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GENDER ISSUES IN FARMING SYSTEMS
RESEARCH AND EXTENSION
FEMALE-HEADED HOUSEHOLDS IN AN AGRO-PASTORAL SOCIETY
Sheila M. Nyhus
Office of Women and Development
University of Wyoming
Department of Sociology
University of Wyoming
Paper Presented at the 1986 Conference on Gender Issues In Farming
Systems Research and Extension, University of Florida, Gainesville,
Florida, February 26-March 1, 1986
Female Headed Households in an Agro-Pastoral Society*
The Bay Region, encompassing approximately 39,000 square kilometers,
is located in southcentral Somalia between the country's only two rivers,
the Juba and the Shebelle. Because of minimally sufficient rainfall the
rural population practices a mixed economy of farming and pastoralism.
The main crop is sorghum with milk from goats, cows, and/or camels
providing an important supplement for the people's subsistence diet.
The majority of the Bay Region's half a million people
identify themselves as Rahanweyn, people from northern and central Somalia
who, as a result of a series of migrations, settled in the interriverine
areas, mixing with the existing Bantu and Galla communities.1 While the
people from the north had been nomadic pastoralists, the possibility to
engage in dry-land farming allowed them to develop a more settled way of
life. Vestiges of the nomadic way still remain as the region's
environment does not allow for its entire population to remain settled
all of the time. Families with more than a few animals must take their
livestock away from the village during the dry seasons in search of graze
*This paper is based on research done as part of the Socioeconomic
Baseline Study of the Bay Region of Somalia, for the Bay Region
Agricultural Development Project. The fieldwork, completed over a one
year period (June 1983--June 1984), was accomplished by three coordinated
research teams. Information was gathered in 83 village meetings, a
survey administered to a sample of 815 household heads (ninety-two
percent of whom were male), a survey administered to 147 women,
observations and informal discussions. The research was funded by USAID
Project Number 649-0113.
1I.M. Lewis. "From Nomadism to Cultivation." In M. Douglas
and P.M. Kaberry's Man In Africa. 1969. Pp. 59-77.
Water is the scarcest and most precious resource of the people
of this region. At the heighth of the Jilaal (January-March) many local
sources of water dry up and women must walk up to eight hours to fill
containers (haans) to take back to their families. At times of severe
drought entire villages load their belongings on camels and move to a
distant source of water. Because of this need to be mobile during at
least part of the year, many people continue to live in the nomadic hut
(hoori) which can be taken apart and loaded on a burden camel to be
transported to another location. The hoori remains such an important
part of the lifestyle of the Rahanweyn that few women marry until they,
with the help of their mothers, have made a hoori of their own.
Traditionally women have been valued as important contributors of
labor, childbearers, and nurturers. Women perform almost all of the
tasks of men as well as exclusively female work. In addition, women can
own land and livestock -- although Islamic and Somali customary law have
worked against their acquiring them through inheritance. A woman's
opportunity for acquiring land and livestock are increased if she is a
childless widow, or has no brothers and her father's relatives do not
take the majority of the animals and land2 upon the death of her father.
The household (qoys) is the primary economic unit in the Bay Region
and is composed of members of a single residential unit. The persons
2Even in the latter case a woman may in time develop a sizeable
herd. One of the women interviewed during the fieldwork related the
following: Her father owned fifty cattle at the time of his death when
she was a young girl and his only child. His brothers gave her one cow,
keeping the remaining forty-nine for themselves. Over the years her one
cow multiplied to her present herd of twenty-five. This is, however, an
unusual case. Most women who own livestock have far fewer animals.
comprising the household form both a unit of production through the
distribution of tasks and a unit of consumption. A family will grow
its own sorghum and may have one or more lactating animals to provide
milk for family members. The objects used by the family, such as mats,
ropes and containers are made by its members.
The majority (over ninety percent) of households in the Bay Region
are headed by men and reflect the region's patrilineal, polygynous
culture. While the nuclear-polygynous family is the central productive
unit, its composition may change throughout the year as family members
come and go and others are brought temporarily into the economic
activities of the household. The family must often cooperate with, and
rely on, other kin and/or neighbors in order to farm and keep livestock
successfully. The composition of the household dictates both family
labor availability and subsistence needs--setting a major parameter to
the economic strategies people adopt.
