Female household heads and schooling outcomes in rural India

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Female household heads and schooling outcomes in rural India

Widow-headed households highlight importance of bargaining power in advancing gender equality for India’s children

by Mana Nakagawa on Thursday, November 1, 2012 - 2:19pm

When Professor Amita Chudgar began studying the education levels of widow-headed households in India, she was well aware of the obstacles these women faced. “In rural India," Chudgar explains, "there has been a prevailing understanding that is hard to escape. Becoming a widow, especially at a younger age when one has school-going children, can be a tremendous challenge and a disadvantage." In addition to dealing with the social stigma of widowhood, many of these women have never held paid employment and must now struggle to find a livelihood to support their families. Chudgar's research suggests that helping these women may be pivotal for serving another policy goal—that of improving educational outcomes for the country's children.Nursery school  - Gujarat

As many as 80 percent of all female household heads in rural India have no education.

In recent years, India has made impressive strides in school enrollment. However, girls still receive less education than boys, particularly in rural regions. For development agencies seeking to enhance all children’s school enrollment in rural India, the answer may in part lie in providing economic support for widows and female household heads with children.

This is the outcome of Chudgar's study of the relationship between children’s educational outcomes and the gender of the household head. Chudgar, a former Graduate Dissertation Fellow at the Clayman Institute, investigates rural Indian households headed by males, married women, and widows. She finds that women with more bargaining power within the household pass on greater benefits to their children when their resources increase. In an interesting twist, her study reveals that widows pass on the greatest benefits to their children’s education and that they do so in a more gender-egalitarian way.   

Chudgar's research helps us understand how fathers and mothers make differential decisions about their children’s futures. “If policy makers want to improve children’s school participation and especially improve girls’ schooling relative to boys,’" says Chudgar, "it seems that paying close attention to mothers is very important…small improvements in female-headed households’ conditions may be magnified in their children’s schooling outcomes.”

"Becoming a widow, especially at a younger age when one has school-going children, can be a tremendous challenge and a disadvantage."

The type of female-headed household matters

Research in developing countries shows that female-headed households, who typically have less access to resources than other types of households, prefer to invest their scarce resources in children. Further, increased levels of bargaining power for women within households has been associated with better health and schooling outcomes for children, especially girls. Despite these positive trends, women’s insufficient access to financial resources often prevents them from acting on their preferences.

But, says Chudgar, these “female-headed households” are not created equal.

Chudgar highlights a frequently overlooked distinction between households headed by widows and those headed by married women. To examine whether schooling outcomes for children vary for different household types, Chudgar looks separately at male-headed, married female-headed and widow-headed households. She finds that after controlling for various social and economic factors, children in female-headed households exhibit the best schooling outcomes compared to households headed by male-heads. In particular, widows are the only type of household head who did not discriminate against girls in their school enrollment. School boys, Tamil Nadu

Small economic gains: Largest benefits for children of widows

Using nationally representative data from rural India, Chudgar’s findings support the existing literature on poverty and household headships. Female heads, particularly widows, tend to be worse off economically and have lower levels of education. Indeed, as many as 80 percent of all female household heads have no education.

 Chudgar finds that despite these disadvantages among female-headed households, marginal improvements in the economic conditions of widow-headed households show the most positive effects on children’s schooling outcomes. 

When a household in rural India moves from the bottom to middle quintile in wealth status, children of widow-headed households are 11%  more likely to enroll in school. Children in married-female headed households show an 8% increase, and children in male-headed households show the smallest increase of 7%.

Female bargaining power within households

To explain this difference, Chudgar points to intra-household bargaining power between spouses.

“[S]mall improvements in female-headed households’ conditions may be magnified in their children’s schooling outcomes.”

A key interpretation of the study is that a widow, compared to a married woman, requires less bargaining with a spouse, enabling her to invest her scarce resources in her children. Thus, while children’s differential schooling outcomes certainly depend on household characteristics, we must consider not only the material resources of households but also the distribution of bargaining power among caregivers within households. 

It is often thought that insufficient access to financial resources hinders widows' abilities to act beneficially for their children’s wellbeing. Chudgar’s study reveals that perhaps widows can make certain decisions that married women cannot make. The marginal improvements in school enrollment, explains Chudgar, are particularly remarkable in light of the social and cultural challenges that all widows—whatever their economic status—must face.


photo Amita ChudgarAmita Chudgar is a former Graduate Dissertation Fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. She earned her PhD from the Economics of Education Program at the Stanford University School of Education in 2006 and is currently an assistant professor of educational administration and education policy at Michigan State University. In her research, Chudgar aims to identify policies to address educational challenges facing developing countries, focusing especially on equity in education access and achievement. Her article, “Female Headship and Schooling Outcomes in Rural India,” appeared in the journal, World Development, in 2010. 

photo Mana NakagawaMana Nakagawa is a doctoral student in the International Comparative Education program at Stanford University and a member of the Student Writing Team at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research.