Lone Mothers in Nations of the South Research Paper

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As in the Northern Hemisphere, women in the poor regions of the ‘South’ (comprising Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean) become lone mothers in various ways, notably through widowhood, divorce, separation, and out-of-wedlock birth. Aside from this diversity of routes into lone motherhood, it is difficult to draw generalizations about the phenomenon across an area of the world containing myriad cultures and around four-fifths of the global population. Women’s identities and circumstances as lone mothers are variegated not only on account of their insertion in different kinship systems, as well as religious, political, and economic contexts, but by individual factors such as age and dependency of children, marital status, and residential organization. Indeed, in several countries of the South, the issue of whether women regard themselves, or are regarded by others, as lone mothers is contingent upon whether or not they head their own households.

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Although both ‘household’ and ‘headship’ are problematic, contested, and far from universal constructs (Bruce and Lloyd 1992), most official and international statistical sources define households as female-headed when the senior woman in a dwelling and or consumption unit lacks a co-resident legal or common-law husband. In some cases this also extends to include the physical presence of another adult male such as a father, brother, or grown-up son (United Nations [UN] 1991). Although the senior woman in question is often a lone mother, she may also be childless, or at a stage where her children have left home. Recognizing that female household headship is a generic category in which lone mothers are only one group, it is also important to note that not all lone mothers head their own households but may live in the homes of others (see below).

Acknowledging these distinctions, households headed by women in general, and lone mothers in particular, may be severely disadvantaged on three main counts. First, they often have higher children to adult ratios than their male-headed counterparts. Second, women routinely face gender discrimination in the labor market and earn less than men. Third, female heads are timeand resource-constrained by their triple burden of employment, housework, and childcare. Notwithstanding that some money may enter female-headed units through remittances from migrant offspring, relatives, and so on, transfer income from other sources may be limited. In most Southern nations there is only weak provision for, and enforcement of, child maintenance payments from absent fathers (especially in cases of nonformalized unions). Added to this, there is little support for lone mothers in the form of social welfare or other state assistance. As such, it is not surprising that ‘female household headship’ has received more attention than lone motherhood per se in the academic and policy literature on the South, not to mention in official statistics.

1. Data on Lone Motherhood and Female Household Headship

Data on lone motherhood in nations of the South are rarely available in their own right and have to be picked up ‘by proxy’ from data on female household headship. This is problematic because, as noted above, female household headship and lone motherhood are not necessarily synonymous. Moreover, even if figures on female-headed households disclose the marital and fertility status of women, thereby indicating the proportion represented by lone mothers, they do not generally reveal lone mothers who constitute ‘embedded units’ within larger (often male-headed) households. Young unmarried mothers and their children in the Philippines, for example, frequently form subunits in the households of their parents or senior kin as a means of securing financial support or to make their socially disapproved status less visible (Chant and McIlwaine 1995). This type of ‘nesting’ arrangement also occurs in countries such as Bangladesh, where widowhood is the predominant route into lone motherhood. Here older women and their younger children are often absorbed into the households of adult sons because they have no independent means of survival and or because headship of households is culturally and symbolically equated with men (Lewis 1993). In Chile too, one in every five households is estimated to contain a ‘subfamily,’ and over half of these comprise single mothers with children (Buvinic and Gupta 1997).

In addition to the underestimation arising from ‘invisibility,’ the difficulties of using data on female household headship to ascertain numbers of lone mothers are compounded by the fact that definitions of female headship are often vague or inexplicit, that they vary across countries, and that they are frequently inaccurate (Chant 1997). Further problems arise from the fact that some female-headed households may be formed through the migration of partners fathers who, while technically absent from the household, provide support for spouses and children through remittances (see below).

