, Volume 54, Issue 3, pp 1119–1145

Women Left Behind? Poverty and Headship in Africa



Two stylized facts about poverty in Africa motivate this article: female-headed households tend to be poorer, and poverty has been falling in the aggregate since the 1990s. These facts raise two questions. First, how have female-headed households fared? Second, what role have they played in Africa’s impressive recent aggregate growth and poverty reduction? Using data covering the entire region, we reexamine the current prevalence and characteristics of female-headed households and ask whether their prevalence has been rising, what factors have been associated with such changes since the mid-1990s, and whether poverty has fallen equiproportionately for male- and female-headed households. Lower female headship is associated with higher gross domestic product. However, other subtle transformations occurring across Africa—changes in marriage behavior, family formation, health, and education—are positively related to female headship, resulting in a growing share of female-headed households. This shift 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 substantially to the reduction in poverty despite their smaller share in the population.


Female-headed households Poverty Sub-Saharan Africa Population and demographic change 

Supplementary material

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ESM 1(DOCX 19.4 kb)
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Copyright information

© Population Association of America 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The World BankWashingtonUSA

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