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Challenging for women to be the head of a household in Ethiopia

Women who run their households alone have different opportunities to succeed in managing their families. In rural Ethiopia the women's status is to a great extent determined by the surrounding society.

Sigrun Høgetveit Berg 14.02.2014 12:39   (Last updated: 24.02.2014 09:28)

tizita yimam
The amount of different types of capital determines the scope of action for the women in the female headed households in Ethiopia, Tizita Mulugeta Yimam concludes in her PhD dissertation. Foto: Sigrun Høgetveit Berg

- I have studied the households where there is no man present, and where the women run their families alone.

- And in trying to establish how these women manage, I've looked at how they possess different types of capital and how they have used this in order to influence their household livelihood activities, says Tizita Mulugeta Yiman.

She has recently defended her PhD in Sociology at The University of Tromsø - The Arctic University of Norway.

Widowed, divorced and separated

Tizita has studied female headed households in Bati Wäräda, South Wollo - a rural area in Northern Ethiopia. Based on her field work, she has outlined three different categories in her dissertation: The widow, the divorced woman and the separated woman.

- Society looks at these three differently, says Tizita.

- The widow's main challenge is her in-laws, who often won't let her have her share of the land and the property, even if she was the one who brought the property into the marriage. The divorced woman is also left with little say over the shared property.

- In both cases, one of the biggest problems is that the woman is regarded to be responsible for her own situation. It is her fault that her husband died, or that he divorced her. Therefore, she's left with nothing.

- The separated woman is usually better off. In this border area I've studied, the reason for the separation is often that the husband is a migrant worker, and therefore away for a shorter or longer period of time. But her problem is also that society around her does not regard her and respect her as the head of the family, even if she in practice runs the family with the man absent, says Tizita.

Equal rights, but strong traditions

Ethiopia has modern laws against discriminating women. They are allowed to divorce, to own land and they are entiteld to inherit. But the problem is that traditions are even stronger.

- In these rural areas the traditional customs regulate the lives of the inhabitans - and the men benefit from them. The traditions are strong and very difficult to change, Tizita says, and continues:

- A woman without a man has three opportunities; she can give the children to the in-laws, she can bring her children and leave the community or she can stay and try to fight for her household.

- Some women - especially the young ones without too many children - would have enough social or economic capital to be able to re-marry. That would give her higher status and more symbolic capital, but in many cases less control of her property and economic capital.

A brigther future?

But some women take up the fight and refuse to remarry. And in this Tizita sees some signs of a brighter future for the single women.

- Technology, mobility and migration are slowly changing the society. And there are some courageous mothers who stay on as head of the household and try to make opportunities for their daughters by giving them education in stead of marrying them away.

- That's what the future is all about, education, Tizita concludes.