By Nahida Akter, Research Associate
Centre for Peace and Justice, Brac University
“My life is full of struggles and misery; I don’t think I’ll ever be happy.”, Aliya Begum, head of her household, narrates sadly.
Aliya (not her real name), a 50-year-old widow living with her daughter in a congested slum in Chattogram, is one of the many women household heads who are bearing the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic. Before Covid, Aliya worked as a domestic help while her 15-year-old daughter worked at a garments factory. During the onset of Covid-19 and the associated lockdown, they both were laid off from their jobs without prior notice. With no income or external support, Aliya found herself in a deep pit of desolation. Although the lockdown was finally lifted when we were having this conversation in September 2021, Aliya had hardly outrun her misery.
According to the World Bank, in 2018, approximately 15.8 percent of the total households in Bangladesh had female heads. It doesn’t take much effort to understand the unfavourable situation of female-led households in a patriarchal society like ours. Up until the late 90s, female-headed households were considered as the “poorest of the poor” in development discourse. Although this notion has been contested and claimed to be misguiding when poverty is understood as a multidimensional phenomenon, female-headed households are still visibly and readily an identifiable group in income poverty.
Aliya is not alone in her plight. Female-headed households have evidently been one of the hardest hit groups during the ongoing pandemic. Recent statistics from a field survey conducted by Centre for Peace and Justice, Brac University—and funded by the Covid Collective Platform of IDS, University of Sussex—illustrate an appalling profile of households with female heads. The survey, which included 14 percent of the total sample from female-headed households, highlighted a number of critical issues. Nearly half of the female heads had attained only primary level education and more than a quarter had no literacy at all. A quarter of the female heads reported loss of work due to the pandemic. Decrease in income was also reportedly high (61 percent) in September 2021, and was even higher in June 2021 (77 percent). More than half of these households are facing increasing food deficit and 23 percent of them face food crisis. Not having adequate education, coupled with lack of skills, made it nearly impossible for the participants to opt for another job after being laid off.
As Aliya illustrates her situation, “When strict lockdown was imposed, the garments factory my daughter worked at was closed down and my employer also told me not to go to my job. At one point, we had no money to buy food. There were days when we only ate once.”
Like many other female heads from our survey, Aliya also relied on borrowing money to survive the pandemic. Access to formal financial institutions such as banks is very limited for under-served groups of women, in general, in Bangladesh. These women mostly relied on neighbours or relatives for borrowing cash, and sometimes even from moneylenders, at high interest rates. She is still repaying those loans, but by borrowing more money, which makes her susceptible to a vicious never-ending cycle of debt.
One other problem for female heads of households is that, traditionally women are considered the primary caregivers of the family. Strict social distancing limited their ability to get external help to take care of dependent household members such as children, elderly persons and persons with disabilities. This often reduced women’s working hours and hence also reduced income. Such households reported being forced to opt for debilitating mechanisms—such as 53 percent of them reducing food consumption—to cope with increased expenses and income loss.
Historically and traditionally, women as a group have had limited access to community support and social capital. There is also mistrust towards community, stemming from previously experienced discriminatory behaviour. All of these combined makes female heads of households more vulnerable to crises and shocks. The evidences from the survey reiterate that more than half of the female-headed households received no support from their community during the pandemic. Sometimes, they have even eschewed seeking support as they cannot reciprocate the same due to constant resource constraints. Their access to social support programmes is also very limited. 61 percent female-headed households reported that they are not enlisted under any social safety net programmes.
Bangladesh has shown visible improvements in women’s empowerment. This gives rise to the assumption that being head of the household would give women more power to exercise agency and transition to a better-off position. However, the reality as reflected in our survey starkly contrasts with this hypothesis. Having said that, it is also erroneous to assume or imply that having male earners in the household will automatically mitigate the same risks during crises like the pandemic. Instead, the inferences indicate that it is mostly structural challenges that are creating new fault lines for female-headed households. Lacking access to financial and community support and lack of transparency prevent these women from benefiting from social welfare programmes which were designed to support vulnerable people like them.
The statistics and numbers on empowerment ranking mean little to Aliya, as she is all too familiar to the quandary and fears that keep her awake at night. We are now almost two years into the pandemic and, with a decrease in infection rates, the focus is now on economic rebuilding. However, the reductionist focus of public policies that seldom takes account of female household heads’ realities will only exacerbate their existing conundrums. It is, therefore, critical to amplify their needs and concerns in the policy-making space and devise policies that take into account their realities. We cannot risk leaving these female-headed demographics worse-off as we ambitiously plan to build back better as a country.
Disclaimer: All views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors based on their analysis of empirical findings and do not represent the position of any affiliated organisations.
This blog was originally published on Daily Star on Dec 29, 2021