Finding a husband is proving to be a Herculean task for well-educated women in Kenya. And the hitch lies in academics.
In a surprising trend, enrollment of women students in Kenya's 24 universities - 18 private and six public - has surpassed that of the male compatriots by a ratio of three to one. The phenomenon, of the last four years, has got local authorities thinking.
According to the Ministry of Education, 60,000 students are enrolled for undergraduate courses. Of this figure, 45,000 are women. Furthermore, of the registered 7,000 graduate students, only 2,500 are men. This implies that for every single male student there are three female students studying at the universities. According to the 2001 Census, in Kenya women out populated the men by a ratio of 2:1.
As a result of the enrollment disparities, in terms of gender, Kenyan society is now witnessing women becoming increasingly shy of marrying lesser-educated men.
According to a news research carried by 'The Anvil', a tabloid weekly published by the University of Nirobi (UON), the scarcity of well-educated men is setting in a new mentality towards the institution of marriage. An editorial, aptly titled 'The Amazon's Turn', states: "A paradigm shift is slowly eating into the Kenyan society and gladly it's the previously eternal victims who have come of age, deservedly asserting themselves as fit and ready to lead by tearing into sexual stereotypes that have long served no noble purpose save to engender servitude across the gender divide. For hooray, women have veritably realised that being academically smart is liberating since one can then be in charge of individual choices. And with proportionately more women seeking higher education it is no wonder that many of them are choosing to remain single rather than hitting it off with a man who is putatively an intellectual dwarf."
One such example is Wanjiku Mugane, 38, the C.E.O of First Africa Capital, a leading financial consultancy within the East and Central African region. The firm handles gild-edged investment deals worth millions of dollars. Armed with a law degree that is topped with a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Harvard, Mugane cannot even think of tying the knot with a man endowed with fewer academic qualifications.
"It's not that I am conceited... But today - with a good education, hard work, and some luck - a woman can emerge as top-dog in her chosen field," says Mugane, who for now has no intention of trading her chosen life for marriage.
Fatuma Ali's story is somewhat different from single Mugane's experience and yet, she, too, understands that a spouse's level of formal education should be the decider when one is deciding whom to marry. As a Muslim faithful, Ali, 34, went against the grain by marrying a Sikh. The marriage ended after a protracted four years that intermittently captured local media attention.
While granting her a divorce the Court Magistrate in Nairobi said her husband had 'resorted to religious bigotry on realisation that his wife was a socialite, a go-getter, and academically far more endowed than her husband leading him to mistakenly believe that he was henpecked'.
In retrospect, Ali, the Marketing Manager of Bidco Oils Refinery, East and Central Africa's largest edible oil manufacturer, says, "I must confess that I was starry-eyed. I was in love with love itself and in the circumstances I found myself marrying young. I believed at the time that simple love was all that was required to insulate a marriage from the vagaries that split up families. But I was wrong. Similarity in cerebral thinking is indispensable if one is to be truly happy."
Ali, who holds an MBA from Bristol University, UK, now says that next time love comes calling it must be accompanied by a competitive academic resume.
Not surprisingly then that Muthoni Kimani, the Registrar of Marriages at the Attorney General's office, in Nairobi, has witnessed a dip in the number of professional women seeking to marry, over the past four years. "I can confidently state that in all my 14 years in this office, the past four years we have registered very few marriages involving professional women. What we have witnessed is the strange phenomena of very well-educated women marrying relatively younger men who have shown indelible signs of solely being dependants."
Traditionally, within Kenya's patriarchal society, men are expected to provide for their families, while women are expected to silently kowtow to the dictates of her husband. Basically men stand to gain all material belongings of a family. For instance, amongst the Kikuyu community - the country's numerically largest community - when a girl marries, her family provides a bed as a present for the newly weds. But the offering has a deeper cultural context as well. It basically signifies that after her marriage a girl is not welcome home, even in the case of marital discord, as apparently the maternal home would have no bed for her to sleep in! Therefore, men generically have no real need to seriously pursue higher education.
So, if the men do not study, what professions do they take up? Most are engaged in the informal sector, like selling second-hand imported motor vehicles or running alcohol joints - basically businesses that guarantee quick returns and do not involve heavy capital investments.
Local pundits argue out that as long as men continue to lag behind in academics, an emerging clan of very well educated women, with serious jobs to match, will choose to forgo marriage if prospective husbands fall short in qualifications.
"In the past, women could not make personal choices. Today, many have gone through a serious education and that is the reason the country is witnessing a revolution targeting gender roles," says Lynn Muthoni Wanyeki, Executive Director of the two decade-old African Women's Development and Communication Network (FEMNET), an NGO that aims at empowering women.
Concerned about the skewed gender enrolment at universities and its spillover effects on society, authorities are now calling for speedy corrective measures. "The disproportionate enrolment in institutions of higher learning is alarming. In the short term, if remedial measures are not quickly implemented to balance the apparent gender inequality, the country will reap disastrous social and economic consequences that will inarguably prove difficult to unravel in the long term," warns Professor Mutahi Karuga, Permanent Secretary of Education, Natraobi, in 'The Glaring Gap. Male Students Left Out', an official report.
Yet, nothing concrete is being done to bridge the gap. Perhaps, because traditionally women have been discouraged from going to school and the current change of attitude is viewed as a good thing because the corporate world as well as the public offices are witnessing a balance of sorts - along gender lines - at the top.