‘One Hand Does Not Bring Up a Child:’ Child Fostering Among Single Mothers in Nairobi Slums

Cassandra Cotton, Shelley Clark, Sangeetha Madhavan


Childrearing in sub-Saharan Africa is often viewed as collaborative, where children benefit from support from kin. For single mothers living in informal settlements, kin networks may be highly dispersed and offer little day-to-day childrearing support, but may provide opportunities for child fostering.


This study uses a linked lives approach, where single mothers’ connections with kin and romantic partners may influence whether – and what type of – kin are relied on to support child fostering.


The authors leverages an innovative survey on the kin networks of 404 single mothers and 741 children, collected in 2016, and 41 in-depth interviews conducted in 2011 and 2013, to explore fostering among single mothers in Korogocho and Viwandani, two slums in Nairobi, Kenya.


Quantitative findings show 6.2% of single mothers’ children are fostered, with provision of emotional support associated with lower likelihood of fostering. Both quantitative and qualitative results reflect strong reliance on maternal kin. Maternal kin play a key role in fostering to protect children, to fulfill traditional lineage obligations, and due to their willingness to foster when others will not.


This study contributes to a growing body of research on the role of kin in contemporary fostering arrangements in sub-Saharan Africa. In particular, we highlight fostering among a potentially highly vulnerable group: the children of single mothers in slum settlements. Sending children to live with kin may be an important coping strategy for single mothers, both to reduce the burden of raising children alone and to provide children with opportunities to grow up outside the slums.