Are women-headed households disadvantaged?

Jane Carter, 28 May 2015
Are women-headed households disadvantaged?

A little while back,  I wrote about an exchange sparked by an academic paper, and here is another one. In this case it is a paper by three German development economists, including Professor Stephan Klasen, published in World Development. Titled “A Feminization of Vulnerability? Female Headship, Poverty and Vulnerability in Thailand and Vietnam” it provides a detailed and comprehensive analysis of over 4,000 rural households in these two countries.

In recent years, we have often been asked by different donors to give special focus in our projects to female-headed households. The assumption, of course, is that in lacking an adult male, such households are more likely to be poor and vulnerable to external shocks. This assumption has already been questioned for some time by a number of feminist researchers (most notably and convincingly by Professor Sylvia Chant in publications from the late 1990s onwards), but it remains quite persistent in the minds of many policy makers and project designers. As Chant and others argue – and as indeed conforms to my own observations – women-headed households encompass a wide diversity of situations and contexts. Single women in Bangladesh have for example told me that the absence of a husband has made them freer to make decisions – and to live without constant violence. By contrast, others spoke of the impossibility of getting a loan, or of being able to travel any distance, without a husband. In rural India, I remember a young widow telling me how difficult it was to prevent men trying to get into her house at night. So much depends on the individual, and on local circumstances. Lumping all women-headed households together as a “disadvantaged group” is inevitably simplistic.

This noted, it is true that rural women rarely own the land that they farm (rendering them vulnerable to landlessness on divorce or widowhood), and that they are more likely to experience difficulties in accessing credit, organising labour, or securing insurance. It is also true that globally, the number of women-headed households has been increasing over recent decades – one key reason being the seasonal or longer term wage labour migration of men. Recognising that there are clear differences between de facto women-headed households in which the woman’s partner is absent on migration, and de jure women-headed households led by single women and widows, Klasen and his colleagues analysed these two types of households separately in their study.

It is often numbers that convince policy makers, and this paper provides them. Overall, the researchers conclude that they “do not find compelling evidence that female-headed households as a group are generally worse off than male-headed ones, but the heterogeneity of female-headed households matters.” (A nice vindication of Sylvia Chant’s arguments). It turns out that de facto female-headed households in Thailand are actually richer than male-headed ones, presumably a result of the remittances that they receive – yet in Vietnam, this is not the case. At the same time, in both countries female-headed households of both types are more vulnerable to shocks than male-headed ones.

The paper concludes that policy makers need to be more nuanced in targeting, and that female-headed households possibly need special provision for coping with major shocks. Asked for her views on the situation in Vietnam, our GSE Focal Person, Hien Le, observed that seasonally de facto female-headed households are common in rural areas, with men migrating to cities during the off-farm period. However, the increase in family income from men’s wages is usually obtained at the expense of various regular labour arrangements, such as the safeguarding of irrigation work. Being left to manage the farm alone can be very tough for women. Hien Le also pointed out that it is only de jure female-headed households that are officially recognized by the government as such – so de facto female-headed households vulnerable to shocks would be difficult to target.

Apart from their financial situation or vulnerability to external shocks, there is another aspect to bear in mind regarding de jure female-headed households: their social status. In many cultural contexts, a woman who has lost her husband or never married is looked upon with scorn, a source of bad luck, or worse. This major constraint to a happy and fulfilled life is not, however, something that will show up in a macroeconomic study.

Jane Carter
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Jane Carter

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