/ 4 /0
CORRECTING THE UNDERESTIMATED FREQUENCY OF THE
HEAD-OF-HOUSEIOID EXPERIENCE FOR WOMEN FARMERS
Department of Anthropology
University of Florida
Paper presented at the Conference of Gender Issues in Farming Systems Research
and Extension that was organized by the Women in Agriculture Program, University
of Florida, from 26 February to 1 March 1986.
Women contribute to agricultural production in many ways. These contributions
are being increasingly recognized and documented) as attested by many papers at this
Conference of Gender Issues in Farming Systems Research and Extension. One dimension
of women as farmers is still being disputed; that is the extent to which women
make independent decisions about their farming systems, especially when the wcmen
are wives and their husbands are in residence. When women are heads of their own
households it is generally accepted that the women make' independent decisions.
Because the frequency With which women act as heads of households is a widely
accepted indicator of women as decisionmakers, this paper focuses on how that frequency
is determined and suggests that current methods underestimate the significance of
the head-of-household experience for women farmers. Corrected frequencies have
important implications for extension and credit policies and practices. The conceptual
and methodological changes that are suggested in this paper also illuminate some of
the discrepancies between how farming systems research and extension is described in
theory and applied in practice.
Before proceeding, I want to make 2 disclaimers. (1) Focusing on the head-of-
household experience does not deny that women make many independent decisions when
married and living with their husbands, but the status of head of household is an
important key indicator. Information about this status and its occupant is
usually collected during surveys, and the head of households often the only (or
preferred) individual to be interviewed during surveys. (2) Focusing on the
household as a unit does not mean that the household is the best, or only, social
and production unit that farming systems researchers should be studying. In
reality people allocate land, labor, and capital (key"factors of agricultural
production) within households and among households, -nd many dccicicne that influonoc
agricultural production aro mad b .ca. f i..tr bu l and decisions that
influence agricultural production are made because of intrahousehold and suprahousehold
relationships. However, this paper has a restricted focus on the household and the
head of household because these are currently the accepted standard units of data
collection and analysis.
My argument is that the currently accepted way to estimate the frequency of
women-headed households underestimates the occurrence and importance of this
experience. Current estimates are almost always based on surveys that note
status at one time; this is static information. Even when historical changes or
trends are desired, the same static surveys are usually used to create a time series.
Frequencies or relationships are compared that come from different surveys that were
conducted at different times. This method may easily result in misrepresenting
social dynamics. For instance, this practice estimates the frequency of women as
household heads at any given time but being a household head need not be a permanent
Becoming a household head may be a phase that many married women experience
during their lifetimes as they divorce, or are widowed, or as their husbands migrate
away for shorter or longer periods of time. Surveys could show that one-fifth of all
households were headed by women every year. The easily drawn conclusions are that
(1) one-fifth of the women have this status of household head and this experience
of independence and disadvantage) and (2) four-fifths of women are wives and do
not experience being head of household. The missing data, however, refer to the
turnover of status, i.e., the extent to which women change from being members
of .headed households to being heads of their own households, or vicversa. If
the turnover rate is rapid and continual, then many more than one-fifth of the women
will experience being head of household over a period of years.
The number of households headed by women at any given time may not be the
important statistic. What may be much more important from a standpoint of policy,
research, and extension may be the percentage of adult women who experience being
heads of households over a ten year period, or the likelihood that an adult women
will experience being head of household during her lifetime. These statistics
recognize that more women will be heads of households over time than at any given
time. If women-headed households share any characteristics that affect their farming
practices and standards of living, then recognizing that more women cycle through
this phase increases the importance of working with women who are not now heads of
household but might occupy that decisionmaking status in the future.
Changing the method of measuring the frequency of women-headed households has
i}n locations for the importance of ensuring that wives as well as husbands receive
training and experience with agricultural innovations and that wives as well as
husbands establish credit records and contacts with change agents and institutions.
-Wives with more training and experience and with better credit records and contacts
may be able to maintain higher levels of productivity and living standards when
they cycle through the disadvantaged head-of-household phase.
