Published on Let's Talk Development

Poverty is falling faster among Africa’s female headed households

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A sizeable number of households in Africa today have female heads.  Based on the latest Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), 26% of all households Africa-wide are headed by women. Although there are cross-country differences, the shares both of the population living in female headed households (FHHs) and of households headed by women, have been rising over time. The data show quite clearly that 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.


What explains this?  Using the full series of DHSs fielded in Africa over the last 25 years, and covering 89 percent of Africa’s population, my recent research with Annamaria Milazzo has investigated Africa-wide changes in prevalence. The results suggest that economic growth brings lower female headship, presumably due in part to lower work-related migration by men, associated with a growing local economy. The seeming paradox that female headship is rising during a period of growth is resolved by the fact that other things are changing across Africa. Changes in demographic and population characteristics, social norms, education and the nature of the family appear to be encouraging female headship.

An extra year of schooling produces a 3 percentage point increase in the share of the population living in FHHs. On average, a one year rise in women’s age at first marriage produces a 2.5% point increase in the share of the population living in FHHs—an effect almost as strong as that of an extra year of schooling. Life expectancy’s positive effect―equal to a 0.5% point boost per extra year―presumably reflects the natural survival advantage of women that is revealed with higher overall life expectancy, and the resulting incidence of widow headed households.  Conflict and HIV also raise a country’s share of population in FHHs.

Thus FHH prevalence has been rising while poverty has been falling. Past literature has been generally suggestive that FHHs tend to be poorer. But does this imply that FHHs have been left behind by recent improvements in living standards?  Female heads are a diverse group. 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 or remarried—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. 

So what has happened to the living standards of FHHs in the aggregate?  This is examined by calculating country-specific changes in the headcount index of poverty based on real household per capita consumption expenditures in 2005 PPP, for male and female headed households separately. Spells of comparable survey pairs for the same country allow this to be done for 27 spells and 24 countries that account for approximately 80% of Africa’s current population.

Poverty declined for both household groups but in most countries, it fell faster for FHHs. This is also true when one allows for the diversity among FHHs—for example, comparing households with widow and non-widowed heads, married heads with and without a male adult household member and the same for non-married heads. And the finding that poverty is falling faster for FHHs is robust to testing sensitivity to allowing for the generally smaller size of FHHs and economies of scale in consumption, does not alter this key finding.  The living standards of the various types of FHHs followed dissimilar paths across countries and time periods with no one type consistently outperforming the others, yet with at least one type usually outperforming MHHs. There is little discernible pattern across countries. One category of FHH does well in one country or time period while another category does best elsewhere. 

In sum, poverty has fallen more rapidly in FHHs. A decomposition of the change in poverty indicates that, rather than putting a break on poverty reduction, FHHs are contributing appreciably to the overall decline in poverty despite their smaller overall share in the population.        

But why has poverty fallen faster for FHHs?  Perhaps poor FHHs face relatively high economic returns to the new opportunities unleashed by growth; or perhaps they have benefited disproportionately from the expansion of social protection in the region; or perhaps the group of people living in FHHs is fundamentally changing over time.  A superficial examination does not support any of these explanations but this new stylized fact about poverty in Africa warrants a closer look.     

Learn more about the research here:

Milazzo, Annamaria and Dominique van de Walle (2015) “ Women Left Behind? Poverty and Headship in Africa” Policy Research Working Paper 7331, World Bank, Washington, DC.  


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