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Single parenthood ‘crisis’ is here with us, but it is not what you think

By Christine Mungai | February 11th 2017
Single parenthood ‘crisis’ is here with us, but it is not what you think

If you are to believe the talk on morning radio shows, Kenya has a “crisis” of single parenthood – the gender-neutral term is often used euphemistically, but everyone knows that it is really single motherhood we are talking about.

There is some truth in all the hand-wringing.

Nearly half (45 per cent) of all children in Kenya do not live with both biological parents, data from the latest Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) shows.

But that’s not the whole story. If you dig into the numbers a little deeper, you will find some surprises.

The data considered only children’s usual living arrangements, and not necessarily the marital status of the parents. In other words, a woman is a single mother for all practical intents and purposes if her husband works far away in another town and only comes home once a year, for example.

Single parenthood can be the result of divorce, separation, death of the other parent, or it can be that the parents were never married in the first place.

City decadence?

But the data shows that death of the father is responsible for just 5.3 per cent of single mother households in Kenya.

On the other hand, more than a fifth (22 per cent) of children in Kenya live with their mothers even though their fathers are alive — but living elsewhere.

When we break it down regionally, that’s where it gets really interesting.

You might expect that Nairobi, with all its modernity and decadence, is the bastion of single parenthood in the country. You would be terribly wrong.

The data shows that Nairobi actually accounts for the highest regional percentage of children living with both biological parents.

Two-thirds (67 per cent) of children in Nairobi live with both parents and the Kenya average is 55 per cent.

By contrast, children are least likely to live with both parents in Eastern (49.4 per cent) and Western (49.5 per cent). Eastern [province] accounts for the highest probability of children living with the mother even when the father is alive – more than a quarter (27.6 per cent) of children respondents in the survey reported doing so, followed by Coast province (24.1 per cent).

Central — despite the dominant cultural stereotype of the tough Kikuyu single mother — is third at 23.2 per cent.

On the other hand, Nyanza accounted for the highest percentage of children living with the mother with the father having passed away, at 8.8 per cent.

This probably has to do with the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the province, and the specific gender and cultural reasons why more men in Africa die from complications of the disease, despite the fact that more women get infected.

Separate numbers from UNAIDS show that the same gender norms that make women vulnerable to HIV-infection make men less likely to know their status, start treatment, or stick to treatment schedules.

The patriarchal nature of African society values men being “strong” and in charge, and being HIV-positive thus has the subtext of weakness or victimhood, the ultimate humiliation.

No wonder then, that there are many stories about a man who finds out he is HIV-positive and decides to “go out” in a blaze of grisly glory, infecting as many others as possible as “revenge” for getting the virus (the subtext being that this is not ‘supposed’ to happen to a man).

This has the risk of re-infection, and makes treatment much less effective.

It means that despite having much lower infection rates than women, men account for the majority (58 per cent) of adult HIV and AIDS-related deaths.

Unlikely irony

It is an unlikely irony that the lower social status of women makes them able to cope with the uncertainty and stress of a HIV diagnosis better, possibly because adversity is an every day reality.

Single fatherhood is far less common in Kenya, but it is most common in Western province which accounts for the highest percentage of children living with their fathers while the mothers are alive, at 3.7 per cent.

There are cultural roots to this, as children “belong” to the father in most communities in the province.

But the relationship between single motherhood, fatherhood and wealth is more mixed.

Single motherhood when the father alive is most common in the middle of the income distribution scale in Kenya, and slightly less pronounced in the poorest and wealthiest households.

This is partly because death of the father is negatively correlated with wealth, so children from the poorest households are much more likely to have experienced the death of their fathers (7.3 per cent) than from the richest ones (2.4 per cent).

There is also another little appreciated trend — that of children living with other relatives or in other households even when both parents are alive.

This trend is highest in Western, with 16.5 per cent of children living away from both parents who are alive. In all other provinces, this figure is less than 10 per cent.

What is the effect of all these trends? Does it matter whether a child is living with one parent or both, whether the parents are alive or not?

The data shows that when it comes to school attendance at least, it doesn’t matter much. The numbers reveal that there is a high level of school attendance overall among both boys and girls, regardless of whether a parent is deceased (96 per cent and 98 per cent respectively) or not.

It is sometimes assumed that becoming an orphan jeopardises a child’s chances of attending school, but the data does not support this assumption. In fact, the greatest differential is in the poorest households, where more orphans actually attend school (94 per cent) compared to children living with one parent (89 per cent).

It is counter-intuitive that for a poor child, losing both parents would actually increase your chances of attending school, rather than decrease it.

Take pity

It has to do with the social support networks that come into play when a child is orphaned. People “take pity” on the child, and marshall everything from bursaries, scholarships, community and family harambees to make sure the child is taken care of.

And there’s another counter-intuitive finding. A recent working paper by the World Bank found that in the past 25 years, poverty has fallen in Africa broadly, but is falling fastest in female-headed households.

Far from being left behind by the rising tide of prosperity on the continent, families headed by women have seen their prospects improve more than male-headed families, and thus have contributed appreciably to the overall decline in poverty despite their smaller share in the population.

The data examines recent Demographic and Health Surveys from 24 countries in Africa, and suggests that perhaps poor families headed by women gain relatively high economic returns to the new opportunities unleashed by growth, simply because they are starting from a low base and so have more catching up to do.

It could also be that they have benefited disproportionately from the expansion of social investments in the region, such as in education, maternal and child health, and social grants.

But there may be something else at play. A report by Plan International suggested the relative, and unexpected prosperity of female-headed households could be the result of very different spending behaviour between men and women: women have been found to re-invest 80-90 per cent of their income back into the family, whereas for men (married or not) it is just 30-40 per cent.

It appears that men tend to have more “external” bills — entertainment, sports, girlfriends and so on — than women do.

But because there are much fewer socially acceptable spaces for women to “divert” their time and money to (except perhaps church), most of their earnings end up being spent on the home and the children; the net effect is these families end up being better off, even if in absolute terms, women earn less than men and so have less money in the first place.

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