DISADVANTAGES OF WOMEN-HEADED HOUSEHOLDS
The farming systems research and social science literatures are increasingly
documenting the disadvantages of women-headed households. At minimum, there is the
disadvantage of reduced household labor since women-headed households rely in many
cases on a single adult, the woman, while households headed by men usually have
available the labor of at least two adults, the husband and wife. Labor shortages
and capital shortages are intimately linked because in almost all societies today,
and definitely in all agricultural societies today, labor is a commodity. People
are able to earn money through their labor, and money may be used to hire labor
for agriculture. Capital is not as short for all women-headed households. Often the
availability of capital is associated with the existence of an absent husband who
still sends remittences to his wife. Women-headed households with remittances from
absent husbands may be more similar in terms of capital availability (and in terms
of hiring labor) to men-headed households than to women-headed households without
Another disadvantage common to many women-headed households is reduction in the
land that is cultivated. This may be due to shortages of labor and capital rather than
land, that is, the land may still be controlled by the woman but she does not
control the resources to cultivate it. Land may actually be reduced for several reasons:
(1) the access to land may be through a larger suprahousehold kinship group that
reallocates land away from a household that is reduced in labor aid consumption
units; (2) a household containing both a wife and husband may be able to acquire land
through both familieswhereas upon:divorce or widowhood the woman may have access to
land only through her own family; and (3) in many societies, the husband'and wife
cultivate land controlled only. by .the husband or his.family, and upon divorce or
widowhood the woman must return to her family that then has to reallocate its land
in order to allow her access to land to cultivate. These reasons all apply in
societies in which thennarried couple do not have joint freehold title to farmland.
Another disadvantage is the reduced access that many women household heads
experience in their relationships, or lack of relationships, with governmental and
other institutions. Women are often discriminated against by extension agents, who
are predominantly men, and by credit programs. This discrimination is sometimes
overtly sexual in that male agents do not want to interact in professional ways with
women farmers. Discrimination may be based upon the othbr characteristics of women-
headed household that were already mentioned: their shortages of labor, land, and
Governmental policies however, may reduce or eliminate the disadvantages that
are experienced by women-headed households. Just as shortages of labor are transformed
into shortages of capital, so may the availability of capital be to hire labor.
Just as access to training) credit, and extension advice is currently restricted
because most governments have not made a major issue out tf contacting women farmers,
a change in government policies, for instance, a directive that male agents, who
are in most coAtries the one ho work with basic production inputs, work with
women farmers would reduce that disadvantage.
The real question is why governments and their extension and credit agencies
should change their policies toward women. Although morality and equity have a place
in this argument I personally think that economics and production are more effective.
The argument has to be made that women need extension and credit resources in order
to make (or continue to make) important contributions to national agricultural
production. This argument is being made and may be heard in many papers here at this
conference. My own paper is designed to strengthen that argument and extend it.
by demonstrating that the head-of-household experience is much more common for women
than is I presently recognized.
A ZAMBIAN CASE
Surveys usually note household composition and marital status at the time of
the survey. This synchronic, or historic, data may easily mislead observers into.
underestimating social dynamics. My first practical awareness of the discrepancy
between aggregate statistics and social dynamics occurred in the early 1970s when I
was studying socioeconomic change in smallholder communities in northwestern Zambia.
In order to learn rates of change in demographic and migratory factors, the same
territorial population was surveyed twice. A 100 percent sample of 117 matrilineally-
based villages (called matri-villages here) was surveyed in 1971 and again, 12 months
later, in 1972. These matri-villages comprised approximately half of one rural
settlement stretching for more than a mile along a road.
Both surveys showedthe same total population of 1223 people, including adults
and childrenin the same 117 matri-villages (see Table I). Apparently, this was a
stable population to judge by the aggregate statistics. The appearance was illusory.
