Female headship and status attainment in rural South Africa

Enid Schatz, University of Missouri at Columbia
Sangeetha Madhavan, University of Maryland

“Who is the household head?” This standard question appears on surveys in sub-Saharan Africa. The response usually reflects normative understandings of household power distributions; following patriarchal cultural conventions of status attainment male headship is the norm. Female headship, on the other hand, often signifies crisis, risk and vulnerability; popular and academic writings often associate female-headed households with poverty. Female household heads are faced with enormous challenges – HIV/AIDS, financial responsibility, childcare, and isolation. However, not all women experience these conditions in the same way. In this paper, we examine the context of female headship in rural South Africa where contrary to being a monolithic category, female headship entails a typology of statuses. Using qualitative data from the Agincourt sub-district we show that status is not a static accomplishment, but a dynamic, iterative process of status recognition impacted by age and particular configurations of individual, household and network characteristics.

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Presented in Poster Session 4: Health and ageing