Development Roast

Poor Women?

The perception that women are disadvantaged and discriminated against in Bolivia is almost universal. Achieving gender equality is of so high priority that it is very difficult to get a research proposal funded, unless you promise to analyze the gender dimension of whatever topic you are interested in.

But is that perception still true?

According to the latest national household survey in Bolivia (MECOVI 2005), men and women are exactly equally likely to be poor (60% poverty rate for both sexes). This is not so strange as poverty is measured at the household level and households tend to be pretty randomly mixed in terms of gender.

But what about female headed households, aren't they disadvantaged?

Female headed households comprise 23% of all households in Bolivia, and according to the MECOVI 2005, these are actually less poor than male headed households (51.7% poverty for female headed households versus 54.2% for male headed households).

But surely single mothers with children must be disadvantaged, right?

Ten percent of all Bolivian households consists of single mothers living with up to eight children. These are indeed more likely to be poor (57.2%) than the average for all households (53.6%), but they are not as poor as the classic nuclear family with father (head), mother (spouse), and one or more children (60.1% poverty rate), which comprise 46% of all households. And this despite the fact that single mothers have substantially lower education levels than the heads from classic nuclear families (6.4 versus 8.3 years).

This result is not due to poverty being badly measured (which it may still be, though). By almost every materialistic measure that could be constructed from the survey information, single mother households are better off than classic nuclear households: Per capita incomes are higher (597 Bs./month versus 459 Bs./month), housing quality is better (Quality of Housing Index of 2.41 versus 2.27), homes are less crowded (1.3 persons/room versus 1.7 persons per room), expenditure on food per person is higher (274 Bs./month versus 236 Bs./month), expenditure on education is higher (221 Bs./month versus 170 Bs./month), etc.

Indeed, according to the MECOVI 2005, the classic nuclear family is the worst possible situation in terms of poverty. It is much better to be childless, single parent, or live in an extended household with other family members.

So much for conventional wisdom.

Know of any inspiring stories achieving gender equality? Leave a reply below.

(*) Director, Institute for Advanced Development Studies, La Paz, Bolivia. The author happily receives comments at the following e-mail: