ON a Friday night, a group of women squeeze into the corner of the basement bar at a Kampala Club. They drink wine, trade jokes and belt out lyrics to a love song. As a night out, it has everything.
On a Friday night, a group of women squeeze into the corner of the basement bar at a Kampala Club. They drink wine, trade jokes and belt out lyrics to a love song. As a night out, it has everything. But a secret sets these women apart. Well into their 30s, they quietly nurse fears of never getting a husband.
“If I don’t get a man in Uganda,” says one of them, in a matter-of-fact-tone, “I will go on the internet and find a Mzungu who can accept my age.”
Maybe — but since she still wants children, she is contemplating possible options to have a baby — before time runs out. “I could still rent a womb, buy sperm or have a test-tube baby. I do not mind being a single mother,” she says.
Her story represents a wave of change in relationships as everyone adjusts to the new reality of Ugandan women being better educated, and in some cases, more preferred than men in the workforce. Like Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. secretary of state and TV host Oprah Winfrey, Ugandan women are choosing to stay single, even when they have the bucks and great careers.
In an exclusive report last week, Sunday Vision broke a story on how women’s education had improved dramatically over the past decades, with girls keeping in school longer than boys and even outsmarting them.
Marrying an illiterate man? No way...
With many girls armed with degrees and a few young men with equivalent degrees, husband shortage has never been direr. Education changes women’s expectations. Already, the mean age for marriage among educated women in Uganda is estimated at 25-40.
“We simply wouldn’t want to get married to uneducated men. So, we tend to look elsewhere. We are experiencing inter-marriages because people have gone to school, got exposed and they marry from other regions. It is not like in the past where a Muganda had to marry a Muganda,” observes Laura Aryijuka, a sociologist and postgraduate counselling psychologist.
Aryijuka explains that while it is normal for an uneducated woman to get married to a schooled man, the reverse does not always work in real life.
“Why should I, for instance, go for an uneducated man in my village just to please my tribe, when I am in love with someone I met in school or during my career?
That physical boundary of marrying a fellow tribesman is broken when you are educated.” And as the woman rises academically, more unsettling to some men is their role as second-best earner in the family. The salient characteristic of the normal traditional marriage system is that women must ‘marry up’ — a man with a higher income and higher academic qualifications.
Solome Nakaweesi, an outspoken feminist, reasons that ‘marrying up’ was necessary when women could not get an education. But now that many women are doing as well or better than men at school, those at the top find the marriage unwelcoming.
This is so true when you speak to Judith Nagawa, a project manager with a telecom company. The 37-year-old says she has been dating ‘forever’, but has never found ‘Mr. Right’. When she goes out with a man, she says, chances are he will bring up the topic about her success.
The closest she had — a man who broke off his engagement at the last minute — told her he was uncomfortable with her salary advantage and her master’s degree.
The final blow comes when she tells them about how she already owns rental apartments. “I am being honest and telling them about my life, but I feel like I am coming across as too good for them. That is never my intention,” says Nagawa.
There is no single answer to the question, but social scientists agree that the education mismatch Nagawa experiences with men is a significant player behind the increase in educated women choosing single motherhood.
Aryijuka also observes: “When you are educated, you get a job. An employed woman has many options to get a child without getting a husband.”
What the women say
Feminists blame society, saying often times, the woman is expected to give up work when child birth sets in. “So what is wrong if I decide to choose career over family,” asks one senior lecturer at Makerere University College of Humanities. “If I do not have time for myself and the huge books I have to read, where am I supposed to fit kids and a husband?” she insists.
Teopista Ssentongo, a Workers’ MP and member of the gender parliamentary committee, is happy with the trend.
“Love and marriage are not an issue here. I am very excited to see women going up. Women make better managers in workplaces. We have seen a lot of corruption scandals where men are bosses and that will stop,” observes Ssentongo.
She says even if a woman is in a high position, she is likely not to segregate against men like men have been doing to women for ages. “A woman has a kind heart unlike the men. Education has nothing to do with love. Love has no boundaries. A woman will still date a man, even when he has never stepped in class.”
