Of the many choices Wanjiku Kariuki has made in life, being a single mother was not one of them. Her desire was to get married, have children, raise them with her husband, and live happily ever after.
She did get married — at 23 — and have a child a year later. Her happily-ever-after, though, was short-lived. Cracks emerged in her marriage after two years, and soon afterwards the relationship collapsed. Wanjiku, 31, admits she was young and naïve at the time. For the last seven years, the businesswoman has raised her daughter, now eight, alone after the man she had been married to abandoned them.
‘‘I was raised by my father after my mother died and always wanted to build a family with someone. When my husband and I went our separate ways, I wanted him to be part of our daughter’s life, at least by spending time with her, even without providing. He refused,’’ she says, adding: ‘‘I have made my daughter understand that people can disagree, that they can live separately, and that this does not make her different from children who have both parents.’’
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Wanjiku’s story and the acceptance of her fate is the story of millions of single parents in Kenya, a number that has been rising at an alarming rate in the past decade, and which affects women more than men. When President Uhuru Kenyatta highlighted the issue during his Madaraka Day address on Wednesday, it pointed to Kenya’s social dysfunction that has been brewing silently in recent years, but which now threatens to get out of hand. The ‘social dysfunction’ reference here is based on the text book definition of a family, which, as young children in school are taught even today, includes mother, father and a child or children.
Completeness of family
President Kenyatta’s remarks, perhaps, were borne of that understanding, and indicated in their grimness that the government, just like society, still looks at the completeness of family from that — some would say ‘narrow’ — perspective.
‘‘If unchecked, this trend could destroy the fundamental character of Kenya and [wreak] untold harm onto our most vulnerable and precious members: our children,” said the President. ‘‘I urge our media houses, religious leaders, community elders and the concerned government agencies to step up to the plate and make sure that the Kenyan family remains the strong and respected institution that it has historically been.”
Statistics on family in Kenya are startling. From 25 per cent households headed by a single parent in 2009, the number had shot to a staggering four out of 10 (or 40 per cent) households three years ago, according to data from the Kenyan National Housing and Population census of 2019.
The situation could be worse, though, as a family lawyer says the government figure is a conservative estimate, and that the number could be as high as seven out of 10 households. ‘‘Just because people are married does not mean they are raising their children as a couple,” she says. “There is a lot of covert single parenting happening in Kenya right now.”
Factors fuelling single parenthood
But what specifically is fuelling the rising cases of single parenthood in Kenya? Experts cite a myriad of factors, from premarital childbirth to financial constraints, abuse, lack of orientation to family, intolerance, and even radical feminism.
Worryingly, teenage pregnancy remains a big contributor to the crisis, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) Economic Survey of 2022. The number of teenage mothers, aged between 10 and 19, in the last five years (2017-2021) has topped 1.9 million. This represents an average of 380,000 every year, with the highest number recorded being in 2018, at 449,860.
Even more astonishingly, 106,082 of these are girls aged between 10 and 14. These figures, though, represent only those who went for antenatal care at a health facility.
If that is not bad enough, consider this: the average Kenyan woman has a 59.5 per cent likelihood of being single by the time she is 45, according to a Pan-African study by professors Shelly Clark and Dana Hamplova of McGill University and Charles University, respectively. In this survey, the scholars found out that 30 per cent of Kenyan women were having children out of wedlock, nearly twice as many as their Tanzanian counterparts, at 18 per cent, and six times as their Ethiopian peers, at only five per cent.
Essence of family
Prof Catherine Gachutha, a family therapist, says parenting without a conscious orientation to the essence of a family is to blame for the rise in single parenthood in the country.
‘‘Our generation is not desirous of getting married; they just want to get children and raise them alone. There is lack of commitment to stay in marriage, which is why preference for single parenthood is higher. In this situation, people easily walk out of the marriage when they get disgruntled,” she says.
Then there is the changing role of man in society. Many men are no longer playing the role of provider and leader at home, and this makes women insecure and pushes them away, says Prof Gachutha.
‘‘Many women who can pay school fees, provide for their families’ needs and even property see no value in a man who cannot meet these needs,’’ she says, adding that there is a need to redefine the roles of both men and women in marriage. Anyone can be rendered incapable of providing with job loss, for instance. Where a man is trying to provide but is unable, there should be understanding within the family, says Prof Gachutha.
Men and leadership
On leadership, however, she insists that men have no choice but to step up.
‘‘You can attend training to be taught how to dispense leadership and protection of your family. These are roles that are natural to a man, and which will he play through generations. Men and women should not be comfortable in their deficiencies because there are opportunities to make them better spouses.’’
But does radical feminism have anything to do with the rising number of single mothers in Kenya? Prof Gachutha believes so, noting that whether male or female, holding extreme views on family erodes reason and logic while negating realism.
‘‘Extreme views of both feminists and chauvinists catch up with them as they grow older,” she says.
When children are raised by a single father or mother, they grow up with social and psychological inhibitions that affect their worldviews, according to research. This, therefore, is not just a matrimonial matter, but a social one as well.
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Studies from various parts of the world show that children brought up by single parents have considerably lower prospects in life compared to their counterparts who are raised by both parents. They are also more inclined to mental health disorders and even crime.
Happily ever after?
So, what happened to the generation that lived happily ever after? Some people argue that the older generation, namely their parents, put up ‘‘the façade around the myth of marriage considerably well’’ by sitting through abuse and dysfunctionality.
