Going It Alone

By Catarino, Christine; Oso, Laura | UNESCO Courier, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Going It Alone


Catarino, Christine, Oso, Laura, UNESCO Courier


Why are there so many women-headed households in countries of the South?

According to the usual definition, the head of a family is the person recognized as such by him- or herself and by the other members of the household. In some countries of the South a patriarchal conception of the family has discouraged women heads of household from considering themselves as such, and as a result their numbers have been underestimated.

Governments, development aid organizations and non-governmental organizations channel goods and services towards the family head, who is supposed to be the family's main source of support. This is why the social recognition of women as family heads is so important.

In addition to the accepted situations in which a woman is the mainstay of the family (widowhood, a partner's migration, single motherhood, an unstable marriage and polygamy without cohabitation), there are cases where the woman lives with a man who is not able or willing to support the household.

Matrilinear societies

In Africa women were heads of family in certain traditional matrilinear polygamous societies such as that of the Kwahu of Ghana, where women inherit through the maternal line. Other cultures in Ghana and elsewhere allow women approaching forty to "withdraw from the institution of marriage".

But the practice introduced in Africa by colonialism causing men to migrate to work in the mines and on the plantations of white farmers, followed by post-independence developments such as urbanization, increased migratory flows and changes in traditional family structures combined to increase the number of households run by women.

A number of demographic factors are also involved, including women's longer life-expectancy and the age difference between marriage partners, which means that more women are widowed than men.

Regional variations

United Nations statistics show that in the early 1980s women-headed households constituted some 30 per cent of all households in Latin America and the Caribbean, 20 per cent of those in Africa and less than 15 per cent of those in Asia. The lowest proportions of women household heads are found in the countries of the Sahel and North Africa (due to the influence of religion, the strongly patriarchal nature of these societies and traditional forms of cohabitation) and in other Islamic countries such as Iran, Kuwait, Pakistan and Indonesia.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, low wages and unemployment due to economic recession prevent men from performing their traditional role in society. The resulting sense of failure may lead them to abandon their families. Macho attitudes, involving men in flashy expenditure designed to reinforce their prestige as males, may lead them to opt out of their responsibilities as fathers and leave the family home.

In Africa, the migration of a male spouse may impose increased responsibilities on the woman, who has to farm the family's land, while a woman who leaves home may have to provide economic support for the members of the family left behind in the village. This feminization of households is also encouraged by the form of polygamy in which the man lives with only one of his wives, while the others set up their own households. Another form of non-cohabitational polygamy exists when a male spouse migrates to the city and takes a wife there, so that he has both rural and urban households.

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