Give hope to Woman headed households (WHHs)

The marked increase in women-headed households (WHHs) is arguably one of the most significant features of post-war Sri Lanka as highlighted by a study on WHHs released last month by FOKUS WOMEN.

Recent evidence suggests that Sri Lanka’s 26-year internal armed conflict is an important factor contributing to the upward trend in WHHs, particularly in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of the country. Currently, there are 58,121 WHHs in the Northern Province alone and studies show that members of these households face profound, multi-faceted vulnerabilities, many of which were produced by the war but deepened in the post-war period.

The high number of WHHs has come to occupy a prominent place in development discourse and practice in Sri Lanka’s post-war context. International organizations, local NGOs and the Government of Sri Lanka are implementing a multitude of development programs, ranging from housing to food aid to livelihood assistance, targeting WHHs as a vulnerable category.

The focus on WHHs as vulnerable is largely due to decades of global research evidence emphasizing women’s household headship as an indicator of poverty. Women account for a disproportionate number of the poor worldwide, and male-headed households usually have multiple advantages due to the relative power their heads have in male-dominated societies.

Many argue that women who head households deserve special attention because they are triply disadvantaged: they are poor, they are discriminated against based on their gender, and they lack social support systems as heads of households. When the experience and the effects of war are factored in, women-headed households in war-stricken areas are undoubtedly among the most vulnerable. While a number of development initiatives in war-affected areas either target WHHs or include them among the most vulnerable in selecting beneficiaries, we have little evidence about the extent to which such interventions have improved the lives of WHHs.