2. Routes to Lone Motherhood

Although it is difficult to generalize about routes into lone motherhood at a national, let alone regional, scale, in areas of the South where there is strong social emphasis on formal marriage, such as in Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, levels of lone motherhood are low. Here the majority of women enter this state through widowhood, although desertion by men has become more common in places such as southern India and Bangladesh as rates of international male labor migration have risen (Baden and Milward 1995). In the Caribbean, by contrast, where consanguineal links among women, children, and female kin have historically been stronger than marital bonds, out-ofwedlock birth is the principal pathway to lone motherhood. Unmarried motherhood also occurs in Latin America, although separation and divorce are usually more significant. In both these latter regions, lone motherhood is more frequent.

In many instances, high levels of lone motherhood are reflected in high levels of female household headship. This relates not only to the larger pool of potential female heads in the population, but also to the fact that where there are fewer restrictions on women’s sexual activity outside marriage, it may be more socially acceptable for women to reside alone with their children. Having said this, it cannot be assumed that lone mothers will necessarily constitute the primary subgroup of female household heads. In many countries of sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, relatively high levels of female household headship are associated not with large numbers of lone mothers, but with male-selective labor migration and or war, and civil conflict.

Data for the 1980s suggest that female-headed households constitute the highest proportion of households in the Caribbean (17.7 percent), followed by Latin America (14.5 percent), with sub-Saharan Africa intermediate (13.6 percent), and South Asia lowest (5.7 percent) (Folbre 1991). Table 1 shows levels of female headship for selected countries within the regions of the South in the 1990s, indicating that there is often as much intraas inter-regional diversity.

Lone Mothers in Nations of the South Research Paper

3. Reasons for the Growing Incidence of Lone Motherhood and Female Household Headship

As in Europe and North America, lone motherhood is by no means a new phenomenon in developing regions. Nonetheless, it is generally agreed that levels have risen throughout the South from the mid-twentieth century onwards. Again, this has tended to be read from figures on female-headed households, which, as noted earlier, are problematic. Additional complexities when considering long-term trends are that census bureaus in many developing societies have only recently begun to register gender breakdowns of household headship, and have often been inconsistent in respect of terminology and definitional criteria. Notwithstanding these caveats, for the few countries where national records extend back to the 1960s and 1970s, there appear to have been appreciable increases over past decades. In Ghana, for example, women-headed households grew from 22 to 32.2 percent of the household population between 1960 and 1990, and in Brazil the corresponding proportions were 5.2 percent and 20.1 percent. Even in countries such as the Philippines, where the incidence of female household headship is low, the percentage rose from 9.8 to 11.3 over the same period. More recent data for a variety of countries point to a general maintenance of upward trends between 1980 and 1990 (see Table 2).

Lone Mothers in Nations of the South Research Paper

Specific reasons for increases in female household headship in the South in the last 30 to 40 years vary in accordance with the particular histories of individual countries, although there are some factors of general significance. One is the way in which processes of postwar capitalist development and ‘modernization’ have undermined traditional economic and kinship structures, most of which were patriarchal and allowed women limited access to income and resources in their own right. Coupled with the growing demand for female labor brought about by economic globalization and the spread of multinational factories specializing in the assembly of garments, electronics, and other light industrial goods, waged work for women has been seen as a central factor in women’s mounting propensity to head households (Safa 1999). This trend has been exacerbated by declining employment opportunities for men, especially those at the lower end of the occupational hierarchy. Inability to fulfill social expectations to be family breadwinners appears to be making men in some countries less likely to marry, and is also associated with rising rates of conjugal breakdown (Gonzalez de la Rocha 1995, Moore 1994). Other aspects of economic change linked with female headship include the effects of structural adjustment packages (SAPs) implemented in a range of countries in the South in the 1980s and 1990s at the behest of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Although SAPs aim to restore financial equilibrium in countries with heavy debt burdens, and to promote renewed economic growth, in the short run they have been associated with extreme hardship, especially for poorer groups in society. Typical elements of these programs have included cutbacks in public services, the reduction or removal of government subsidies on basic foodstuffs, and wage freezes. These have tended to increase poverty, which, in turn, has placed greater strain on family relationships, as well as diminishing the prospects for women’s (re)incorporation in the households of parents and male relatives following widowhood, divorce, or abandonment. Demographic factors associated with rising female household headship include increased geographical mobility and gender-selective migration. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, men predominate in most rural–urban migration flows leaving women heading households in the countryside. Declining fertility is another demographic trend with implications for rising rates of female headship. On the one hand, it reduces the child care burdens of lone mothers, thereby increasing their ability to take up paid work. On the other hand, reduced numbers of children mean less likelihood that older lone women will be taken into the households of their offspring in later life.

