Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Gender-Based Household Compositional Changes and Implications for Poverty in South Africa

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Gender-Based Household Compositional Changes and Implications for Poverty in South Africa

Article excerpt


Over a billion people live in extreme poverty globally and South Africa has its fair share of poor people. Indeed, poverty, along with high unemployment and nontrivial inequality, forms a tripartite socio-economic malaise plaguing South Africa. Though the prevalence of poverty has substantially declined over the post-apartheid period, many South Africans still live in extreme poverty. Also worrying is the fact that the poverty headcount--the proportion of the population living below a given poverty line--has actually increased in the last few years. For instance, data from Statistics South Africa indicates that the percentage of South Africans living in extreme poverty declined from 28.4% in 2006 to 21.4% in 2011, but increased to 25.2% in 2015. A similar trend obtains for poverty headcounts based on higher poverty lines (Statistics South Africa, 2017).

A feature of global and South African poverty is that it is gendered. This implies that females and female-related socio-economic structures bear a significantly higher burden of poverty than their male counterparts. A number of studies in South Africa have shown that females are more likely to belong to poorer households than males (Posel & Rogan, 2012), and that female-headed households are more likely to be poor than their male-headed counterparts (Posel & Rogan, 2012; Rogan, 2013). The latter is especially worrying given the rise in the proportion of South African households headed by women (Madhavan & Schatz, 2007). Furthermore, it has been shown that (unearned) mothers' income has a higher effect on the family's health than income under fathers' control (Thomas, 1990). Thus, it stands to reason that higher female poverty is likely to have serious ramifications for household welfare (especially with respect to health).

Though the foregoing indicates that a number of studies have been conducted on the relationship between gender and poverty in South Africa, there is virtually no evidence on the implications of transitions into female headship (from a male-headed household) for transitions into poverty in South Africa. While previous studies (Ndinda & Ngandu, 2016) mostly focused on the cross-sectional relationship between belonging to a female-headed household and poverty at a given point in time, it is important to ascertain if individuals who were initially non-poor and who belonged to male-headed households stand the risk of being pulled into poverty if they become members of female-headed households. This is the major gap in the literature that this paper seeks to fill. Our results indicate that transitioning into a female-headed household is associated with an increased probability of transitioning into poverty. This significant relationship apparently does not occur spontaneously; it kicks in when the transition becomes more persistent. Further analysis exploiting the longitudinal nature of the data indicates that between the groups of individuals who would subsequently transition into female-headed households and those who would remain in male-headed households, there was no significant difference in the probability of being poor prior to the gender-related transitions. This strengthens the argument that at least part of the observed significant relationship between future transitions into female-headed households and transitions into poverty may be causal.

Gender and Poverty in South Africa

Poverty in South Africa cannot be comprehensively understood without a gender disaggregation of the poverty statistics. As early as 1954, South African women understood the gendered dimensions of poverty when they in the Women's Charter noted that:

We women share with our men folk the cares and anxieties imposed by
poverty and its evils. As wives and mothers, it falls upon us to make
small wages stretch a long way. It is we who feel the cries of our
children when they are hungry and sick. … 
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