Since the surveys were part of a larger ethnographic study, personal names and
relationships of all the people were collected, and the named individuals were all
traced over the year to learn about social dynamics; marriages, divorces, births
deaths, migrations, etc. Although a total of 1223 was present both times, only 1006
people were present for both surveys: 217 people had emigrated in the intervening
12 months, and an equal number immigrated. Thus, only 82 percent of the 1971
population remained in 19721 1440 people in all were residents during one or both
suveys-434 being there for only one survey. If individual names had not been
collected and compared, aggregated statistics would have camouflaged the movement
of people and projected a misleading image of stability.
There were biological reasons for some instability: 70 of the 434 transitory
people represented births into and deaths out of the population. Social and
economic reasons were more important. Among these was the changing of marital status by
women: 22 percent of the movement (97 cases) was due to women entering and leaving
the locality because of marriage, divorce, or widowhood. This underestimated the
extent of marital change because the 97 did not include the common case of women
who remained within the 117 matrilineally-based villages while changing their marital
status. The statistic only notes movement in an-out of the 117 matri-villages.
Unfortunately, my data did not note whether the 97 individual women who changed
marital status also changed the status of their own households from men-headed to
women-headed, although this was undoubtedly the most common outcome. This cannot
be verified, however, because status of household head in 1972 was not collected for
those who left the locality in the interim.
To place the 97 women in perspective, there were only 466 women of marriaable
age in the locality in 1972 (marriagable age being defined as 15 years of age and
older). The high turnover of marital status is common in this matri lineal area
of southern Africa. This case does not infer that high rates of marital instability
are canmon around the world. What the case does show is the extent to whibh
aggregate statistics and historic data may mislead observers into underestimating
the frequency with which women in this area experienced changes in marital status,
an important causal factor in changes in head-of-household status.
A MALAWIAN CASE
Data from Malawi that were collected as part of a farming systems research
program show this high women's mobility in a neighboring country. This research
experience confirmed my awareness of the discrepancy between actual social dynamics
and the estimates of dynamics that are based on aggregated statistics from time
series surveys. Before the Malawi data can be presented, some background
information is needed about survey procedures in that country.
Much of rural Malawi is incorporated into integrated rural development
projects that are routinely surveyed annually for evaluation purposes. Each project
has its own evaluation unit that conducts these annual surveys of smallholder
agriculture during the cropping season, essentially from October through May.
Sampling is both stratified and random. Each project is divided into extension planning
areas (EPAs), which were subdivided into enumeration areas (EAs) for the purpose of
the 1977 national population census. Each year each project randomly selects a
number of its EPAs and within the selected EPAs a number of EAs. Within each of
the selected EAs an enumerator collects a list of all households and 20-25 households
(plus some alternatives) are randomly selected for that years survey. This total
procedure results in randomly selected clusters of households. Each year the EPAs
EAs, and households are newly randomly selected. This excessive reliance or trust in
random sampling absorbs all survey resources, so no samples are followed longitudinally
in order to examine actual social and agricultural dynamics.
The National Sample Survey of Agriculture (NSSA) of 1980-1981 caused a change
in this procedure. The NSSA is conducted at approximately 10-year intervals over the
entire countryside where there are smallholders and includes nonproject as well as
project areas. In the projects the NSSA absorbs the evaluation survey staffs
while special staff are hired for the nonproject areas. The 1980-1981 NSSA was
elaborate and required project evaluation staff to continue collecting NSSA data through
December 1981. This meant that the evaluation staffs had no time in which to select
new random samples for the 1981-1982 cropping season surveys of project areas. Thus,
the same EPAs and EAs were used) as well as half of the 20 NSSA households in each
EA. The other 10 households in each EA were newly randomly selected from the NSSA
lists of households. This gives analysts the opportunity to examine longitudinally
for two consecutive years smne large smallholder populations.
One large project covers much of the Lilongwe plain and extends south and west
of the national capital. This Lilongwe Rural Development Project (LRDP) has been the
object of several studies (Lele 19). The NSSA surveyed 540 households in LRDP or 7 7/Si r
of .o. .5 19tH he- e LDP ealIatj, rfif ,arveyed AaHfof if.raple, o 10 Aouwolds lA e a cl
of 27 clusters, plus a newly selected 10 households in each cluster. Thus, 270 households
were surveyed for two years in a row in LRDP.