The Formation of Female-Headed Households
The women of the Bay Region spend the majority of their adult
experience as wives. It is a rare woman who never marries. This is
illustrated by the fact that during our fieldwork we never encountered a
middle-aged woman who had not been married at least once. Even if a
woman cannot bear chidlren, her labor is of significant value.
With marriage comes the possibility for widowhood or divorce. Of
the 147 women who were interviewed using the Women's Survey, almost half
(forty-two percent) had been divorced or widowed at least once.
Twenty-five of these women had experienced both divorce and the death of
a husband. Female household heads are more likely than women who are
presently wives to have had multiple marriages. They average 2.15
marriages, compared to 1.42 marriages for presently-married women.
If a woman's husband dies, her young children will usually remain
with her though they may go to the deceased man's family. In the case of
divorce, however, it is the husband's prerogative to decide with whom the
children will live. Young children, especially a child who has not yet
been weaned, will often stay with their mother until they are old enough
to work in their father's household. Older children will usually
continue to live with their father or his relatives.
A divorced or widowed woman has several alternatives depending on
her circumstances. She may join another household, trading her labor for
her family's sustenance. That is, she may return to her parent's
household or that of an adult child, sibling or relative. Of note is
that 148 of 815 households surveyed contain one or more elderly parents,
84% of which are households in which an elderly mother resides with her
adult son or married daughter. In these cases the females are not
considered the head of household but are dependents of their children.
Remarriage is a second option. The third possibility, if she has the
resources (land/animals), is for her to establish her own household.
Compared to married women, female household heads are much older
and, because they are more likely to have completed their child-bearing
years, have had on average more children. Only a quarter of all female
household heads are under forty years of age; thirty-one percent are
sixty or over. This compares to wives, two-thirds of whom are under
forty and only four percent are sixty or over. Female household heads
have had an average of 4.9 children, compared to an average of 3.5
children for all wives. Thus in the majority of cases, it is older
women, no longer bearing children and with a means to provide for their
own subsistence, who become head of their own household.
Resource Acquisition by Women
When a couple marries a meher agreement is made which is determined
by the local sheik. If the husband has not given his wife her meher
during their marriage, he is expected to do so when they divorce. The
payment of meher, however, is not enforced. Seventy-seven percent of the
divorced women interviewed did not receive their meher. Of those who did
receive their meher, the majority (seventy-three percent) received less
than the amount agreed upon. For example, a woman whose meher was to be
four cows received one, and a woman who was to.receive one cow was given
When a woman's husband dies his property may be left to her, their
children or his family.3 Only twenty-three percent of the widows,
however, received any of their husband's property following his death.
This property consisted of either animals, land or animals and land, with
a few women receiving money only. Women whose fathers die without male
heirs occasionally inherit their father's holdings.
In addition to the above, women gain ownership to land, animals and
household goods in a variety of ways. When a woman marries she may be
given some of her father's property. This transference of property takes
two forms: haduun hir and wahaad. The haduun hir is actually a gift
given to the child at birth by a member of the father's family, usually
the father's brother or father's father. Depending on the wealth of the
family the gift will be either a goat, cow or camel. Traditionally, the
giving of the animal to the newborn child is symbolized by tying the
3Though the Koran is specific about the division of inheritance, few
people in the Bay Region know of or practice this. The "general rule" is
for a female to receive half of what a male receives. Even this is not
child's umbilical cord to the gift animal's tail. The animal will then
be kept with the child's father's animals. Any offspring that the
original gift animal may bear belong to the child. When the child is
grown and marries, whatever livestock have accrued from the original gift
are transferred to the now adult child for their own use and disposal.
