visits as much as she can. She also shoulders most of the financial responsibilities relating to her daughter.


Her daughter’s father works in the UAE, though he too, is in the girl’s life.

Annie*, 37, is raising a 16-year-old alone. She broke up with her child's father when the girl was a toddler. He plays no role in the girl's life.

Then there is 27-year-old Reuben Kilinda, who has a one-and-a-half-year-old son. Though he broke up with his son's mother, the two live in the same neighbourhood and share custody.

And finally, there is Kenny*, 41, who is a sports consultant and a self-confessed polygamist.

When his first wife died in 2000, he remarried in 2009 and 2014. The two wives live separately in Homa Bay County while Kenny works in the city.

Kenny says he “is blessed with many children".

Saturday Nation asked Kenyans about the ways in which the family institution has changed.


Three quarters of the respondents said single parenthood is on the rise, while slightly more than half said divorce rates have gone up.

A further 36 per cent said people have become less social and are not too keen on getting into long-term unions.

While there is general consensus that families have changed and people are charting new paths for themselves, this does not mean that things have necessarily become easier for those who choose to dance to the beat of their own drums.

Annie says while most people who disapprove of her single mother status keep their opinions to themselves, she has experienced “aggression” and hidden biases.

"The challenge is in silly little things, like going to get her passport or enrolling her in school and being asked where the father is. Some schools refuse to accept children of single parents," she said.


School is particularly tricky, especially in younger classes when children are learning about the family unit and it is instilled in them that a nuclear family is made up of a father, mother and children.

Where their family set-up deviates from that norm, they could have a hard time adjusting to being different from the rest of the classmates.

Wavinya says her daughter has encountered this scenario.

"One of her assignments was on drawing a nuclear family tree. Funny thing was she wasn't so concerned about the structure of the family, more that in her mind a nuclear family is small and there were too many of us to include in the assignment. All her friends are from two-parent families, so once in a while she asks about where her father and I are. But she knows we live abroad," Wavinya said.


For the assignment, the girl drew her mother, Wavinya's best friend and her brother, just because he happened to be home at the time.

She excluded her grandparents whom she said were too old and couldn't fit in the painting.

But aside from the precociousness of a child, this kind of institutionalised exclusion could have negative consequences on the psyche of children whose families look nothing like what is described in books.

And in situations like Annie's where she is parenting alone without substantial support from anybody else, there could be far-reaching consequences for her teenage daughter. A growing body of research has shown that children from single-parent families could be disadvantaged as adults in terms of economic success.

Researchers say this could stem from the fact that single parent households typically surviving on a single income have less money, therefore less opportunities for their children, and the fact that single parents are not able to spend as much time with their children as those living with their spouses.


Annie is well aware of the immense financial and emotional burden she shoulders as a single mother and is categorical about parenting being a two-person job.

"I know it is not culturally appropriate to admit this, especially as a single mum and a feminist, but I really do think a child needs both parents, regardless of gender or orientation. I think it is sad we go it alone — both single mums and single dads — because sometimes, you need to tag-team on the child," she said.

Annie resents the idea that people have preconceived notions and says she has had to ward off questions from acquaintances who assume single mothers are promiscuous and rebellious.

"I met a childhood friend once. He asked if I was married, I said ‘no’, he said 'Oh, you grew up into one of those independent women eh?'" she told the Saturday Nation.

Dr James Kariuki, a sociology lecturer at the University of Nairobi, thinks in some cases, children from single parent households have it better than those whose parents live together.


"The kind of women who leave unhappy marriages or go it alone to raise children are often strong and financially independent. They go on to create stable loving homes for their children and shield them from strife. This creates better outcomes for the child than if they had been brought up in an abusive home," he said.

According to him, rising divorce statistics is an indicator of stronger women, not weaker marriages.

"Women have become more economically empowered. They are delaying marriage and children in favour of advancing their careers. That does not weaken the family unit. It strengthens it in the sense that men can no longer manipulate women," he said.


Kipila, who has the privilege of tag-teaming with his son's mother to share parental responsibilities, is aware of the unique advantages that this arrangement offers, even though he ideally would want to be living in the same house as his son.

Theirs is a classic case of platonic parenting, defined as an arrangement where people who are not romantically involved come together to raise a child.

"I am a hands-on dad. I play with my son, feed him, change his diapers and do my best to make him comfortable,” he says.