Last but not least, increases in women’s rights in the spheres of sexual and reproductive freedom, access to divorce, and custody of children have also increased female headship. These factors, coupled with changing labor-market trends and poverty, are the most relevant when considering rises in lone motherhood per se. Marriage in many societies is not the prerequisite for childbirth that it once was, and divorce rates have increased as the grounds for divorce have widened, as women have become freer to petition for divorce in their own right, and as their entitlements to conjugal property, maintenance payments, and child support have risen. In Costa Rica the number of divorces rose from two per 100 marriages in 1975 to 15.3 in 1991, and in Thailand, a 50 percent rise in divorce during the 1980s meant that by the early 1990s, nearly 25 percent of marriages were ending in divorce (Chant 1997).

4. Stereotypes and Challenges of Lone Motherhood

In South and North alike, the married two-parent family is a widespread normative ideal for raising children. Despite the fact that this arrangement provides no guarantee of financial or emotional support, let alone shared parenting (Baylies 1996), most other alternatives are regarded as undesirable. Lone motherhood is wont to be viewed as especially symptomatic of ‘family breakdown,’ and, as a result, is often marginalized and stigmatized.

The extent to which lone mothers in the South encounter social opprobrium depends on many factors. One is the degree to which women are controlled and or subordinated in different societies. In strongly patriarchal cultures with marked gender divisions of labor, in which marriage is the major route to social legitimacy and economic survival for women, lone mothers are often shunned in their communities and condemned within political and religious doctrines. Although the most marked disapproval seems to accrue to women who enter lone motherhood through nonmarriage, in some countries, divorced and separated lone mothers are attributed a disproportionate share of the blame for conjugal breakdown. This seems to be particularly the case in South Asia, where even women who have been bereaved can find themselves socially outcast. Symbolically, widows have defied male authority by outliving their husbands, and anxiety surrounds their status as sexually experienced women lacking male guardianship (Buitelaar 1995). By contrast, least stigma seems to attach to lone mothers in areas such as the Caribbean, where historical legacies of slavery and plantation agriculture are argued to have laid the basis for more flexible, informal unions, and substantial social and economic autonomy among women (Ellis 1986). Mothers in the region have also been observed to rely more on their natal kin than on the fathers of their children (Safa 1999). Yet even where there is more societal tolerance of lone mothers, women raising their children alone are commonly regarded in a negative light. One prominent conventional wisdom in government, academic, and media discussions is that rising levels of lone motherhood (and female household headship) are linked with a worldwide ‘feminization of poverty,’ i.e., that lone-mother households are disproportionately concentrated among low-income and indigent groups, and suffer greater extremes of poverty than male-headed two-parent households (Moghadam 1997). A second and related belief is that lone motherhood gives rise to an ‘intergenerational transmission of disadvantage.’ Aside from material privation, the life chances of children in one-parent homes are deemed to be severely prejudiced by the psychological problems emanating from ‘father absence,’ lack of maternal attention, limited parental discipline, and social stigmatization. Influenced by frameworks such as the ‘Culture of Poverty’ thesis of the US anthropologist Oscar Lewis, dating from the 1960s, lone motherhood is also regarded as perpetuating a long-term ‘vicious circle’ of downward mobility and family instability. Children are assumed to have high rates of juvenile delinquency and school drop out, early entry into unskilled segments of the labor market, and premature and fragile sexual unions, which in turn lead to further cohorts of lone-mother families who have few capabilities of breaking out of impoverishment.

