Does being educated limit your marriageability as a woman?

Kenyan society is in the midst of an existential crisis on marriage, if the level of hand wringing on the state of the Kenyan family published in a new survey by Infotrack is anything to go by.

The survey reveals a society that nominally holds very conservative views, such as the man being the head of the house, and that "pre-occupation" with career and work is the main cause of problems in the family – but at the same time, has fewer qualms about men marrying women who are more educated or earn more than their husbands.

It's a contradiction that sets men and women on a collision course, with men seemingly happy to profit from their wives' earnings in the form of a larger combined family income, but then turn around and say that many wives "compete with their husbands and want to be co-heads of households."

What is also surprising is just how little deviation there is between the responses of men and women in almost every question.

Both men and women also agree to a close degree that husbands should be in charge of the rent/mortgage and school fees, women should be in charge of cooking food and taking care of the children, and that both spouses should make decisions about major household purchases together.

Should men marry women more educated or less than them?

Such a close overlap between the sexes shows that the conservative ideal is held strongly and defended vigorously by both men and women.

But then it gets intriguing on the question of whether men should marry women more educated or who earn less than they, and we see interesting deviations, particularly by region.

Although in every region, the majority of men overall (58.8%) did not think men ought to be less educated than their wives, progressive views on this question are held most widely in Central, Nyanza and Nairobi. Over 40% of men in those regions say that men should have no problem marrying a woman who is more educated.

There is even more widespread support for this among the women – again although the majority of women overall (55.9%) did not think it was a good idea for women to be more educated than their husbands, women from Central, Nyanza and Nairobi – in that order – were all for women being more educated than their spouses. In Central and Nyanza particularly, more women agreed with this statement than disagreed with it, suggesting that the progressive view has tipped into the majority in those regions.

The most conservative views on the question of women's education vis-à-vis their marriage prospects were held in North Eastern, Western and Rift Valley for the men, and Western, North Eastern and Coast for the women.


The convergence of such "traditional" views in Western and North Eastern in particular is intriguing and deserves examination. The two regions could not be more different geographically, climatically and culturally, at least on the surface.

North Eastern is largely arid and semi-arid, a sparsely populated region that has been historically marginalised by successive governments and is overwhelmingly Muslim.

Western, on the other hand, is a well-watered, numerically dense land of maize, tea and coffee, with some of the country's oldest Christian missions and schools.

And yet, there is broad consensus between the two regions that women's education is a threat to their "marriageability".

The same goes for the question of whether men should marry women who earn more then they do, or its converse – whether women should marry men who earn less than they do. Again, the most progressive views, broadly speaking are in Nairobi, Central and Nyanza, and the most conservative are in North Eastern and Western.

That the former three could be least rigid in their views of a "woman's place" isn't really surprising – they are the most urban, with a history of first contact with the cash economy, Christianity and mission schools, all of which shook the foundations of family life, and whose effects are only intensifying as the generations progress. There may be a resignation setting in – that the world has changed, and there's no point fighting now.


But Western's conservatism, in particular, flies in the face of anthropological theories that suggest that gender roles are most sharply circumscribed in societies that have harsh, treacherous environments, and so by necessity, require men to step up as protectors and providers.

It may have its roots in widespread cultural norms in the region, in which children "belong to the father". Even when marriages break up, children in Luhya culture typically remain with the father, which is much less common in Central Kenya.

The result is that marriage as an institution has higher stakes in Western than in Central, at least for women. Divorce means possibly losing contact with your children, so women have more "skin in the game" – which means both men and women actively uphold the conservative ideal.

Still, there is some covert male "resistance" even in areas where women's education and career progression is, on the surface, more acceptable to society.

Central Kenya, for example, has the highest number of respondents saying that "many husbands today have abandoned their roles as the heads and financial providers" (91.2%) of all regions surveyed.

With such high perceptions of absconding, it is not a wonder that there is also high acceptability for women in charge – there has to be, or else society would collapse. One has no choice, as a woman, you must step up if your family is to survive.

And as a man, you must elevate your preferences – chances are any woman you meet have already gone out and gotten herself an education, a job outside the home, or promotion.


Still, there is the puzzling broad view that "pre-occupation with career progression and work is the main cause of problems in the family" (77.9%, the second-highest in this indicator as per regional responses).

In other words, the Central Kenya view can be summarised thus – there is no problem, nominally, with a woman being more educated or earning more than her husband. But she should not be "pre-occupied" with it – a certain level of modesty, or mediocrity, must be infused for it to be acceptable.

It is arguably a "petty power grab" at home, that is only enforced because power in the wider world is (by design or circumstance) slipping away from the male grasp. You may be a CEO, the men seem to be saying, but at home you are my wife, and you must remain small and deferential.

This mixed support possibly more painful to many women that being oppressed or discriminated against openly. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, "Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

No wonder then, that the highest negative responses on the question of whether "marriage is a priority for today's woman" come from that very same region – 81.4% of respondents in Central say no, compared to a Kenya average of 73.8% on the same question.


 Christine Mungai is a writer, journalist and executive editor of Africa data visualiser and explainer site