Poverty in Africa is falling fastest in families headed by women

26% of households across the continent are headed by women; the probability that a woman heads a household has been increasing in all regions


OVER the past two decades, poverty in sub-Saharan Africa has fallen from 56% in 1990 to 43% in 2012, and is projected to fall even further, to 35% this year.

In that time, something else has happened – more African women today are heads of households, either as unmarried single women, separated, divorced or widows, a new working paper from the World Banksays.

The general understanding in development circles is that female-headed households are disadvantaged, and so poorer; past studies from around the world support this view.

But Africa has a way of turning up surprises: over the past two decades, poverty has fallen in Africa broadly, but is falling fastest in female-headed households.

Far from being left behind by the rising tide of prosperity on the continent, families headed by women have seen their prospects improve more than male-headed families, and thus have contributed appreciably to the overall decline in poverty despite their smaller share in the population.

Data from recent Demographic and Housing Surveys from 24 countries in Africa, quoted in the working paper, shows that a quarter (26%) of households across the continent are headed by women, and the probability that a woman aged 15 or older heads a household, controlling for her age, has been increasing since the early 1990s in all regions and across the entire age distribution.

Still, there’s much regional disparity – the lowest incidence is in West Africa, the fraction of female-headed households was less than 10% in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, likely reflects the continuing practice of polygamy, together with high widow and divorcee remarriage rates that continue to be widespread in majority Muslim countries.

Southern Africa has the highest incidence at 43%, mostly because of historical labour migration linked to the mining economy, and also  high prevalence of HIV Aids.

Ghana and Kenya fall more broadly in the middle at 30%, but all across Africa – except in Southern Africa – the rate is much higher for families living in urban areas.

Many factors have contributed to the rising incidence of female-headed households globally: the expansion of women’s rights, including legal rights to divorce, child custody and housing; improved economic prospects for women as individuals, distinct from the marital relationship, and changes in women’s legal access to property, land and labour markets.

Specific to Africa, high HIV prevalence and AIDS deaths has also contributed to more families headed by women, as have violent civil conflicts.

Social infrastructureThe researchers suggest that many cultures in Africa emphasised lineage more than conjugal ties per se, so the social infrastructure that makes room for families headed by women has been there all along.

In other words, because marriage existed for the explicit purpose of having children, children were valued more than the marital relationship in and of itself. So in many cultures, there were - sometimes quiet - arrangements in inheritance and lineage structures to “absorb” children born out of wedlock, because the agrarian economy ultimately needed hands wherever they could be found.

Still, the researchers find direct correlations with education and delays in early marriage: An extra year of schooling produces a 3 percentage-point increase in the share of the population living in female-headed households.

And on average, a one year rise in women’s age at first marriage produces a 2.5 percentage-point increase in the share of the population living in female headed households—an effect almost as strong as that of an extra year of schooling.

The working paper shows that female heads are a diverse group, and this impacts their economic prospects: Some—such as married women with a nonresident husband (polygynous or migrant), or educated women who may choose, and socially and economically afford, not to be married—can be expected to be relatively well-off.

Others—war or AIDS widows, separated or abandoned women, and single mothers who have not “chosen” headship but simply have no options—are frequently found to head disadvantaged households.

But why has poverty fallen fastest for female-headed households? The researchers are not conclusively certain, but they offer some hypotheses: It could be that poor families headed by women gain relatively high economic returns to the new opportunities unleashed by growth, simply because they are starting from a low base and so have more catching up to do.

Disproportionate benefitsIt could also be that they have benefited disproportionately from the expansion of social investments in the region, such as in education, maternal and child health, and social grants.

Or perhaps the group of people living in female-headed households is fundamentally changing over time – the women who are becoming heads of households tend to be more educated and have better jobs and prospects overall.

A separate study suggested that the relative, and unexpected prosperity of female-headed households could be the result of very different spending behaviour between men and women: women have been found to re-invest 80-90% of their income back into the family, whereas for men (married or not) it’s 30-40%.

It appears that men tend to have more “external” bills than women do – for example, entertainment, sports, girlfriends and so on.

But because there are much fewer socially acceptable spaces for women to “divert” their time and money to (except perhaps church), most of their earnings are spent on the home and the children; the net effect is these families end up being better off, even if in absolute terms, women earn less than men and so have less to spend.

“A superficial examination does not support any of these explanations but this new stylised fact about poverty in Africa warrants a closer look,” the researchers conclude.


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