The issue of poverty among female-headed households in Africa

THEME: It is important to distinguish between sub-groups of female-headed households when comparing their poverty with that of male-headed households.

In many countries in Africa, as elsewhere, there has been a significant increase in the percentage of female-headed households (FHH) in recent years. Among the main causes are male migration, the deaths of males in civil conflicts and wars, unpartnered adolescent fertility and family disruption. Development initiatives have often tried to direct resources and services to FHHs on the assumption that they were poorer than households headed by men (MHHs) and less able to improve their situation without special help. What recent IFAD poverty assessments show is that the reality is more complex.


The assumption of greater vulnerability of FHHs is based on evaluation findings and studies that show that FHHs:

  • have a higher dependency ratio in spite of the smaller average size of the household;
  • have fewer assets and less access to resources; and
  • tend to have a greater history of disruption.

There seems to be little dispute over the fact that FHHs are usually disadvantaged in terms of access to land, livestock, other assets, credit, education, health care and extension services. For instance, in Zimbabwe, female-headed households have 30-50% smaller landholdings than male-headed households. There are similar findings on Malawi and Namibia. But there is disagreement as to whether or not they are poorer than male-headed households in terms of income poverty. On the one hand, the fact FHHs are usually smaller in size means that they should be less poor, since the poor tend to be concentrated in larger households. On the other hand, the fact that they have a higher number of dependents relative to the number of income earners, which is also correlated with poverty, would argue the reverse.

The IFAD poverty assessment in eastern and southern Africa noted that an estimated 25-60% of rural households in countries in the region were headed by women, if both de jure (single, widowed, divorced or separated women) and de facto categories (wives of male migrants) were included. Household budget surveys usually find that rural FHHs are no poorer, and may in fact be less poor, than MHHs, but there are exceptions. For instance, in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia, household consumption survey data argue that FHHs are poorer, but in Rwanda the difference is small: 41% of FHHs as compared with 39% of MHHs are classified as poor. In Tanzania, survey data concluded that in rural areas, the income of FHHs was slightly higher than that among MHHs, but the pattern is reversed in urban Dar-es-Salaam. In Zanzibar and Malawi, on the other hand, FHHs tend to be poorer in rural areas than MHHs, but not in urban ones.

The answer to these different findings may lie in the type of female-headed households concerned, and their rural-urban distribution. More qualitative and participatory forms of information collection often differentiate between de jure and de facto FHHs. These studies have usually concluded that households headed by women who are divorced, widowed or separated are more likely to be poor households, and household headed by single or married women (the wives of migrants) are likely to be belong to the non-poor. Findings of studies in Kenya and Zambia argue that the best predictor of whether an FHH is or is not likely to be poor is whether the female head does or does not receive support from a current partner, husband or adult son.

The 1999 IFAD assessment of poverty in West and central Africa appears to agree with this viewpoint. In this region, the evidence for greater vulnerability or poverty of FHHs is also somewhat contradictory. Out of 19 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, it appears that in 9 countries, the incidence of poverty is lower among FHHs. For instance, in Niger, FHHs account for about 8% of the population. Out of these, 55% would be defined as poor, whereas 64% of male-headed households would be classified as poor. In Ghana, the poverty incidence is 28% for FHHs and 33% for MHHs. In rural Nigeria, the incidence of poverty among female-headed households declined from 42% in 1985 to 22% in 1992, whereas for male-headed households, it declined from 50% to 38%. A study on Uganda found that FHHs were no poorer than male-headed households. The IFAD West and central Africa poverty assessment suggests that the reason could well be that FHHs do not constitute a homogeneous group, but include families receiving regular remittance incomes. This agrees with the conclusions of the assessment in eastern and southern Africa.

The differing findings on the poverty of female-headed households argue for distinguishing between the types of FHHs in poverty targeting. Some de facto FHHs can be expected to be better off than male-headed ones, because of remittances. If a household is not receiving support from any male family member, it is more likely to be poor. Where a household livelihood is dependent primarily on farming, and there is neither remittance income, access to male labour (family or hired) nor animal traction, it is likely to be very poor.

Adapted from:

IFAD, 1999. Assessment of Rural Poverty in West and Central Africa. Rome. August.

IFAD. 1999. Human Enterprise Ecology: Supporting the Livelihoods of the Rural Poor in East and Southern Africa, Main Report and Working Paper No. 2. Rome. August.