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Does It Still ‘Take a Village?’

UMD-led Research to Study Changing Family Dynamics and Child Health in Africa

By Sara Gavin

Family in Nairobi, Kenya

Photo by Shutterstock

A team of UMD researchers funded by a new $2.5 million grant will study how marriage and kinship in impoverished communities in Nairobi, Kenya (pictured) shape childrearing there.

The old adage “it takes a village” refers to the support network of family and community necessary to raise a child, and now a multidisciplinary team of University of Maryland researchers will spend the next five years examining how the proverbial “village” functions in rapidly urbanizing yet impoverished communities in Kenya.    

Supported by a $2.5 million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Center for Child Health and Human Development, the project will seek to better understand and measure “marriage as a process,” the contours of kinship support, and the implications for children’s health and well-being in densely populated slum communities in Nairobi. 

“Urbanization rates in sub-Saharan Africa are some of the highest in the world,” said Sangeetha Madhavan, UMD professor of African American studies and sociology, who is leading the project. “Kenya’s impressive efforts to achieve World Health Organization goals on child health and well-being mask the elevated risks for children in low-income urban contexts, a pattern found in other African settings. We know very little about the role of two key social institutions—marriage and kinship—that provide the key resources for child rearing.” 

Other researchers include Mike Wagner from the Department of African American Studies, Kirsten Stoebenau from Behavioral and Community Health, and Ken Leonard from Agricultural and Resource Economics, as well as the African Population and Health Research Center in Nairobi. 

The team will survey and interview women and men and track children’s physical and cognitive development at different points throughout the next five years. In all, researchers will gather data on roughly 1,200 mothers and their young children, and an additional 40 men as they try to understand the shifting concepts of marriage and family and who is actively supporting and impacting children in these marginalized communities. 

“The people who live outside your physical home are often just as important as the people who live with you, especially when migration is involved,” Madhavan said. “The findings from this project have the potential to really get us to think about big theoretical questions such as, what is the meaning of family in the context of urbanization and migration? To what extent is biological kinship important in the care of children? How has technology altered the meaning of ‘social connection?’ In this sense, the relevance of this study goes well beyond Kenya and Africa to even the U.S.” 

The first phase of the project will begin in early 2021. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, some surveys will be administered online, via social media and by phone.

The grant is being administered through the Maryland Population Research Center, which brings together leading scholars from diverse disciplines to support, produce and promote population-related research. 

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