Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

Women-Headed Households: Diversity and Dynamics in the Developing World


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MacMillan Press

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IN MOST PARTS of the world, lone mothers attract considerably more attention than their relatively small numbers might warrant. They are also usually perceived as a “problematic group”, a definition which is more often based on external views (government, religious, political and academic sources) than on lone mothers’ own assessment of their experience. This book examines the nature of women-headed households, how they arise, how they survive and how these issues interrelate with other aspects and forms of gender inequality, especially among the urban poor in the South. A major concern of the author is to counterbalance “public” discourses on the family, produced by the state and élite groups, with the “subjective” perceptions and opinions of the women themselves and of the members of their households. These are drawn from fieldwork conducted by the author in Mexico, Costa Rica and the Philippines over an extended period of time.

Despite its focus on the South, the case study material is set in a wider conceptual context which incorporates debates on key issues (policy, poverty, inter-generational effects, ideological and social marginality) as they have developed in recent years in both the North and the South. Drawing on macro-level data, the book then shows how a closer look at the apparently widespread growth of women-headed households on a global level reveals regional diversity and different dynamics. A range of factors are identified as precipitating or constraining the emergence of women-headed households in the South. These include demographic variables (feminized sex ratios; urbanization; women’s age at marriage; gender differences in age at marriage; fertility and birth control), economic factors (access to land and property; production systems; female labour force participation; economic restructuring and poverty), legal–institutional aspects (state attitudes and interventions; family and divorce legislation; welfare and benefit schemes; women’s movements) and sociocultural characteristics (culture; religion; gender roles, relations and ideologies; kinship and residence; marriage practices, childbirth and social identity; morality and sexuality). These various elements, examined in the specific contexts of Mexico, Costa Rica and the Philippines, form the basis of a comparative analysis of the characteristics of women-headed households at the national level. This shows that although the core economic, demographic, sociocultural and legal–institutional features of each country give some indication of the reasons behind variations in levels and types of female household headship among countries, they are also contradictory as they can both favour and inhibit female headship. It is therefore essential to consider them in conjunction with each other rather than in isolation. Of the three countries, the Philippines stands out as the one where forces pull most strongly in contradictory directions. Several factors may lead one to expect higher numbers of women-headed households in the country – for example, gender selective migration, high female labour force participation, a strong women’s movement, some state support for women’s needs and rights, and women’s important role as financial managers within all households. However, the constraints imposed on women’s independence by the institution of the family, high birth rates and, more particularly, the combined influences of state and religion in terms of divorce prohibition mean that the Philippines has the lowest rate of female headship of the three countries.

The second part of the book deals more specifically with women-headed households among the poor in selected urban and urbanizing localities in the three countries. Based on interviews with respondents in the various locations, key characteristics are defined and there is a discussion on the various routes into female headship (for example, widowhood, separation, male desertion or non-marriage). Similariti

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In the USA, published by St. Martin's Press, Scholarly and Reference Division, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010, USA.

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