In common with many readers, I was aware of the discrimination and severe disadvantage faced by widows in many countries.
Nonetheless, I was completely unprepared for what I found when I looked closely at the data for Mali. As documented in my recent paper (Lasting Welfare Effects of Widowhood in a Poor Country, 5734), Malian women who have experienced the shock of widowhood, sometimes very young, have lower living standards than other women of the same age. These detrimental effects persist through remarriage and are passed on to their children ─ possibly more so to daughters ─ suggesting an intergenerational transmission of poverty stemming from widowhood.
My analysis of household consumption data from the 2006 Enquête Légère Intégrée Auprès des Ménages (ELIM) indicates that households headed by widowed women (comprising the vast majority of female headed households) are significantly poorer than all other households even when controlling for an extensive set of household and individual characteristics, including age.
Widows absorbed into male-headed households also fair poorly. Mali’s 2006 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) can tell us about the situation of these women. Focusing on women aged 15 to 49, the DHS has the considerable advantages of containing individual level welfare indicators but also marital history so that we know whether currently married women were previously widowed. This allows an examination of whether remarriage provides the insurance one would expect. By and large, it does not.
In Mali, women at very young ages marry men 12 to 14 years older on average in urban and rural areas, respectively. Many are widowed young: 5 percent of the DHS sample of women aged 15 to 49 are previously or currently widowed. Women’s rights, such as to a plot of land, are acquired through, but also contingent on, marriage and hence lost at widowhood. In this setting, widows usually remarry but often into worse circumstances such as into polygamous unions as lower ranked ─ and hence often lower status ─ wives.
Malian women have 7 children on average. A father’s death can also be traumatic for them. Although the children remain a mother’s responsibility, only some will remain with her. Others will stay with their father’s family as their mother moves on, while some will be rejected by a new husband and go live with relatives.
The plight of widows in many African countries has been neglected in the work of economists and in public policy action. The situation of ever-widowed women of often young ages who have remarried or have been in some other way absorbed into male headed households along with their dependent children has received scant attention. There may well be a cultural blind spot related to the perception that the issue is related to old age.
Another reason for its neglect is that our standard data bases don’t look within the household. However, data are rarely ideal. In the meantime, as shown for Mali, there is compelling evidence that can be assembled from a careful look at the existing data on headship and available individual welfare indicators.
To properly inform policy we need to figure out whether there is a case for targeting widows or their children independently of poor or malnourished people in general. And we must keep in mind that it may be tricky to target widows: the same conditions that create inequality within households also constrain the ability to target women per se with interventions. But these caveats do not excuse ignoring the problem. More thinking, resources and effort need to go into how best to help these extremely vulnerable groups.