Two research units joineddlforces to conduct a follow-up study of these LRDP
households. One unit was the national farming systems research unit that I
directed -the Adaptive Research Program of the Department of Agricultural Research
Ministry of Agriculture -and the other unit was the Women in Agricultural Development
Project, which was directed by Dr. Anita Spring. Among the purposes for this study
were the unprecedented opportunity to "piggyback" on these two years of survey data
and the desire to demonstrate to other Malawian researchers the advantages of
longitudinal analysis and the savings in governmental research resources when
agencies shared survey data and piggybacked on each other's samples.
By comparing the names of individuals and the coded household numbers, 267 of the
potential 270 households were identified that had been surveyed for two years. In
1980-1981, 22 percent of these households (58 of 267) were women-headed (see Table 2).
In 1981-1982) 23 percent (60 of 266) were women-headed. The observer is led to
believe that woman-headedness is a fairly stable factor and is found in one of
every four or five households. A further conclusion might be that 22-23 percent of
women experience being heads of their households.
Comparing individual households from one year to the next gives another impression.
Instead of two households changing (58 to 60)) 17 changed sex of head--10 men-headed
becoming women-headed, and 7 vice versa. Thus, one-sixth of the women who were
household heads in 1981-1982 became heads only during the preceding year (see Table 2).
A total of 67 households (50,10,7) were noted as being headed by women at some time
in the slightly more than one year of the two surveys) or 25 percent of the 267
households. Assuming that this change from one year to the next is a normal
occuence, more than 22-23 percent bf households are headed by women at some time,
and more women experience being heads of household than are indicated by the
frequency of women heads at any given time.
If this social dynamic is confirmed by testing against other Malawian data
then the woman-head-of-household experience is more important a factor in farming
systems research and agricultural policy than is currently recognized. The LRDP
data show approximately 3 percent of households shift each year in each direction
(woman to man, and man to woman). More testing and more longitudinal information
are needed to distinguish the number of "repeaters", or households that shift sex
of household head more than once, the number of "stables", or households that remain
headed by the same sex for many years, and the extent and variability in these
percentage shifts. If the number of repeaters are low and the number of stables
high, then the annual combined shift of 6 percent in both directions means a
rapid increase in the cumulative number of women who experience being head of
household over time, and this status is accepted as one that entails agricultural
(fanning systems) decisionmaking.
A subsample of the 267 households in LRDP was chosen for more intensive study
during 1982. Seventeen of the 27 EAs were randomly selected, and 6 of the 10
resurveyed householdsin each of the 17 EAs; this created a subsample of 102, of
which 101 were successfully located and interviewed approximately six months after
the 1981-1982 survey.
As would be expected, the subsample resembles very closely the larger
sample from which the subsample was drawn. In the subsample, women-headedness
appears to be fairly stable from one year to the next (21 and 20 percent) and to
appear at approximately the same levels as in the larger sample. Again as
in the larger sample, the apparent stability conceals the actual dynamics of
shifting household-Headedness, which occurs at the annual rate of 2 percent each
way (man to wonan, and vice versa) in the subsample.
The subsample did reveal an unexpectedly large shift in sex of household head
between the 1981-1982 cropping season and the resurvey six months later in the
dry, nonagricultural season. Only 16 percent of households in the subsample were
headed by women during the 1982 dry season survey (see Table 2). In the intervening
six months since the 1981-1982 survey, 13 percent of households had changed the sex
of household head, most of them (9 percent) changing from women headed to man headed.
These shifts were real, i.e., only one household was a repeater showing more than
one change over the three surVeys (see Table 3).
