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2.3 Gender and the household

In discussing the livelihoods framework, we noted that livelihood strategies can be examined from the perspective of households or individuals. However, we also noted that there can be difficulties associated with analysis at the household level. These relate to the potential problems associated with two commonly made assumptions

These two assumptions are to some extent related, but they are also distinct. For example, it may be possible to agree on a working definition of the household, whilst at the same time finding that members of the household have independent (or even conflicting) goals and adopt their own strategies in pursuit of them.

Defining the household

In many societies the stereotypical household is represented by a nuclear family (ie a man, a woman and their children) that lives under the same roof, manages a joint budget, and pools its resources in pursuit of common goals - goals such as making sure everyone gets fed, saving for a new roof, getting the harvest in, putting the children through school, buying a new car, or taking a family holiday abroad etc. Of course the reality is not that simple. Size and membership varies greatly between households, and not all households share resources and objectives in the manner suggested by this model. Single parent households, single person households, two person households, households with three or more generations living under the same roof are all very common. Household members often pool resources, but often they don't.

National statistics offices in both developed and developing countries frequently publish data on households, such as household size, household income, number of households living in poverty etc. The socioeconomic surveys on which household statistics are based therefore require a working definition of the household. Whilst there is no universally agreed definition, the following criteria or some combinations of them are typically used to distinguish one household from another.

Precisely which criteria are most appropriate will vary from one society to another, and in any society there will always be ambiguous cases where it is difficult to determine whether a particular grouping constitutes one or more households. In some societies 'typical households' meet all of the above criteria; in others they may meet relatively few.

Think about this in relation to the social groups that you are familiar with.

Those of you who are familiar with developed countries will be aware that the modern household is a very diverse social phenomenon. Those of you who are familiar with some of the remoter and more 'traditional' parts of the developing world may find little in common between the living arrangements found there and the nuclear family household described previously.

Unified decision-making

In development, the household is often used as the basic unit of analysis, both in designing strategies to reduce poverty and in measuring levels of poverty. Development interventions frequently seek to raise aggregate household incomes rather the incomes of individual household members. In this approach there is an implicit assumption that the household's resources are jointly managed, and that a higher aggregate income will benefit every member of the household - male and female, young and old, alike.

Of course, in practice, this is not always the case. Men and women often command different sets of resources and use these resources for different purposes. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, men and women often act relatively independently of each other, having separate sources of income which they allocate independently according to their own respective priorities. Whilst some pooling of resources does occur, co-operation may be far less than that suggested by more simplified models of the household.

Careless use of the unitary household model can create problems for development interventions. Interventions based on such models may fail because of mistaken assumptions about (a) how household resources (land, labour, capital) will be allocated in response to an intervention; and (b) how the benefits of the intervention will be distributed within the household. Women, for example, may be reluctant to contribute their labour to a household project that generates income that the male head of household will then control. They may also invest a greater proportion of the income they control on the welfare of children.

Gender and livelihoods

Women within poor households tend to be more vulnerable than men. In terms of the livelihood framework, they usually have access to fewer assets, face a different set of constraints, adopt differentstrategies from men, and pursue different outcomes. One cannot assume that the wants and needs of men and women will be the same. The livelihood strategies of women often focus on meeting the basic needs of their children for whom they often bear a disproportionate share of the responsibility within the household. Indeed, the vulnerability of women is often matched by the vulnerability of their children.

In development, weaknesses in the unitary household model have focused increasing attention on intra-household gender issues, including gender roles, inequalities in the distribution of power and resources, and the vulnerability of women. It is now widely recognised that poverty studies and poverty reduction initiatives that treat the household as a homogenous unit may fail to recognise or address the true nature of poverty within the household.

The livelihoods framework that we introduced earlier provides a useful way of analysing gender issues both within and outside the household. It need not treat the household as unitary or homogeneous.