Why more Kenyan homes are headed by women

Women carry firewood to their homes in Mau Summit, Nakuru County, on April 7. There are more women-headed households in Kenya's rural areas than in towns.

Photo credit: Cheboite Kigen | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • According to the World Bank, four out of 10 households in Kenya, or 36.4 per cent, are headed by women.
  • This is an increase from 32 per cent in 2014. The Female Household data is updated every year, averaging 32.4 per cent from December 1993 to 2015.

Martha Wangui recalls that heart-breaking moment when she decided to walk out of her abusive marriage after 14 years.

Ms Wangui, a mother of two, says she could no longer take the physical and psychological abuse from her husband.

The decision ushered her into the unfamiliar territory of single motherhood and female-headed households.

To make ends meet, Ms Wangui started selling porridge in Kiambu town.

On a good day, she sells 80 cups of porridge at Sh20 each while the number goes down to 60 cups on rough days.

“Heading a household and providing all the needs for myself and two sons has not been easy. It is burdening and takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice,” Ms Wangui said.

Despite the challenges, Ms Wangui says life is happier and better than the days spent with her abusive spouse.

“I now have peace of mind. Even if I do not have the money needed to give my sons a better life, there is no one around to harass or abuse me,” she said.

Ms Wangui’s story is just one of the thousands in the country.

Constantly away

According to the World Bank, four out of 10 households in Kenya, or 36.4 per cent, are headed by women.

These women are classified as single mothers, divorcees, widows and wives who take charge because their men are constantly away.

This is an increase from 32 per cent in 2014. The Female Household data is updated every year, averaging 32.4 per cent from December 1993 to 2015.

The figure went as high as 36.1 per cent in 2015 and a low of 31.7 per cent in 2003.

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics in 2019 estimated that 32.4 per cent of the 11.41 million households in Kenya were headed by women.

Women were found to head more households in rural areas, at 36 per cent, compared to 28.7 per cent in towns.

This was partly attributed to the fact that many men migrate from rural to urban areas in search of employment, leaving behind women to take care of the family and property.

Turkana topped the list of counties with the highest number of female-run households at up to 52.1 per cent or 246,000 families.

Other counties high in the list were Kitui at 46.4 per cent, Migori (46.1 per cent), Makueni (46 per cent), Mandera (45.8 per cent) and Siaya at 45.7 per cent.

Many challenges

Garissa County recorded the lowest proportion of female-headed households at 20.3 per cent.

Heading families presents women with many challenges.

According to city resident Agnes Obat, being a single mother is one of the most difficult things a woman can face “since there is nobody around to share responsibilities with”.

“It means the woman is the head of the family and she is on her own. That is overwhelming. It is not easy to pay for expenses that are way beyond what one makes,” Ms Obat said.

The mother of one, who operates a small hotel in Ziwani, says many single mother-led households suffer poverty.

“There comes a time the children insist to be shown their fathers. They do not know that in many instances, their fathers want nothing to do with them,” Ms Obat said.

Ms Angelina Nandwa, the founder of Single Mothers Association of Kenya, says the biggest problem facing such women is lack of basics like shelter, food, clothing and school fees for their children.

Ms Nandwa told nation.africa that her organisation has been instrumental in counselling the women.

The counselling, she says, helps raise the women’s self-esteem. The agency also refers them to other institutions for help, depending on their needs.

Financially independent

“We normally encourage single mothers to join women groups and chamas since these are the places many can easily get capital to start small businesses and become financially independent,” Ms Nandwa said.

To help such families remain on their feet, Ms Wangui wants the government to come up with a special fund for single mothers, similar to the Thamani Fund for widows and the Women Enterprise Fund.

Ms Eva Komba, a gender and development expert, says it is wrong to say men are solely to blame for the rising cases of single motherhood.

Ms Komba says many men have lost their jobs or have never succeeded in gaining long-term and gainful employment. 

“Most men in their productive age are unemployed. Jobs have become scarce, making it difficult for them to assume their responsibilities even if they want to,” Ms Komba said.

Single motherhood is more complicated than what many people think.

That means it is hard to control the increasing number of such households due to the evolving nature of relationships, she explains.

“There are many women who choose to remain independent but still have children,” Ms Komba told nation.africa.

“The number of separations, divorces and widowhood is also going up, resulting in the high number of such households.”

She added that poor enforcement of court directives is also to blame for the current state of affairs.

“Many men have been ordered by magistrates and judges to take care of their children but are not doing so,” she said.

The gender expert proposes the introduction of a family policy, which should include tax exemptions for such women.