The move toward men-headedness probably expressed to a great extent the returning
of husbands who were away from their wives during the agricultural season. These
(C41or0dM fabo4r ignts' yea, wAh' 1 +Wh y ra
husbands are probablyseason statistic of women-headedness is stable from one rainy
season to the next, but varies wid&8y from the dry season frequency. This seasonal
variability was not discovered in the usual surveys conducted during the cropping
season. Still to be examined is the extent to which the presence of a resident
husband during the dry season affects the agricultural decisionmaking process,
or, stated in another way the extent to which agricultural and farming systems
decisions are made during the actual cropping season by the woman.
The additional changes in household-headedness shown in the subsample (see
Tables 2 and 3) mean that although no more than 21 percent of the households were
headed by women in any given survey, 27 percent of the households in the subsample
had a woman head over the 18 month period from the first survey in 1980-1981 to the
third survey in 1982. The larger sample showed 25 percent of the households with
women heads over the 12 month period from the first to second surveys. Both sample
and subsample confirm the underestimates of women-headedness given by surveys that only
report the frequency at any given time.
The Zambian and Malawian cases document the discrepancy between the frequency
of wanen-headed households at any given time and the cun ulative number of women
who experience being the heads of households over time. Shifts from one season to
another and one year to another mean that many more wmnen experience heading households
during their lifeimes than are indicated by the current survey methods that only
measure the frequency at one time.
Women-headed households are a category of disadvantaged households wabey in
terms of labor, land, capital, and governmental services. Correcting the under-
an* teA t w e recSi 2 tP it 1 u, 'jamcn < cpeaeriee
estimated frequency of the woman-head-of-household experience the disadvantages for
longer or shorter periods of time. Recognizing that wcnen-headedness is a phase that
many households may pass through aS well as a permanent category for a smaller
number of households draws our attention also to the ways that the category's
disadvantages might be ameliorated by preparing women before they phase into being
Instead of believing that wives are dependent upon their husbands in men-headed
households and do not need any independent or separate instruction or access to
services wives may be seen as potentially independent heads of households andm4-
neot bee &n1 in~dupui1i L ui ZCpCUeiuli u uT aoooCeer to iwviCs wc limy
bc Coon a + ptontmally ide-t" .. +hoado of hou..ohold. who need to receive their
own training and experience with innovations and establish their own credit records
and contacts with extension and credit agents. Gaining these skills and advantages
while still in a household headed by someone else means that, if these women cycle
through the normally disadvantageous phase of the woman-head-of-household experience
lhc.e womcBh ol ie beffer eeippfef to cope w;th tdc co.4d;ti0S 4s na1
ble a0e to coptin(e mqore p>oducted agricfltore.
The current farming systems research and extension model utilizes a simple
household unit that underestimates many social factors. Although in theory,
farming systems are biosocial systems that include social factors) in practice
these factors are ignored or treated as parameters while research concentrates
on biological and biotechnical relationships. Although farming systems research
and extension is supposed to be conducted by multidisciplinary terms, in practice
the disciplines and interests that are represented are more technical than social.
Perceiving the head-of-household experience as a phase rather than a permanent
status for many women is a conceptual shift that integrates farming systems research
and extension, with its agricultural-production-technology focus and reliance on a
simple synchronic household unit, and the rich social science literature on life
and domestic cycles, marital forms and instability, and the variable forms of
distribution of wealth, labor, and responsibility between husband and wife. This kind
of integration is needed to rescue farming systems research and extension from
collapsing into a micro-and locality-specific Green Revolution activity..
The specific argument in this paper cannot be generally applied without
assessing localized variation in several social variables. Frequencies of women headed
households at any given time, especially during the cropping or other active seasons;
frequencies of shifting from one household head to another, both annually and
seasonlly. disadvantages of women-headed households in terms of labor, land, capital,
idnd access to services and the homogeneity or types of women-headed households--these
variables need to be defined in a locality or region before applying this argument.
Matrilineal areas in southern Africa, such as the Zambian and Malawian cases referred
to here, have relatively high rates of marital instability and male labor migration,
which make this argument particularly forceful.
The argument in this paper on women who are not currently heads of households.
