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Economics, social status and gender relations: what makes households ‘female-headed’ in Somalia? Lessons from a rapid learning exercise

Briefing/policy paper

Written by Simon Levine, Irina Mosel

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What do people mean when they say that a household is female-headed? Do households have specific vulnerabilities because they are female-headed? Are there different types of female-headed household, some of which have different needs or vulnerabilities?

Based on a survey of women in Somalia who self-identified as household heads, this briefing note explores these questions and challenges assumptions in the humanitarian sector around female-headed households.


  • Aid agencies need to think through why they use female-headed households as a group in any assessment, analysis or programming. They also need to justify why such a group is an appropriate recipient of the specific interventions in question.
  • Evaluators should question carefully any such use of a female-headed household category, and critically examine on what assumptions it was based, how far its use corresponded with the reality of the client population, and how far it is a meaningful proxy for gender analysis.
  • A follow-up study should be conducted in Somalia to investigate in which circumstances women are asserting their status as household heads, and the implications for women’s empowerment.
  • The use of mini studies within project implementation warrants further testing and must look to answer precise and straightforward questions that generate learning of wide-ranging importance.
  • Ways to invert the usual relationship between programme staff and experts should be explored, so that expert resources, such as gender advisors, work under the direction of programme staff to help them answer the issues they prioritise.
  • There may be wider implications for the wisdom of using other labels (e.g. ‘people with disabilities’) in targeting or designing assistance, where this is not clearly related to the actual situation of the people being targeted.