Missing in action: Why Kenya is in the grip of a fatherhood crisis

dady gap infographic

More and more families in the country are being headed by women.

Wednesday March 18 2020

As Kenya and the rest of the world celebrated Father’s Day on June 16, there are hundreds of Kenyans, children and adults alike, who had no father to celebrate. Reason? They either have never met their father, or their father deserted them in their childhood.

“It is true that more and more families are being headed by women due to a variety of reasons, including the man’s death, but major reasons are divorce, separation or the man abdicating his parenting role,” says Pastor Simon Mbevi, the founder of Transform Nations, a non-profit organisation whose mandate includes training on parenting.

In September last year, the organisation, which has a presence in five countries, carried out a casual survey involving 3,000 Kenyans.

The aim was to find out what young people thought about their fathers.

According to Mbevi, a paltry 20 per cent said they had a good father, the rest had never met their fathers, while others said he was not present in their lives.

Unfathered, underfathered and misfathered

“I would categorise the Kenyans experiencing a father crisis into three: Unfathered, underfathered and misfathered. The first category has never had a father, the second has one but he does not play an active role in their lives, while the third group has an abusive, violent father who, in many cases, is a drunkard,” says Mbevi.

Also read: When fathers leave: The children left behind tell their stories

One of the organisation’s flagship projects is called Man Enough, which was rolled out in 2012.

Already, 20,000 men have gone through the eight-week training, where trainees are taught to be better men, better husbands and better parents.

Mbevi thinks that the fact that men voluntarily enrol for the programme is telling.

“Men have been socialised not to seek help. If you see them seeking it, then they are acknowledging they need help, that they need to talk through some things,” he says.

One of these “things” is marital breakdown.

There are many broken marriages in Kenya.

“Women are complaining that the men are not stepping up, they are not fulfilling their responsibilities, they are not involved in raising their children. Many children also feel they do not have good fathers,” says Mbevi.

“The reason women are choosing to raise their children alone is because they are tired of dealing with men who have not resolved their issues — Kenya’s men and boys do not have role models.”

Many men, he notes, are going about life carrying what he calls “father wounds” that affect how they relate to their children.

“If a man is disconnected from his child, he will probably struggle in the same areas his father struggled with while raising him. It will affect his parenting, and if not resolved, this deficiency will become a vicious cycle,” he offers.

These recurring issues are some of the things that Mbevi and his team will shed the spotlight on when they launch a campaign targeting fathers this month.

“We want to challenge fathers to commit to be there for their children — we aim to train a million fathers in three years,” he says, pointing out that many social problems, from crime, early sexualisation, suicide to abuse of drugs and low self-esteem could be tracked to the absence of fathers in the children’s lives.

He should know.

According to research conducted in two prisons in Kenya in 2009 by Transform Nations, a majority of the inmates at the time grew up in fatherless homes.

The research done at Industrial Area Prison indicates that 78 per cent grew up in fatherless homes, while a subsequent study at Nairobi West Prison indicates 72 per cent of the inmates did not grow up with a father.

“Numerous research studies suggest there is a correlation between fatherlessness and crime. Many social scientists believe that boys who grow up without their fathers are likely to become criminals,” he says.

He adds that with this in mind, it could therefore be argued that the safety of a society, to some extent, depends on the availability of fathers in their children’s life. Not just living in the same house as his children, but being actively involved in their lives and forging a close relationship with them.

Is women employment to blame?

“It is not enough to pay school fees, you need to spend time with them, you need to create time for them — we (Transform Nations) get numerous opportunities to talk to children while carrying out our programmes, and when we ask them what they would want from their fathers, they say that they wish they could go home early and spend time with them,” he says.

Is empowerment of women to blame? No, empowerment of women is not to blame for the many fatherless children in Kenya or children abandoned by their fathers.

“I would blame the assumption that men are okay, that boys are okay and don’t need help. We focused on the girls and women because they needed help and forgot to empower the boys and the men alongside the women and girls,” Mbevi observes.

“The women mentors are always oversubscribed, yet in our programmes for mentorship of boys, we only get 20 per cent of the mentors we need.”

Fathers can make or break a child's life

In very specific ways, fathers affirm femininity in girls and masculinity in boys.

Psychology says from eight to around 11 years, children begin to push away from their mothers — it is a period of individuation, becoming their own individual.

A father’s role is very crucial at this stage because he affirms his children, so his voice is very important.

A father plays an important role in calling out the man in the boy and woman in the girl. If the boy doesn’t separate from his mother, he becomes mama’s boy, and if the girl does not separate from her mum, she finds it difficult to discover who she is.

If children don’t get validation from their father at this stage, they look for it elsewhere, and may end up being taken advantage of.

“My father died when I was eight years old. I found that voice of influence from my music teacher in high school. He is the one that affirmed me, became like a dad to me. I was lucky I found a positive influence, because many children get taken advantage of in the search for this voice,” says Mbevi.