These women need to receive training and services as if they were independent
decisionmakers. Obviously women who are currently heads of households also need to
receive training and resources. Although this argument continually focuses on the
women who are or will become heads of households, this focus was chosen because the
household-head status is a widely accepted indicator of decisionmaking power
and responsibility. It is not implied that women only make decisions when they are
household heads. What is argued is that the extent to which women experience being
heads of their households, and thereby experience the power and responsibility
of independent decisionmaking, is underestimated, and that current one-time survey
methods inherently underestimate social dynamics.
TABLE 1 MARITAL CHANGES AS EXPRESSED IN MIGRATION
OF WOEN IN AND OUT OF RURAL AREA OF NORTHWESTERN
ZAMBIA, 1971 TO 1972
POPULATION OF 117 MATRI-VILLAGES
INCLUDING ADULTS AND CHILDREN
PEOPLE PRESENT AT BOTH SURVEYS
EMIGRANTS FROM AREA IN YEAR
IMMIGRANTS INTO AREA IN YEAR
TOTAL PEOPLE SURVEYED
REASONS FOR MOVING
TOMEN MARRYING AND JOINING HUSBAND
ODEN DIVORCING OR BEING WIDOWED
BIRTHS AND DEATHS
CHILDREN MOVING WITH RELATIVES
NOTE: 1972 POPULATION (N=1223) CONTAINED 466 ITOMEN
SAGE (15 YEARS AND OLDER).
TABLE 2 CHANGES IN GENDER OF HOUSEHOLD HEAD IN LILONGWE
RURAL DEVELOPMENT PROJECT, IALAWI, 1980/81 TO 1982
A. LARGER SUBSAMPLE
IOMEN IDUSEHDLD HEADS TOTAL
- UNCHANGED OVER YEAR
- CHANGED FROM MEN
MEN HOUSEHOLD HEADS TOTAL
- UNCHANGED OVER YEAR
CHANGED FIRCO MEN
58 (22%) 60 (23%)
B. INTENSIVELY SURVEYED SUBSAM'PL
OMEN HOUSEHOLD HEADS TOTAL
267 (100%) 266 (100%)
20 (20%) 16 (16%)
- UNCHANGED OVER YEAR
- CHANGED FROM MEN
MEN HOUSEIHLD HEADS TOTAL
- UNCHANGED OVER YEAR
- CHANGED FROM WOMEN
NOlE: MISSING 1981/82 DATA ON ONE HOUSEHOLD THAT WAS HEADED BY A WOMAN IN
1980/81 AND 1982
NOTE: INTERVAL BETWEEN 1980/81 AND 1981/82 WAS 12 MONTHS; DATA COLLECTED
DURING RAINY AGRICULTURAL SEASON (November through April). INTERVAL
BETWEEN 1981/82 AND 1982 WAS 6 ~DNIHS; DATA FOR 1982 COLLECTED DURING
DRY NON-AGRICULTURAL SEASON.
TABLE 3 INDIVIDUAL PATTERNS OF CHANGES OF GENDER OF
INTENSIVELY SURVEYED SUBSAMPLE (N= 100-101)
IDUSEH)LD HEADS IN
OVER THREE SURVEY TIMES
HOUSEHOLD IN 1980/81
(2 CHANGES) MAN
HOUSEHOLD IN 1981/82
TOTAL HOUSEHOLDS CHANGED
HOUSEHOLD IN 1982
MAN N=8 (50%)
ALTHOUGH 20-21% OF HOUSEHOLDS ARE HEADED BY A OMAN DURING ANY
GIVEN RAINY, AGRICULTURAL SEASON, 2% OF HOUSEHOLDS HAD A WOMAN
HEAD OVER 18 MONTHS. THE LARGER SUBSAMPLE CONFIRPS THE INCREASE
IN WOMEN HOUSEHOLD HEADS OVER TIME AND SHOWS A LARGER PERCENTAGE
INCREASE OVER 12
MONTHS: 25% OF HOUSEHOLDS (N = 266) HAVE A 1WOAN HEAD OF HOUSEHOLD
IN AT LEAST ONE OF TWO CONSECUTIVE RAINY SEASONS.