The wahaad is the giving of a portion of the father's own property
to the daughter or son. Sons may be given their inheritance at any time
(before marriage, at the time of marriage or later); daughters, if they
are to receive wahaad, will do so when they marry. Sons receive land and
animals as wahaad; daughters, except on rare occasions, receive only
animals. The reason given for this is that when she marries and leaves
her father's household she can take animals with her, but she cannot take
land. This practice also ensures the keeping intact of family land in
the original patriline. The Rahanweyn often treat the haduun hir as the
daughter's wahaad. Among respondents to the Women's Survey only twenty-
two percent received wahaad.
Whether or not a woman receives some of her father's property, she
will be given aqal by her family at the time of her first marriage.
Among the Rahanweyn aqal has come to mean the things given to a woman to
make her new home.4 This should include at a minimum the materials needed
to make a hoori: woven mats, flexible poles, and ropes. In addition a
woman may receive haans (carved or woven containers for water and milk),
cooking pots and utensils, a bed and other things that she will need to
set up housekeeping. These objects are hers and, if divorced, she
will keep her aqal.
In northern Somalia among the nomads aqal is the term used for the
nomadic hut, called a hoori in the south.
Besides acquiring from her father or husband a woman has three other
means by which she may obtain property of her own. If her mother has
land or animals she (and her sisters) will usually receive it rather than
the male offspring. Occasionally women will be given land/animals by a
relative. Women also acquire land/animals by purchasing it themselves.
Of the 2155 women in the Bay Region who were asked if they owned a
farm, thirty-eight percent said that they did. Among the 215 were
eighty-two women who were head of household. Eighty-seven percent of
these women own one or more farms. In contrast only eight percent of the
women interviewed who were not head of household owned a farm.
The older a woman is, the more likely she is to have a farm, and
farms of older women are usually larger than those of younger women. The
fact that women generally acquire farms through inheritance helps to
explain why farm ownership and the status of head of household is greater
among older women.
When a woman is past forty her chances of remarrying are not high.
If her extended family can afford to do so she may be given land as a
means to support herself and others in her household. Overall, female
household heads are more likely to have received land from family members
than other women. The larger farms owned by women are usually the result
of a woman being the only surviving child of her parents or having no
children living or old enough to inherit her husband's land at the time
of his death.
5The 215 women are the respondents from the 147 Women's Surveys and
the sixty-eight women household heads from the Household Interview.
The Female- and Male-Headed Household Compared
In households of two or more persons, female-headed households are
much more likely to contain fewer persons an average of 3.3 persons,
compared to an average of 6.1 for male-headed households. The former are
less likely to contain children and, while twenty-eight percent of all
male-headed households contain an adult (a person over fourteen years of
age) who is not a spouse or adult child of the household head, only ten
percent of the female-headed households contain such an adult.
In terms of economic activities, how different or similar are
female-headed households to male-headed households? Because they are
considerably smaller, one would expect them to have smaller farms, fewer
animals, greater constraints on their labor and be less able to
reciprocally engage in group labor activities. None of these differences
would indicate a qualitatively different type of household economy for
female-headed households. Only if households of the same size but
with male rather than female household heads differed significantly
with regards to holdings, activities and problems could any special
attribution be made to the sex of the household head.
1. Number of farm plots. No significant difference exists, when
controlling for household size: 82% of all female-headed
households and 78% of all male-headed households have a single
2. Amount of land under cultivation. No significant difference,when
controlling for household size, can be attributed to the sex of
the head of household. Regardless of household size, approximately
a third of a hector is cultivated in sorghum per household
member though this varies by the family's degree of involvement
in livestock husbandry.
3. Sorghum planted in the last two seasons. Though there is no
significant difference between households of the same size,
female-headed households of all sizes are slightly less likely
to have planted sorghum than comparable male-headed households.
6University of Wyoming. Socioeconomic Baseline Study of the Bay
Region of Somalia. Report prepared for the Bay Region Agricultural
Project, Vol. II, p.41.
4. Unplanted land due to lack of labor. As the size of the household
increases, the size of the farm increases, as does the need
for farm labor. Somewhat ironically, the larger the household
the more likely is some land to have been left unplanted. This
was less the case for male-headed households than female-headed
households; while fifteen percent of the former idled land due
to labor shortages, a third of all the latter did.
