Why East Africa is one of the worst places to be born a woman

Sunday May 08 2011

An anti-violence campaign poster in Uganda. Although both men and women in many countries believe that wife-beating is acceptable, women are more likely than men to condone the violence. Photo/FILE

Increasing urbanisation, level of education and income tend to reduce family size, thus large families in East Africa tend to be rural and poor; among all demographics, men consistently want more children than women do.

Sadly, they want them so they can perform the role of unpaid child labour.

Even more shocking, significant percentages of both men and women support wife-beating.

This is according to a recent survey by the US-based Population Reference Bureau, which reveals diverging attitudes between men and women on the ideal number of children that a family should have.

The survey, dubbed Women and Girls 2011 Data Sheet, highlights trends in the status of women and girls around the world, including gender-based violence, early marriage and maternal health.

For instance, urban men in Kenya with at least a secondary education prefer to have 3.4 children; that number rises to 4.3 among rural men.


On the other hand, urban women with at least a secondary education prefer to have 3.1 children; for rural women with some primary education, their ideal number is 4.0 children.

Men prefer to have more children than women do, because in patriarchal societies — as most developing countries are — more children confer a greater social prestige for men.

Women, however, bear the heaviest responsibility in having children, thus across all demographics, women want fewer children than men do.

Income has the greatest effect on a family’s ideal number of children.

For men among the wealthiest 20 per cent of the population in Kenya, the ideal number is 3.4 children, but among the poorest 20 per cent, this figure shoots up to 6.0 children.

For women, the wealthiest 20 per cent want only 3.0 children, but the poorest 20 per cent prefer to have up to 5.1 children.

High child mortality contributes to large family sizes among poorer households.

With a high chance of death in infancy and childhood, poorer households tend to compensate by having more children.

Eastern Africa has some of the highest child mortality rates in the world.

According to the World Health Organisation, the probability of a child dying before reaching age five for every 1,000 births is 74 in Kenya and 103 in Rwanda.

The figure rises to 134 in Tanzania, 137 in Uganda, and 168 in Burundi.

Poorer households tend to want to have more children because children are viewed as a source of easy labour — they can work and contribute to a family’s earnings, in both rural and urban environments.

A recent report by the International Labour Organisation indicates that in Kenya, 6.4 per cent of boys and 5.9 per cent of girls of ages five to 14 work, resulting in 6.1 per cent (0.53 million) of all children working.

Approximately 2.9 per cent, or 0.25 million of children, participate in the labour force without attending school.

Among working children, 5-14 years, about four out of every five are employed in the agricultural sector, 15.4 per cent are employed in services, and the remaining 2.3 per cent are employed in the industrial sector.

Most working children, 5-14 years of age, are employed as unpaid family workers in rural areas, hence the desire for a large family: 88.5 per cent of working boys and 84.2 per cent of working girls labour as unpaid family workers, on a farm or in a business.

Furthermore, most poor households are excluded from formal social safety nets, thus they rely on their children to take care of them in their old age — a form of social security.

The journey toward gender equity in East Africa has gained some ground in the past, but when it comes to domestic violence, it appears that women expect other women to “turn the other cheek.”

Although both men and women in many countries believe that wife-beating is acceptable, women are more likely than men to condone the violence.

The survey indicates that 40 per cent of Ugandan women believe that it is acceptable for a man to beat up his wife if she argues with him, compared with 36 per cent of Ugandan men who believe so.

And 31 per cent of women believe that it is acceptable for a husband to beat up his wife if she refuses to have sex with him, compared with only 19 per cent of men.

Similar trends are found in other developing countries: 21 per cent of Ghanaian women condone wife beating as a consequence of arguing with one’s husband, compared with 11 per cent of men.

In India, this corresponds to 30 per cent of women, versus 26 per cent of men.

This disparity in attitudes reveals a corresponding inconsistency in the way boys and girls are socialised.

Because women are expected to be the social glue that keeps families and communities together, girls are raised to believe that they have to avoid “rocking the boat” even if that means turning a blind eye to violence directed against them.

Nafis Sadik, former executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, says there remains a gap between legislation and the actual practice on the ground regarding the welfare of women and girls.

“Women’s empowerment and gender equality are talked about everywhere and laws have been changed in the majority of countries, but the law enforcement remains absent... violence against women largely goes unpunished; inheritance rights are in the law but are not implemented.”

The survey also highlights that in countries such as Malawi and Senegal, nearly 70 per cent of men make the key decisions about their wives’ health care.

When women cannot make health care choices for themselves, they may be more vulnerable to illness and disease, as well as to maternal complications.

The lifetime probability of dying in pregnancy and childbirth in East Africa varies: 1 in 38 in Kenya and 1 in 35 in Burundi and Rwanda.

Tanzania is the riskiest place in the region to have a baby: There is a 1 in 23 chance of death resulting from maternal complications.

Sub-Saharan Africa continues to account for the highest number of child marriages in the world.

The report indicates that 26 per cent of Kenyan girls are married by the time they reach 18, as are 41 per cent of Tanzanian girls, and 46 per cent of Ugandan girls.