In a riveting TED talk that sparked a worldwide conversation about feminism, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie asked “that we begin to dream about and plan for a different, fairer world -- of happier men and women who are truer to themselves.” She also warns about the “dangers of a single story” in understanding the lives of those who do not inhabit our social worlds. This came to mind as Sangeetha Madhavan and colleagues made sense of their findings in a recent article published in Gender and Society, “Gendered Emotional Support and Women’s Well-Being in a Low-Income Urban African Setting.”
Despite increased research on poor single mothers in Africa, we know next to nothing about their emotional support and whether it matters for their well-being. We may be tempted to assume that women support other women in such circumstances. In doing so, we would risk distilling a complicated and dynamic process underway in recently urbanized African contexts into a simplistic “single story” regarding the roles of men and women.
Why should we care about getting the story about emotional support right? For starters, we know that social support is critical for coping with crises such as death, job loss, and chronic illness – all of which are common in poor communities in African cities. Second, links to other women may be particularly important for mothers whose connection to the fathers of their children are precarious at best. Third, gendered expectations about who provides support may be turned on its head in contexts marked by financial insecurity, high unemployment, and changing gender norms and kin obligations. Lastly, the time has come for family sociology to keep up with rapid social change that is fundamentally altering our understanding of what social support means in the African context.
Korogocho, the site for this analysis, is the “public face” of social inequality in rapidly urbanizing contexts in Africa, serving as home to both recent and more established residents. Many come to Nairobi, Kenya’s booming capital city, with hopes of finding a stable job, more independence from inquisitive kin, and to pursue some notion of a modern life. However, the reality is much more sobering with inadequate access to basic services, poor housing, limited employment opportunities, and crime. Women are especially vulnerable given that they no longer live in close proximity to trusted kin and are wary of forming non-kin relationships. Single mothers and their young children, in particular, navigate myriad challenges with limited support. They face high levels of HIV risk and domestic violence and their children experience elevated rates of infant and child mortality. So what about their emotional support? Does it exist? Who provides it? Does it make a difference to their well-being?
To provide some answers, we developed a unique survey called the Kinship Support Tree and collected data on financial, practical and emotional support for 462 single mothers with young children living in Korogocho as part of a study funded by the National Institutes of Health. We made three key findings regarding emotional support. One, whereas the bulk of strong emotional support comes from female kin, about 20 percent of respondents report having support networks with more men than women. Two, nearly 30 percent of respondents report an increase in the number of men in the composition of their emotional support over six months. Three, having a male-dominant emotional support network is associated with lower stress. While we were surprised by these findings, they make sense in a context in which men, in particular, are caught in between different scripts about their roles as partners, fathers and breadwinners. On one hand, the provision of financial support continues to be a normative obligation for men given their advantages in the labor market and traditional gender norms that cast men as breadwinners. However, the difficulty of accessing employment for men across Africa and the relatively high level of female labor force participation have altered expectations of support from male and female kin. These factors have also increased male disempowerment which, in turn, may further entrench the emotional detachment visible in multi-partner sexual practices. At the same time, however, men are challenging traditional ideas of masculine behavior by engaging in child care activities and emotionally investing in more caring, equitable relationships with spouses and children
In an attempt to move away from the single story of women supporting women, our findings offer a more complicated picture of social relationships across gender lines in flux and some unexpected effects on women’s well-being. It is too soon to tell where these changes are a response to short term volatility or a harbinger of more substantive shifts in gender norms. Moreover, we should do more research on emotional support in other contexts in urban Africa and beyond before designing intervention programs. However, what is clear is that there is notable variation in the way in which women access emotional support and that this has implications for their welfare. In this sense, we believe we have at least opened the door to appreciating multiple stories.
Researchers: Sangeetha Madhavan is Associate Professor of African American Studies and Sociology and Associate Director of the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research interests include family structure and change, parenting and children’s well-being in Africa. Shelley Clark is the James McGill Professor of Sociology and Director of the Centre on Population Dynamics at McGill University. Her research focuses on gender, health, family dynamics, and life course transitions in sub-Saharan Africa. Yuko Hara is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research focuses on gender and family issues, reproductive health, and well-being.