Covid-19 brunt on female-headed households

Historically and traditionally, women have had limited access to community support and social capital. Illustration: Collected

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Historically and traditionally, women have had limited access to community support and social capital. Illustration: Collected

“My life is full of struggles and misery; I don’t think I’ll ever be happy,” recalls Aliya Begum, head of the family.

Aliya (not her real name), a 50-year-old widow living with her daughter in an overcrowded slum in Chattogram, is one of the many female heads of household who have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. Before Covid, Aliya worked as a domestic helper while her 15-year-old daughter worked in a clothing factory. During the onset of Covid-19 and the associated lockdown, they were both dismissed from their jobs without notice. Without income or outside support, Aliya found herself in a pit of desolation. Although the lockdown was finally lifted when we had this conversation in September 2021, Aliya was barely past her misery.

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According to the World Bank, in 2018, around 15.8% of total households in Bangladesh were headed by women. It doesn’t take much effort to understand the unfavorable situation of female-headed households in a patriarchal society like ours. Until the late 1990s, female-headed households were considered the “poorest of the poor” in development discourse. Although this notion has been disputed and claimed to be misleading when poverty is understood as a multidimensional phenomenon, female-headed households are still visibly and easily an identifiable group in income poverty.

Aliya is not alone in her fate. Households headed by women have clearly been one of the hardest hit groups during the ongoing pandemic. Recent statistics from a field survey conducted by the Center for Peace and Justice at Brac University and funded by the Covid collective platform of the University of Sussex IDS illustrate a appalling profile of households led by women. The survey, which included 14 percent of the total sample of female-headed households, highlighted a number of critical issues. Almost half of the female principals had only reached primary level and more than a quarter had no literacy skills. A quarter of female heads of household said they had lost their jobs due to the pandemic. The drop in income would also have been high (61%) in September 2021, and even higher in June 2021 (77%). More than half of these households face a growing food deficit and 23 percent of them face a food crisis. Lack of adequate education and lack of skills made it nearly impossible for participants to opt for another job after being laid off.

As Aliya illustrates her situation, “When the strict lockdown was imposed, the clothing factory where my daughter worked was closed and my employer also told me not to go to my job. At one point, we didn’t have the money to buy food. There were days when we only ate once. “

Like many of the other female leaders in our survey, Aliya also relied on borrowing money to survive the pandemic. Access to formal financial institutions such as banks is very limited for underserved groups of women, in general, in Bangladesh. These women relied mainly on neighbors or relatives to borrow money, and sometimes even from pawn shops, at high interest rates. She still repays these loans, but borrowing more money, which leaves her vulnerable to a vicious cycle of endless debt.

Another problem for women heads of household is that traditionally women are seen as the primary caregivers of the family. Strict social distancing limited their ability to obtain outside help to care for dependent household members such as children, the elderly and the disabled. This often reduced women’s working hours and therefore also reduced income. These households said they were forced to opt for debilitating mechanisms, such as 53 percent of them reducing their food consumption, to cope with increased spending and loss of income.

Historically and traditionally, women as a group have had limited access to community support and social capital. There is also a distrust of the community, resulting from discriminatory behavior already experienced. All of these elements combined make women heads of household more vulnerable to crises and shocks. Evidence from the survey reiterates that more than half of female-headed households received no support from their community during the pandemic. Sometimes they even shied away from seeking support as they cannot deliver the same due to constant resource constraints. Their access to social support programs is also very limited. 61 percent of female-headed households reported that they were not enrolled in any social protection program.

Bangladesh has shown visible improvements in the empowerment of women. This gives rise to the hypothesis that being the head of a family would give women more power to exercise their free will and move to a more affluent position. However, the reality as reflected in our survey contrasts sharply with this assumption. That said, it is also wrong to assume or imply that having men in the household will automatically mitigate the same risks during crises like the pandemic. Instead, inferences indicate that it is primarily structural challenges that create new dividing lines for female-headed households. Lack of access to financial and community support and lack of transparency prevent these women from benefiting from social protection programs designed to support vulnerable people like them.

Statistics and figures on the empowerment ranking mean little to Aliya, as she knows all too well the dilemma and fears that keep her awake at night. We are now almost two years after the start of the pandemic and, with infection rates declining, the focus is now on economic reconstruction. However, the reductionist orientation of public policies which rarely takes into account the realities of women heads of household will only exacerbate their existing enigmas. It is therefore essential to amplify their needs and concerns in the decision-making space and to design policies that take their realities into account. We cannot risk leaving these female-led demographics worse off as we ambitiously plan to build back better as a country.

Nahida Akter is a development researcher at the Center for Peace and Justice at the University of Brac. All opinions are those of the author, based on his analysis of empirical results, and do not represent the position of any affiliated organization.


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