Says Annie Wanjira, a divorcee: ‘‘Human beings evolve continuously and, unfortunately, marriage is not built to last the way it is currently set. People get married too early with unmatched expectations and unequal considerations. The result is that, that institution has become impractical for many young people. It is very damaging to children to grow up in abusive families, for instance, because they grow up modelling abuse and modelling taking abuse.”
Asking women to stay in abusive marriages is immoral, the lawyer says. ‘‘No one should tolerate violence in the name of building a home.’’
While both men and women are raising children as single parents in Kenya, the overwhelming majority of them are single mothers, and Wanjira argues that “most single fathers are actually men who have torn their kids away from their mothers by exploiting loopholes in the judicial system and through corruption” as “it is very unusual for a mother to leave her children behind, especially when they are too young”.
Divorce on the rise
In an interview with this newspaper last year, family lawyer Judy Thongori said divorce has been on the rise in Kenya in recent years. Indeed, data from the Family Division at the High Court at the time showed that the court in Nairobi alone had 15 magistrates presiding over up to five cases per day. Interestingly, the court was processing divorce in a record three months in 2020, an eighth of the normal duration, owing to the high number of petitions. And therefore every day tens of men and women embark on the daunting journey of raising a family alone.
Maryanne Waruguru, a psychologist, says economically empowered women are impatient with a raw deal in marriage and less tolerant with abuse. ‘‘If she feels she cannot put up with some of her husband’s faults, she leaves immediately,’’ she says, noting that her peers in their 30s have become increasingly detached from the concept of marriage.
Compelled to marry
Waruguru argues that many men and women are compelled to marry simply to ‘‘comply with the rite of passage’’ and not because it is what they want. Soon, things collapse and they end up as single parents.
But if intolerance is straining marriage in Kenya, conflict around resources is further curtailing its chances of survival.
‘‘Many men are not stepping up. They are frustrating women, which is why relationships are not working. The cost of living has become high and children cannot live off empty promises from their fathers,’’ Chebet, a single mother, tells the Nation. To Chebet, it is better to raise a child alone than to have a man who is not dependable.
Money and transparency
Financial expert Samuel Tiras Wainaina notes that disagreement over finance is a major trigger of spousal conflicts, domestic violence and, ultimately, separation.
‘‘Unless there is transparency and participation of the whole family in budgeting family finances, suspicions and mistrust will always emerge. If left unattended for long, this leads to fighting.’’
To Wainaina, there is no ideal formula regarding a couple’s contribution to family budget as it all depends on each person’s abilities. It is important for couples to negotiate and agree on the roles and contribution though. He, however, does not think economic empowerment of women has contributed to failed marriages as “a family is able to achieve bigger life goals faster and easily when both spouses make a contribution” and “financially endowed women make families stable, more secure and happier”.
Upset power dynamics
Wainaina does admit, however, that one of the sociocultural outcomes of empowering women financially has “upset the power dynamics” in the family unit, a consequence he argues was unintended.
‘‘Religion and tradition teach us that the husband is head of family, the provider and protector. Essentially, this gives the man power and so when his wife starts earning more than him, economic power shifts to her as he struggles to assert authority. Naturally, nobody respects authority that has no effective economic power. At this point, many men become violent and file for divorce.’’
Yet family finances should not be an excuse for breakups, notes Wainaina. ‘‘Instead, they should be the umbilical cord that binds everyone through a participatory and transparent process.’’
Wanjiku’s biggest concern is the rising number of single parents around her daughter’s life. ‘‘I have a sister, a cousin and friends who are raising their children as single mothers and others as complete nuclear families. These family dynamics become confusing to her as she is growing up. It becomes difficult to explain to her why this is the case.
Loosen up, accept reality
She says, however, that the situation has also been a wake-up call to the society “to loosen up” and accept the reality.
‘‘I have not been segregated because I am a single mother. There is even support from both the church and the community I belong to. The church has accepted that we have a problem and is encouraging members to go for counselling and therapy.’’
Under this cloud of intolerance and discomfort, is there hope for the Kenyan family? Experts concur that there is need to relook what constitutes family and the roles of partners. Having a state department on family affairs would be a good place to start, says Prof Gachutha, noting that family is the foundation of nation building, and that having a policy framework is important.
‘‘We can have within the Marriage Act a provision that requires Kenyans to be trained on making families and marriages stronger and more resilient by instilling values. It may not touch on everyone, but some people will benefit.’’
Wainaina says that even though the societal and religious definition of an ‘ideal’ family is that of a man and a wife, the realities of the times are different.
‘‘The patriarchal religious teachings and cultural norms are no longer feasible. A functional family unit is a partnership of willing adults,’’ he says, noting that in-depth research is necessary in this area.
He emphasises the need for discernment and wisdom to navigate the changing landscape of family. Economically empowered women need to manage this newfound power for their marriage to thrive, and men must not feel threatened, challenged or insecure.
Meanwhile, Wanjira argues that the society only starts to heal when ‘‘young people choose authenticity over keeping up appearances’’ to save their marriage. ‘‘This generation is seeking therapy. They are treating things as they are. As such, those growing up now are learning that abuse is not okay. They are redefining family. Both men and women must take responsibility for their offspring instead of having deadbeat mothers and fathers. There must also be mutual respect for roles, considering the evolution of modern living. Only then shall we have progress,’’ she says.
Her circumstances notwithstanding, Wanjiku insists she is a firm believer in marriage and that it works.
“Marriage is the way life is meant to be. It is people who fail, not the marriage.”