Nairobi — There are increasing numbers of single mothers in Kenya. Is it a sign of growing independence of women, or a consequence of poverty and lack of sexual education?
Angelina Nandwa, the founder of the Single Mothers' Association of Kenya (Smak), says both are true. "The phenomenon is universal and pervasive in Kenya. It is not confined to one class, age-group or region. The causes as well as the consequences of being a single mother vary."
Nandwa set up Smak in 1991 to help single mothers. She herself was forced by her parents into marriage with a man 30 years her senior who she had never seen before. After four years and two children, she decided it was not the life she wanted to live.
"Kenyan parents do not accept daughters back in their home once they are married. My mother told me to go back to my husband and persevere as she had done with my father. But I wanted to take control of my life, even if that meant raising the children myself in hardship," Nandwa told IPS about the motivation behind her work.
"I was pregnant when I became single and went to the Family Planning Association for advice and help. Soon, I joined them and was then selected by a German organisation for a course in Berlin to become a trainer of community workers myself," Nandwa recalls.
Unlike most single mothers in Kenya, Nandwa is an educated, urban woman. After she got a German Development Foundation scholarship for training in community development, she returned to set up her own organisation. Now Smak has hundreds of clients who are provided help according to their need.
Ruth Njeri, a 20-year old domestic worker, is one of them. She had to leave school after getting pregnant and then moved to Nairobi from her village in the Nakuru district in search of work as her father refused to support her or the baby.
"I had completed my Form-IV (higher secondary) but after the child was born neither my family nor my school wanted me back. If I had wanted to study further at all, I had to go to a different school," Ruth recalls. But the decision was not hers anymore, she says, as the child needed her. "I did not want the child after my boyfriend left me because he himself was still in school. But as a mother I could not abandon him."
Nandwa says no one has collected statistics on single mothers. But there is data that points to their growing numbers. The Nairobi-based Centre for the Study of Adolescence estimates that up to 13,000 Kenyan girls drop out of school every year as a result of pregnancy. These young girls are often treated as outcasts by their families. Many migrate to cities where they face unemployment, health risks and malnutrition.
As a network of women's rights NGOs in Kenya gains strength, the presence of single mothers as a significant group in society is being recognised, says Nandwa. "We have worked with mothers as young as 13 and widows as old as 40 years old. Their needs are different from each other and it takes a network of women's groups to address them.
"Our financial and human resources are too small and the magnitude of the problem is too big. The best we can do is to pool our strengths through networking," says Nandwa.
Health and education of young mothers are two key areas of such networking. As the main provider of health services, government hospitals work in partnership with women's organisations. Dr Rupal Maru of the Kenyatta National Hospital, which receives cases of teenage pregnancy referred by organisations like Smak, says early motherhood entails more than just medical complications.
"Unmarried girls who become pregnant face three alternatives. She may marry the father; if she is in school, she most likely will drop out. The marriage as well as the pregnancy may be unwanted and soon result in divorce or abandonment, often experiencing societal disapproval and economic hardship. Or she may have an abortion, typically illegal and unsafe."
If girls go through with the pregnancy, says Dr Maru, the risk of complications or of dying in childbirth are much greater than if she had delayed childbearing until physically mature.
Those who survive face livelihood issues. Nandwa stresses the importance of schooling and vocational training for young, outcast mothers. There are numerous projects, such as the Smak's programme of informal schools, which provide opportunities for alternative education to girls who have been expelled.
"Schools in the formal system prefer not to readmit those who get pregnant while studying even though there is no law barring them," says Nandwa. "Above all, young mothers become adults directly after childhood without the intervening phase of adolescence."
A unique aspect of her organisation, Nandwa says, is that in addition to their work with young mothers they focus on what she calls 'baby fathers'. She points out that there is a lopsided focus in the government as well as on the part of international donors on girl-specific initiatives.
"Male sexual education, awareness and employment skills are equally important. If we are to address the problem of teenage pregnancy and single mothers, boys will have to be given as much attention as the girls. Sadly, all the national and international funding is for girls-focused programme. Boys are being left out and it is showing negative results already," says Nandwa, who thinks male youth are under more pressure and receive little attention for their problems.
She disagrees with this agenda. "The problem of single mothers, street children, prostitution and HIV/AIDS cannot be addressed in isolation from the male component of society. We'll have to engage vulnerable people on both sides of the gender divide."