Although poverty and intergenerational disadvantage clearly do apply to some lonemother households in the South, it is also true that these patterns are found in other types of household unit. Moreover, stereotypes about lone motherhood have been criticized as overly crude, generalized, and lacking in substantiation. Feminist analyses in particular have suggested that there is insufficient empirical evidence and that there are too many weaknesses in existing methodologies (for the tracking of family influences on child and youth development, for example) to warrant unilaterally negative conclusions. They also point out that disparaging stereotypical portrayals of lone mothers can be construed as ideologically and politically harmful. To represent a group who is routinely scapegoated for a wide range of social ills as marginal, deviant, and problematic can be even more damaging to the women’s public image and selfesteem, and reinforce existing prejudices against them. A crucial element in calls to arrest the overwhelmingly pathological treatment of lone mothers is the need to recognize their considerable diversity (Baylies 1996). Lone-mother households vary not only in respect of how they come into being, but on several other grounds, such as age and relative dependency of offspring, household composition, socioeconomic status, and access to resources from beyond the household unit (from absent fathers, kinship networks, state assistance, and the like). A common finding from a range of countries, for instance, is that the average age of female heads of household is greater than that of female spouses in male-headed units. As a consequence, they often have children of working age who are able to help out financially or with the care of younger siblings. This may be complemented by incorporating relatives into the home, with lonemother households showing higher levels of extended composition than their male-headed counterparts. In low-income neighborhoods in urban Mexico, for example, more than one-half of female-headed households are extended, compared with just over one-quarter of male-headed units (Chant 1997).

Detailed comparative research on the economic characteristics of maleand female-headed households has frequently indicated that through the twin strategies of household extension and multiple earning, female-headed units may actually have lower dependency ratios and higher per capita incomes than their male-headed counterparts. Moreover, expenditure within female-headed households is often dedicated to the basic needs of children and is less skewed toward personal consumption by adults. Whereas in two-parent units, considerable portions of the household budget may be spent by male heads on ‘nonmerit’ goods such as tobacco and alcohol, in lone-mother households, more resources are usually allocated to food and education (particularly that of daughters) (Engle 1995, Hoddinott and Haddad 1991). Contrary to prevailing conventional wisdom, levels of nutrition and educational attainment may thus be higher among children in female-headed units (Chant 1997). Aside from the importance of these issues in deconstructing blanket stereotypes, it is also acknowledged that, in situations where families are affected by male violence or financial neglect, lone motherhood and or female headship may be important survival strategies in their own right, as well as increasing women’s personal power and autonomy (Jackson 1996).

5. Social Policy and Lone Motherhood

Comparatively speaking, lone motherhood has not occupied the place in social policy discussions in the South that it has in the North. This is partly because long-term subsidized programs of social assistance for health, housing, unemployment, and so on are few and far between in Third World countries. Moreover, poverty exists on such a large scale, and public resources have been cut back so severely through debt crises and recession, that the prospects for establishing any comprehensive system of social welfare remains remote. Having said this, a larger share of the spotlight has fallen on female-headed households in the last two decades, as countries undergoing neoliberal economic adjustment have been forced to develop more streamlined programs of poverty alleviation. In the interests of cost savings and ‘efficiency,’ efforts have been made to reduce public expenditure on universal social programs which benefit all groups in society (albeit with an emphasis on those with lower incomes) in favor of redirecting smaller amounts of resources to target groups of the population. Whether poor households headed by lone mothers should receive priority has become a key question, even if only a handful of countries to date (Chile, Colombia, Bangladesh, India, Honduras, Puerto Rico, and Costa Rica, for example) have actually implemented programs specifically oriented toward female-headed households.

