Over the past years, Africa has experienced a significant increase in the number of female-headed households (FHH) than it has before the days of industrialisation. The main reasons for this increase can be linked to male migration, the deaths of men in civil conflicts and wars as well as teenage pregnancies and family disruptions. This change in the household structure has thus been noted to be challenged with poverty.
Studies have as a result been conducted to investigate the issues related to FHH’s and also what causes them. For instance some of the investigations show that what creates much of the vulnerability with FHH’s is the fact that;
1. They have a higher dependency ratio in spite of the smaller average size of the household;
2. They have fewer assets and less access to resources; and
3. They tend to have a greater history of disruption.
However, from the investigations, there seems to be some contestation as to whether these households are actually also disadvantaged when it comes to access to land, livestock, wealth, education and health care. For example in Zimbabwe research has shown that female-headed households have 30-50% smaller landholdings than male-headed households. There are similar findings on Malawi and Namibia. But there is disagreement as to whether or not they are poorer than male-headed households in terms of income poverty. On the one hand, the fact FHHs are usually smaller in size means that they should be less poor, since the poor tend to be concentrated in larger households. But, the fact that they usually have a higher number of dependents relative to the number of income earners, which is also correlated with poverty, would argue the reverse.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD) poverty assessment in eastern and Southern Africa recorded that an estimate of 25-60% of rural households in countries in the region were headed by women. These women included; single, widowed, divorced or separated. Furthermore, household budget surveys usually find that rural FHHs are no poorer, and may in fact be less poor, than MHHs, but there are exceptions. For instance, in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia, household consumption survey data argue that FHHs are poorer, but in Rwanda the difference is small: 41% of FHHs as compared with 39% of MHHs are classified as poor. In Tanzania, survey data concluded that in rural areas, the income of FHHs was slightly higher than that among MHHs, but the pattern is reversed in urban Dar-es-Salaam. In Zanzibar and Malawi, on the other hand, FHHs tend to be poorer in rural areas than MHHs, but not in urban ones.
Therefore what one can thus conclude about these differences in households is that it all depends on the type of FHH concerned including their rural-urban situation or distribution. Some qualitative and participatory research have further concluded that households headed by women who are divorced, widowed or separated are more likely to be poor households, and household headed by single or married women (the wives of migrants) are likely to be belong to the non-poor. Findings of studies in Kenya and Zambia argue that the best predictor of whether an FHH is or is not likely to be poor is whether the female head does or does not receive support from a current partner, husband or adult son.
A more intriguing question would then be, given all these results, what is the connection between this structural change in the household and poverty? This is because while there has been an increase in FHH’s poverty has been decreasing. Generally the discourse as also seen above is that these households are poorer compared to those headed by men. So then have FHHs been left behind by recent improvements in average household living standards? Maybe not. The women who head households in Africa are a diverse group. Some—such as married women with a non-resident husband (these could be polygynous marriages or a husband who has migrated for work) or women who choose not to be married or remarried (because they are educated and have social and economic opportunities to enable that decision)—can be expected to be relatively well-off.
Also, looking at the different FHH’s it is noted that no one type consistently experiencing faster poverty reduction than the others, yet with at least one type usually outpacing male-headed households. There is little discernible pattern across countries. One type of FHH does well in one country or time period while another category does best elsewhere or the complete opposite.