The labor shortage is felt more acutely when the sorghum needs
to be weeded. In addition, fifty.percent of the women do not
have enough labor for field preparation, planting or chasing
birds away from the fields. Only during harvest do the majority
of women feel that they have adequate farm help. This labor
shortage for women is due in large part again to the fact that
half of all women household heads live in households of three
people or less. Often these women must rely on grown children
and relatives who have their own households and farms or, less
often, work groups made up of members of the village to help
them with their farm work.
5. Amount of yields, amount stored and sorghum sales. The size of
yield, amount stored and tendency to sell grain are directly
proportional to household size, for both male- and female-headed
households. Among neither had more than five percent of the
households sold any of their harvest in the last year.
6. Use of other's land/other's use of your land. This rarely
occurs, regardless of the sex of the household head.
7. Ownership of chickens. As the size of the household increases,
the number of chickens owned increases, but more so for male-
than female-headed households of six or more persons.
Male-headed households are eighteen percent more likely to have
chickens than female headed-households.
8. Ownership of larger animals. Table I shows the percent of
households owning four species of animals sheep, goats, cattle
and camels by size of household and sex of household head.
Female-headed households consistently have fewer animals, but
the difference is great only with sheep (which only ten percent
of all households own) and camels. In the case of cattle,
larger female-headed households are even more likely to own
larger numbers of animals than are male-headed households, where
53% of the households have six or more cattle, compared to 25% of
the larger (six-plus persons) male-headed households.
9. Location of animals. Women household heads tend to keep their
animals near the village. In contrast as size of household
increases for male household heads, they are more likely to have
their animals away from the village for at least part of the
year. When asked if their animals were away from the village
Table I: Percent of Households Having Larger Animals, by Size
of Household and Sex of Household Head
Size of Household
Two Five Six + All
One Person Persons Persons Households
Male-Headed 10 8 20 13
Female-Headed 0 3 8 4
Male-Headed 30 27 43 36
Female-Headed 13 26 42 28
Male-Headed 50 76 87 82
Female-Headed 53 86 92 79
Male-Headed 10 22 34 29
Female-Headed 20 13 8 13
last year, female household heads consistently regardless
of animal species indicated that the animals were more likely
to have remained near their village, rather than being taken
elsewhere for water or grazing. In fact, no female-headed
household with six or more persons had animals away in the last
year, while a third of the male-headed households had cattle
away and over twenty percent had camels away in the last twelve
10. Who does the herding? Regardless of the sex of the household
head or the size of the household, males are seven times more
likely to herd camels and three times more likely to herd cattle
than are females. Goats are equally likely to be herded by
males or females, largely as a consequence of having children of
either sex responsible for goat herding. Households of all
sizes rarely hire labor; four percent of both male- and female-
headed households hired labor for the care of animals.
11. Participation in cooperative labor. Overall, male heads of
households more frequently work with others on their own farms
and the farms of others than do women who head households.
This difference exists, however, only for those in small and
medium sized households. In larger households, female heads are
more likely both to work for others and to have others work for
them. The exception to this is single-person households where
women are twice as likely to have others work for them as are
men. This is probably explained by the fact that such households
contain,respectively, only an elderly woman or a young, able but
Importance of Age and Household Size for Female-Headed Households
As the material presented has shown, older women are more likely to
be heads of households than younger women and these households are
likely to be smaller than those headed by males. The consequences of
these factors are not hard to see.
7For efficiency sake, most veterinary services are presently
rendered at major watering points where animals congregate during the
dry seasons. Because the animals of female household heads are more
often kept near the village, they are less likely to receive this
treatment (15% had received treatment, compared to 38% of the male-headed
household's herd). In terms of development efforts, this difference in
livestock keeping, and the problem it poses for the treatment of women's
animals, should be addressed.
Older women are more likely to have inherited land and/or animals,
the use of which provides their means of support. They will have had
more husbands, on average, than younger women, will more likely be
widowed or have had their fathers die and leave them some inheritance.
They will have had a longer period of time in which to accumulate some
savings for the purchase of animals or land.
