Promoting Inclusive Markets and Financial Systems
Women Left Behind? Poverty and Hardship in Africa
This paper is motivated by two stylized facts about poverty in Africa: female-headed households tend to be poorer, and
poverty has been falling in the aggregate since the 1990s. These facts raise two questions: How have female-headed
households fared? And what role have they played in Africa’s impressive recent aggregate growth and poverty reduction? Using data covering the entire region, the paper reexamines the current prevalence and characteristics of female-headed households, and asks whether their prevalence has been rising over time, what factors have been associated with such changes since the mid-1990s, and whether poverty has fallen equi-proportionately for male- and female-headed households. Rising gross domestic product has dampened rising female headship. However, other subtle transformations occurring across Africa—changes in marriage behavior, family formation, health, and education—have put upward pressure on female headship, with the result that the share of female-headed households has been growing. This has been happening alongside declining aggregate poverty incidence. However, rather than being left behind, female-headed households have generally seen faster poverty reduction. As a whole, this group has contributed almost as much to the reduction in poverty as male-headed households, despite the smaller share of female-headed households in the population.