Global Resources

Female-Headed Households in Selected Conflict-Striken ESCWA Areas

Author: C. El-Solh
Publisher: BRIDGE
Publication Date: Feb 2001
Are female heads of households 'different'? This study explores the complex links between poverty, conflict and female household headship in Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen, where female headship has become more visible and vulnerable. Through an examination of cross cultural data, it reveals that female heads of households living in conflict-stricken countries are subject to gender specific constraints similar to other female population groups. They also suffer from the same debilitating effects of poverty (e.g., lack of access to services) and conflict (e.g., displacement leading to vulnerability and impoverishment) as other poor population groups. Yet evidence suggests that what sets this diverse group apart is the multiple inter-linked burdens they are forced to shoulder, namely: balancing the responsibility of being the sole/main income earners with their social reproductive role; suffering from lack of recognition of their status as household heads and sole/main income providers (particularly for separated, divorced, or unmarried women); accepting more menial jobs compared to other female groups in the absence of male economic and familial support; encountering more monitoring by relatives and communities who view them with suspicion, given the absence of a male adult in the household; and experiencing more discrimination in accessing benefits which decree female heads of households as no longer eligible when a son reaches the age of maturity.

In addition, those interviewed for the study viewed their status as sole/main breadwinners as a (hopefully) temporary one, to be eventually taken over by the husband or son. They also measured themselves primarily in terms of their success in fulfilling their reproductive roles, regardless of their success as wage earners. This is partly due to the traditional perception of female headship as a phenomena running counter to the social norm of male headship. It is also due to the multiple forms of discrimination they face.

The research paper concludes with a list of action-oriented recommendations:

(a) Ensuring access to basic services, and to decent education and health care;
(b) Ensuring that investments that promote economic growth are accompanied by appropriate human resources development strategies supporting access to decent work;
(c) Ensuring that social and economic investments are underpinned by appropriate legal frameworks as they apply to both individuals or institutions;
(d) Ensuring that poverty alleviation strategies effectively support the empowerment of the poor;
(e) Ensuring that the process of data collection methodologies around gender and poverty are supported by appropriate budget allocations; and
(f) Ensuring effective coordination between governmental institutions and NGOs/civil society.

Legal frameworks:
(a) Address gender power imbalances in personal status and civic laws;
(b) Support access of female heads of households to identity cards, and other pertinent certificates conducive to overcoming their legal and social marginalisation. Promote reform of the traditional family card; and
(c) Review social security regulations as part of gender-sensitising labour market policies and institutions.

Gender and capabilities:
(a) Target girls in poor households through supportive education policies;
(b) Explore mechanisms to more effectively target fatherless girls in poor female-headed households;
(c) Improve the capabilities and resources of the female poor through the micro credit-plus approach, linking access to affordable credit with access to market-relevant skill training, affordable/appropriate production inputs and technology;
(d) Address opportunity costs constraining poor female households heads;
(e) Distinguish between female subsistence entrepreneurs and enterprising women, where the the latter are those able to transform labour-intensive income generation activities into viable micro enterprises; and
(f) Recognise that micro enterprise development through access to credit should and cannot be the exclusive poverty alleviation tool. There is also a need to support access to waged employment which, as evidence suggests, has positive effects on household expenditure, as well as improving women's social and economic options.

Social safety nets:
(a) Review/reform regulations which undermine recognition of the diverse nature of female headship;
(b) Review the eligibility to social assistance as a means of addressing the risk of the inter-generational transmission of poverty;
(c) Address the reality of de facto female headship of unmarried daughters; and
(d) Further promote effective co-ordination between government institutions and NGOs providing social assistance.