A female household head will usually have completed her child bearing
and may have adult children on whom she can count for temporary labor
needs. As well, the children of her children may be available to help
her. Younger women lack these sources of labor which constitute the main
types of help for females, as compared to men who rely more on neighbors,
male siblings and their dependent children.
As Table II shows, smaller households are much more likely to
experience a shortage of labor than larger households, regardless of the
sex of the household head. Because female-headed households are
disproportionately represented among the smaller households, they are
more likely to have a chronic shortage of help (despite their greater
access to the help of family members, as discussed above). Relative to
younger women, female household heads may have a larger support network
in times of labor needs, but compared to male-headed households, the
smaller household size greatly constricts the range of activities that a
female-headed household can develop. Thus, smaller farms, more land left
idle, smaller harvests, less marketing, fewer animals and less
opportunity to maximize strategies of herd growth are more often the
situation for female- than male-headed households.
Only in the case of camel holdings can the direct influence of
cultural values be seen as differentially affecting the situation of
Percent of Households Without Adequate Labor, By Size of
Household, Rural Bay Region, Household Interview
Enough Labor for Farm Work
Size of Household
male- and female-headed households. The Somalis are fond of praising
their camels, and will occasionally explain that, "Camels are good for
dying." What this means is that a man will seek to accumulate camel
holdings in preparation for his passing away. A man who provides camels
as part of his estate will be well remembered. A funeral that is marked
by the slaughter of a camel, allowing many people to participate in the
rite of his death, will be a more important event than one accompanied
by the eating of goats.
This cultural prescription does not apply to women. Women are not
expected to provide an inheritance, nor is their memory attached to the
pomp and circumstance of their funeral. Women, in short, are under no
compulsion to have camels as their death approaches, and this probably
contributes to their lesser tendency to have them as female head of
Women in the Cycle of Family and Economy: Some Development Implications
In the Bay Region, aside from the availability of water, labor is
the greatest constraint on production. The practice of polygyany and the
ease with which divorce occurs maximize every woman's fecundity. No
woman goes unmarried and no man unable to sire children will long remain
with a 'barren wife'. A man will seek to increase the size of his
household as rapidly as conditions -permit, allowing him to benefit from
the additional labor in the form of surplus production. The consistent
relationship between household size and family holdings, production
levels, grain stored and sold, and livestock marketed all point to the
8The difficulty of handling camels favors young men as camel
herders. This, however, does not mean that women are not able to handle
camels which they frequently do but they are unlikely to herd larger
numbers of camels away from the village for extended periods of time.
advantage larger families have over smaller ones.
The lower level of affluence/subsistence found among female-headed
households is a matter of both problems of accumulation and inheritance
faced specifically by women, as well as the limitations women face in
increasing the size of their households. This obvious point has
implications for the analysis of women in the productive sphere and for
development efforts that occupy the remainder of this paper.
Cultural constraints, gender definitions and prejudices against
women cannot be relied on to explain the situation of female-
headed households. In fact, male- and female-headed households look
remarkably similar, when size of household is held constant. This is
because they face similar problems in dealing with a difficult and
unpredictable environment through a rudimentary set of technologies.
What does make female-headed households different is traceable to
the circumstances surrounding marriage. In a patrilineal society, the
woman joins her new husband's family, abrogating many of her former ties
and means of support. The imbalance of the marital pact under patriarchy
means that she does not have equal or preferential rights to her
children, nor is she able to accumulate husbands as a means of increasing
the size of her household and the amount of labor available to her. When
a man wants to improve his lot, the most direct means is through his
increasing the number of wives and children he has. A female household
head is precluded from taking this strategy, thus she is cut off from
reproducing her labor in the way that is available to men.
That women bequeath their holdings to their daughters and sisters is
quite significant. If there is an empirical indicator in our work which
reveals a preference, it is probably this. Women prefer to have property
and support each other in this preference. The majority of women, old
and divorced or widowed, take up residence with adult sons and married
daughters as dependents. They can hardly do otherwise. Conversely,
women with holdings and enough available labor adequate to provide the
means of being self supporting choose to become heads of households.