President Yoweri Museveni has always urged the youth to embrace marriage and have as many children as possible, arguing that the family is the one unifying factor and hence backbone of society. Now, with marriages being thrown in the gutters, analysts say there will be a loss of identity, the moral and social values that are only instilled by growing up in a family.
A more worrisome issue arises when men take advantage of their relative scarcity by making life miserable for would-be girlfriends. Although speaking on condition of anonymity, some men admit they won’t quickly settle down when the supply of eligible spinsters seems unlimited. All this leaves single women facing unwelcome choices, including adoption. “Going to the fertility centre for sperm donation is definitely not my first choice, but I may have the child before finding Mr. Right,” reveals Nagawa. And that leaves the country with many single mothers.
Joyce Mpanga, an educationist and former minister, says the marriage issue comes up to discourage the girls from excelling. “Let us not panic. For every woman, there is a man out there,” she says.
Mpanga, who is also a former Gayaza High School headmistress, says she got married after her masters degree and after getting a job. “I can tell you I found the most loving man and it has been a wonderful marriage. He did not fear me for my education,” she says. “Such topics are where we go wrong. You find a girl desperate to get a man by the time they complete their third year at university. A husband will respect you for what you are,” Mpanga says. “I appeal to girls to settle down, get even PhDs and they will still get a husband.” Jonathan Okiru, an official with the Family Life Network in Kansaga, says it boils down to the foundation of the relationship. Okiru says they have counselled several couples where the woman is well educated. In one of the cases, he says, the woman has a PhD, while the man is at the level of a masters programme.
“But what is the foundation of your relationship? Is it money or sex or mutual commitment? This is important before you settle for marriage,” Okiru says. He adds that for some people, the lack of formal education (degrees/certifications) does not automatically preclude someone being smart.
“When two people treat each other with respect, then there won’t be any problems. If either one resents the other for their level of education, that will show up in the marriage. It is not the difference in education that is the issue, it is how each person treats the other and appreciates them the way they are,” says Okiru.
Okiru notes that sometimes people enter relationships with stereotype ideals. “A man has the mentality that he is less of a man if he does not go to school. The woman has also abused the right of going to school and stopped playing her role as a mother. Yet in a family, each one has a role to play whether educated or not. A family is a team. We have to put aside our personal pleasures.”
Ignatius Matovu, a family lawyer whose wife is a high court judge, says: “In the big picture of the world, having been a better student isn’t all that important. We should not look on our paycheques as a measure of our value in the relationship. If you both see the educational gap as immaterial, it is,” observes Matovu.
Girls are smarter
Contrary to common perceptions that girls were dropping out of school, the number of them attaining secondary education was found at 26.9%, compared to the 20% for the boys, according the 2011 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey. This was mainly in the central region.
At Makerere University, the number of female graduates has increased from 779 (27%) in 1996 to 6,495 (48.8%) in 2011. Back in 1996, males formed the majority of graduates at 73%. But now the gender gap has narrowed, with 48.8% of female graduates and 51% male graduates.
In some courses, the number of girls graduating is even higher. During the 2012 graduation, there were more females graduating than the males in courses such as law (41 females, 33 males), medicine and surgery (11 females, 9 males), nursing (9 females, 3 males), Food science (16 females, 12 males), wood science and technology (4 females, 2 males) and Botany (5 females, 3 males). The best overall student at the university was a female, Barbara Nansamba, a student of computer science who obtained a CGPA of 4.9.
The situation in the U.S. is far more glaring with the pool of college women without a husband. Women are feeling the pinch from years of gender imbalances on campuses, where today nearly 58% of all bachelor’s degrees and 62% of associate’s degrees are earned by women.
Given that women prefer to find a well-educated, reliable earner as a husband, this creates a simple math problem. Well-educated women cannot find enough equally or better-educated men to marry. Couple the education gap with the current economic “man-cession”—as many as 80% of the jobs lost in the recession were held by men — and the dilemma for single women becomes even worse. Today, more well-educated women have to ask themselves: Am I willing to “marry down”?
In Asia, marriage rates are falling, partly because people are postponing getting hitched. The mean age of marriage in the richest place — Japan, Taiwan, Hongkong, has risen sharply in the past few decades to reach 29-30 for women and 30-35 for men. A lot of Asians are not just marrying later — they are not marrying at all.
Husband shortage looms