Gendered Emotional Support and Women’s Well-Being in a Low-Income Urban African Setting

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In most contexts, emotional support is crucial for the well-being of low-income single women and their children. Support from women may be especially important for single mothers because of precarious ties to their children’s fathers, the prevalence of extended matrifocal living arrangements, and gendered norms that place men as providers of financial rather than emotional support. However, in contexts marked by economic insecurity, spatial dispersion of families, and changing gender norms and kinship obligations, such an expectation may be problematic. Applying theories of emotional capital and family bargaining processes, we address three questions: What is the gender composition of emotional support that single mothers receive? How does gender composition change over time? Does the gender composition of emotional support affect the self-reported stress of single mothers? Drawing on data from a unique data set on 462 low-income single mothers and their kin from Nairobi, Kenya, we uncover three key findings. One, whereas the bulk of strong emotional support comes from female kin, about 20 percent of respondents report having male-dominant support networks. Two, nearly 30 percent of respondents report change favoring men in the composition of their emotional support over six months. Three, having a male-dominant emotional support network is associated with lower stress. These results challenge what is commonly taken for granted about gender norms and kinship obligations in non-Western contexts.

Madhavan, S., Clark, Shelley & Hara, Y. 2018. “Gendered emotional Support and Women’s Well-Being in a Low-income Urban African Setting.” Gender & Society, 32(6): 837-859.

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