Female household headship as an asset? Interrogating the intersections of urbanisation, gender, and domestic transformations
Introduction The focus of this chapter is female household headship, which appears to be increasing in the context of ongoing urbanisation in the Global South, and has frequently been the subject of quite heated debate about what this means for women and well-being. Despite a general consensus that urbanisation is conducive to greater gender equality, and that cities are ‘good for women’, this does not necessarily encompass female-headed households, whose growth in numbers and proportions in the past few decades has commonly been linked to a ‘feminisation of poverty’. While polarised generalisations of female household heads as ‘victims’ or ‘heroines’ have met with justifiable criticism (Varley 2013), this chapter interrogates whether, and to what extent, female household headship might be considered as an ‘asset’ with a role to play in making cities of the future more gender-equitable. As the nominal ‘poorest of the poor’, women who head households purportedly fare worse than they would in male-headed households, and end up entrapping themselves and those who reside with them in situations of cumulative privation. Young dependent household members are thought to be particularly exposed to an ‘inter-generational transmission of disadvantage’, which does little to unsettle pervasive stereotypes of female-headed households as incomedeprived, vulnerable and inferior to a patriarchal ‘norm’. Yet when a more holistic and multidimensional view of poverty (and well-being) is taken into account, not to mention the immense heterogeneity of female-headed households, it is apparent that these units do not suffer unilaterally or universally from pecuniary disadvantage and other privations (Chant 1997; Klasen et al. 2014). Indeed, in some instances female-headed households might be construed as ‘enabling spaces’ which offer scope for the assertion of a wider range of rights for women and girls than is possible within some male-headed households. In turn, female headship may also assist in raising consciousness of various inequities which typically face women in both the domestic and extra-domestic domain. Indeed, not only does it appear that female-headed households provide a basis for (re)-negotiating gender roles and relations, at least within the home, but also the
experience of managing livelihoods under female headship seems to afford a sense of achievement and ‘empowerment’ to women themselves and to other members of their domestic units. The latter arguably contributes to building psychological and emotional, as well as practical, resilience. Given rising levels of female headship in several parts of the Global South and especially in cities, could these various corollaries help to sow seeds for gendered social change from the ‘bottom-up’, especially on an inter-generational basis? In other words, might dynamics operating at the ‘micro-level’ of the domestic unit extend their cumulative influence into the more macro-level context of the urban environment? Although much of my discussion of the possible impacts of a mounting ‘critical mass’ of female-headed households in cities is speculative, I draw on evidence to support my ideas from first-hand ethnographic material collected over several years with low-income urban women in Mexico, Costa Rica, the Philippines, and Gambia (see Chant 1997, 2007). The chapter begins with a brief synopsis of the diversity of pathways into female household headship, the different forms that female-headed households take, and how blanket associations between female household headship and the ‘feminisation of poverty’ are conceivably misguided. The discussion proceeds to explore the relationships between female household headship and key assets, such as property and social capital, before turning to the question of how female headship itself might be viewed as an asset. Here I suggest that being part of a female-headed household, in the short or long term, can act as a conduit for shifts in personal and domestic dynamics with potential to undermine patriarchal structures, advance women’s interests, and strengthen demands to create more gender-equitable ‘just cities’.