In Africa, more women are heads of households than ever before – either as single unmarried women, divorced, separated or widows, data from DHS surveys in 24 countries in Africa and published by the World Bank shows. You might think that this is a disadvantage, as the general understanding is that female headed households are poorer and experience more hardship than those headed by men. A recent report by UNFPA indicated that due to their unequal employment opportunities and predominance in low-paid occupations, women are particularly vulnerable to economic insecurity and financial dependence. Household surveys show that women of working age are more likely than men to live in a poor household in 41 out of 75 countries with data. But that’s not the whole story.
The data also shows that far from being marginalised outright, poverty is actually falling fastest in African households headed by women.
It could be that these families reap more benefi ts from good economic times and the opportunities a? orded by growing economies, simply because they are starting from a low base and so have more catching up to do. It could also be that African governments are investing more in social services such as education, maternal and child health, and social grants – all of which make much more of a difference to female-headed households because they need them more. Still, it could also be that the kind of women who are becoming heads of families are changing over time – they themselves increasingly tend to be more educated and have better job prospects overall.
The most disadvantaged families, the data suggests, is in the kind of units that are de facto
female headed, yet the woman is married – such as if the husband is absent for long periods of time working away from home. In such a set-up, especially if the husband’s financial support is irregular, the family is worse off because the mother is unable to make many executive decisions on her own, like whether to sell the family goat to raise school fees.
By deferring executive decision-making to her absent husband – who might not be easy to reach, or might not come through in time – the family ends up being stuck in a poverty trap because of the inability to make small, every day decisions, unlike in the case where executive power is in the hands of the man or the woman, or shared equally between the two.
So when mothers have that decision-making power and control over resources in a family – as single mothers typically do – they have more freedom to invest in their children’s education.