Recognizing the empirical limitations of few testcase evaluations, Mayra Buvinic and Geeta Rao Gupta (1997) have mounted an ambitious review of the potential benefits and drawbacks of targeted assistance. One of their major arguments in favor of targeting is that in societies where there may be unreliable data on poverty, isolating households headed by women is likely to capture a significant share of the population in need of assistance, especially where there are substantial gaps in male and female earnings, and where subsidized child-care facilities are limited. Another persuasive argument is that targeting assistance to lone mothers may be a very effective means of improving child welfare, given widespread empirical evidence that children fare better where women have resources at their own disposal. Other potential benefits include greater equitability of development resource allocation among men and women (Buvinic and Gupta 1997).

Arguments against targeting include the difficulties inherent in screening processes whereby some femaleheaded households may not be classified as such due to cultural norms of naming men as heads of household, even if they are largely or permanently absent, or make little contribution to family life and welfare. Many women may not want to be identified as lone mothers given the stigma attached to the status. They may also feel that taking public money will increase antagonism against them. By the same token, female-headed households may become male-headed over time through remarriage or cohabitation, thereby resulting in a leakage of benefits to male-headed households. Another potential slippage of benefits to nonpoor households arises from the fact that not all femaleheaded households have low incomes, and some may receive support, albeit periodically, from men. Tactics for determining which types of female heads are most in need of help may also be problematic. In Honduras, for example, a food coupon program targeted at primary-school children from female-headed households attempted to ascertain the financial status of mothers through questioning children and neighbors in the community. Aside from the invasive nature of this approach, it did not prevent a number of arbitrary and inappropriate decisions being made (Grosh 1994). Buvinic and Gupta (1997) also draw attention to the fact that targeting can alienate male-headed households, and thus have high political costs. This is especially likely to be the case when women heads are targeted with interventions that are not perceived as female-specific, such as housing subsidies, food coupons, and so on. Less conflict, alternatively, is likely to occur when female heads receive benefits that are perceived as female-specific, such as skills training for ‘female’ jobs, or child and maternal health interventions.

Finally, targeting may also produce so-called ‘perverse incentives’ insofar as programs of support for female household heads may lead to more households adopting this form, which no government in the South (not to mention elsewhere in the world) seems to want. In Costa Rica, for example, the Social Welfare Ministry established its first program for female household heads in 1997. While this offered a relatively minimal temporary stipend for women to enable them to take courses in assertiveness and skills-training, specific mention was made in the supporting documentation that the government had no intention of encouraging increases in lone motherhood (Chant 1998). Similarly, subsequent programs oriented to adolescent mothers in the country have concentrated not only on helping this group complete their studies, but also on raising awareness among young people generally about the need to prevent early pregnancy and lone motherhood.

An additional consideration in the field of policy is that specialized programs of support might not be necessary where there is substantial public assistance for women and mothers in general. Cuba is a case in point, where although Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government has resisted providing special welfare benefits to female heads, policies favoring greater gender equality, higher levels of female labor-force participation, and the provision of support services such as daycare have all made it easier for women to raise children on their own (Safa 1995). A useful counterpoint is presented by Chile, which piloted a Program for Female Heads of Household in 1992–3 that was later extended nationally. Although the program aimed to increase women’s access to employment through labor training, access to child care, and so on, success was tempered by the government’s failure to address the social and cultural structures underlying gender segregation in the labor market and the perpetuation of poverty among women (Badia 1999).

6. Lone Motherhood and the Future of ‘the Family’

Given limited programs of state support for mothers in general, and lone mothers in particular, it is unlikely that social policy will play a major role in fuelling increases in lone motherhood in the South in the twenty-first century. However, if recent trends in economic globalization and its accompanying social and demographic corollaries persist, it is entirely conceivable that the widespread ongoing decline in patriarchal family units based on marriage and a ‘male breadwinner female housewife’ model will be counterposed by further rises in female-centered arrangements. Given the entrenchment of poverty and gender discrimination in many countries of the South, it is also probable that a substantial number of lone-mother households will continue to have to rely on strategies of co-residence and or cooperation with relatives in order to compensate for the absence of male partners.


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