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Female household headship and the feminisation of poverty : facts, fictions and forward strategies

Gender Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science
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  • H Social Sciences (General)
  • Linguistics


This paper interrogates the common assumption that a large part of the so-called ‘feminisation of poverty’ in recent decades is due to the progressive ‘feminisation of household headship’. Its specific aims are three-fold. The first is to summarise how and why women-headed households have come to be widely equated with the ‘poorest of the poor’ in development discourse. The second is to trace the evolution of challenges to this stereotype from a growing and increasingly diverse body of macro- and micro-level research. The third is to explore some of the implications and outcomes of competing constructions of female household headship, especially in relation to policy. At one end of the spectrum, what kinds of attitudes and actions flow out of the mantra that female-headed households are the ‘poorest of the poor’? At the other extreme, what happens when the links between the ‘feminisation of poverty’ and the ‘feminisation of household headship’ are disrupted? In particular, I am concerned to reflect on the potential consequences of acknowledging that the epithet ‘women-headed households are the poorest of the poor’ may be more ‘fable’ than ‘fact’.

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