Occasionally, those young enough to remarry (i.e. who could bear
additional children) will opt, if possible, for having their own
household. They stand to gain little by another marriage.
Women constantly face the prospect of divorce and widowhood.
Because they do not have equal access to their deceased husband's estate,
rights to their children, or the guarantee that meher will be paid, they
seek security for the future in the possession of land and animals. It
is in the interest of men (and the need for maximizing population growth)
that younger women be prevented from too readily acquiring property.
There is no loss, however, for older women to establish their own
households. Neither patriarchy nor the competitive advantage of larger
families are threatened by this category of households; the unbalanced
terms of marriage insure this.
Yet, the Bay Region is marked for change. Tens of millions of
dollars are going toward agricultural intensification, improved health
care, water development, road building and livestock production. Though
today little has changed for the mass of peasant producers, change will
,come. What does the analysis of the female-headed household indicate
about the course of this change?
In the first instance, development will most likely benefit the more
prosperous producer first (and perhaps, exclusively). The adoption of
inputs to farming, improved access to markets, increased livestock
production and all that these 'advances' entail will probably not benefit
the poorer female-headed household. Her farm is small and her ability to
partake in intensified crop production, increased animal husbandry and
new markets is minimal. Today, labor is her major constraint. Tomorrow
it may be political interests, expendable capital and weakened support
for those cultural values which provide support to her in times of need
that limit her ability to obtain a decent way of life.
More directly, 'modernization' has been interpreted by the
Government of Somalia to mean the restriction of polygyany to only those
who can clearly show an ability to provide for a larger family
(interpreting the Koranic prescription of polygyany very narrowly). It
has also meant an effort to equalize inheritances for males and females.
Today a woman can go to court in Somalia and demand her rightful
inheritance, something that has happened in the rural areas only rarely.
Both of these would seem to favor the formation of female-headed
A lessening of polygyany would have at least three important
effects. First, it would become easier for men to marry at a younger
age, in response to the larger pool of available females who would
previously have become the second or third wife of an older man. Second,
it would reduce the amount of remarriage, many of which take place
between divorced or widowed women and men who already have one or more
wives. Third, it would probably lead to a reduction in the rate of
divorce. A man can more comfortably divorce a wife if he has more than
one, knowing that his basic needs will still be cared for.
The first two of these could conceivably contribute to an increase
in the number of female-headed households. The increase would be
greatest for women who would previously not have had the resources to
maintain their-own household. That is, there could well be a marked
increase in the 'feminization of poverty' among the Rahanweyn should
polygyany be effectively reduced through governmental efforts.
Would this potential impoverishment be offset by the improved
economic position of women that would come about by increasing their
access to inherited property? On the face of it, the answer appears to
be, Yes. Women would be more likely to have holdings animals.and land
which could support them and their household. Yet increased holdings
require increased labor. Nothing in the 'modernization' plans of the
government indicate that female-headed households would be larger and
thus able to take advantage of their inheritance. In fact, many female-
headed households today are composed of older women, their divorced
daughter and the daughter's children. If divorce decreases, even this
source of help will be reduced from existing levels. Thus, it is
conceivable that women would be no better off and the region as a whole,
should the holdings inherited by women not be used efficiently due to
lack of labor, would not benefit.
These scenarios are highly speculative. There is no evidence that
any of the government's dictims will take effect, now or in the future,
merely because they are the law. These scenerios, however, reveal two
things that must be kept in mind with regard to female-headed households
and social development. The first is that, unless corrective measures
are deliberately taken, women as household heads will be likely
candidates for impoverishment with the onset of the increased inequality
that almost automatically accompanies development efforts undertaken by
The second is that altering some manifestations of patriarchy
without dismantling the entire edifice will not benefit women. Changing
the inheritance of property to benefit women, in a labor-dependent
environment, is a hollow reward for their contribution to the household
economy. So long as men have exclusive rights to the children of both
parents, the female household head will continue to be disadvantaged and
relegated to an inferior position due to her gender.