The idea that women bear a disproportionate and growing burden of poverty at a global scale, often encapsulated in the concept of a “feminisation of poverty”, has become a virtual orthodoxy in recent decades, despite the dearth of reliable data on poverty, let alone its gender dimensions (Moghadam 1997). Yet, this has not dissuaded a large segment of the development community, including international agencies, from asserting that 60–70 per cent of the world’s poor are female, and that tendencies to greater poverty among women are deepening.
In broader work on poverty, and especially in policy circles, the poverty of female-headed households has effectively become a proxy for women’s poverty, if not poverty in general, a set of “dangerous equations” which have been increasingly challenged (Chant 1997, 2003; Jackson 1996; Kabeer 1996).
The fact that female-headed households are a ‘visible and readily identifiable group in income poverty statistics’ (Kabeer 1996: 14) provides fuel for a range of political agendas. In one respect, it serves neo-liberal enthusiasm for efficiency-driven targeting of poverty reduction measures to “exceptionally” disaffected parties. In another vein, highlighting the disadvantage of female-headed households has also catered to Gender and Development (GAD) interests by providing an apparently robust tactical peg on which to hang justification for allocating resources to women (Chant 2003; Jackson 1996).
This article explores some of the tensions emanating from growing equivocation over the links between female household headship and poverty. Setting out the principal reasons why women-headed households have traditionally been regarded (and portrayed) as the “poorest of the poor”, the article examines evidence that has been used to support or challenge this orthodoxy. It then proceeds to focus on social and policy implications, from the problems of targeting to the need to maintain high visibility of gender in the face of shrinking resources for development and/or social assistance. The article concludes with reflection on the potential outcomes of surrendering a conventional wisdom that has undoubtedly helped to harness resources for women.
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 35.4 (2004) Dangerous Equations? How Female‐headed Households Became the Poorest of the Poor: Causes, Consequences and Cautions