Inequality in the household

For children, the most important actors in the world are not world leaders or heads of government, but parents and caregivers who make crucial household decisions on a daily basis. How members of households decide to use their collective resources determines the levels of nutrition, health care, education and protection that each family member receives.

Inequalities in decision-making

When women, who are most often the primary caregivers for children, are excluded from household decision-making processes, their well-being as well as their children’s may be at risk. Evidence from 30 countries – drawn from Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), one of the most direct sources of information on household decision-making dynamics – reveals that in many households, women have little influence over important household decisions. Overall, the data paint a picture of extreme gender inequality. In only 10 of the 30 countries surveyed did 50 per cent or more of women participate in all household decisions, including those taken in regard to their own health care, major household purchases, daily household spending and visits with family or relatives outside of the household.

Lack of control over health-care needs: Although decisions on women’s health care are vital to the health and well-being of both women and children, in many households, notably in those countries examined in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, women have little influence in health-related matters. In Burkina Faso, Mali and Nigeria, for example, almost 75 per cent of women reported that their husbands alone make decisions on their access to health-care services. The exclusion of women from these crucial decisions can compromise the health and well-being of all family members, particularly children.

Limited management of daily household expenditure: Household decisions on daily expenditure have a decisive impact on children’s well-being, education and, particularly, their health. In many households across the developing world, men have a firm upper hand in decisions on these expenditures. In 7 of the 15 countries surveyed in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 40 per cent of women indicated that their husbands had exclusive control over household expenditures. In the countries examined in the Middle East and North Africa and South Asia, approximately 30 per cent of women felt excluded from decisions on household purchases.

Exclusion from decisions on major household purchases: The DHS data also reveal that in the 30 countries surveyed, men dominate decisions on major purchases such as land, cars and livestock. These assets can be crucial for sustaining and increasing a family’s wealth and income, and are often regarded as a sound long-term investment. However, the short-term cost of such purchases can consume a large share of household income that might otherwise be used for more immediate household needs, such as medicine, school supplies and food. Approximately 60 per cent of women in Egypt and more than a third of women in Bangladesh and Nepal felt excluded from such decisions. This contrasts with attitudes in the two countries surveyed in East Asia and Pacific, Indonesia and the Philippines, where fewer than 18 per cent of women in both countries felt they had no say in such matters.

Restricted mobility and freedom: To provide for their own needs, as well as those of their children, women require the ability to move freely within and outside the household. Yet survey data from across the developing regions suggest that men often exert a high degree of control over women’s mobility. In Burkina Faso and Mali, approximately 60 per cent of women reported that husbands alone decide when they can visit friends or relatives. One third of Bangladeshi husbands control their wife’s mobility outside the home. In Latin America and the Caribbean, data from Nicaragua show that 18 per cent of women require a man’s permission before leaving home to visit friends and family. In CEE/CIS, 16 per cent of Armenian women need to first secure their husbands’ permission.

Key determinants of influence in household decision-making

Gender discrimination in the household is often rooted in patriarchal attitudes that value the social status of men over women. A strikingly high proportion of men in the countries surveyed believe that wives should submit to their husband’s authority on household decisions. But tradition is not the only factor determining bargaining power within families. Even within the most homogenous societies, every family is unique, and there is no simple set of rules that can explain the dynamics of household decision-making.

Nonetheless, recent studies on household decisions and gender shed some light on the major determinants of influence. These include control of income and assets, age, and access to and level of education. Examining these factors across a wide range of countries offers insights into the distribution of bargaining power in individual households.

Control of income and assets: The strongest say in household decision-making often belongs to the family member who controls the largest share of household income and assets. Women are at a distinct disadvantage in terms of economic affluence because they earn less than men and tend to own fewer assets. Smaller salaries and less control over household income constrain women’s abilities to accumulate capital. Gender biases in property and inheritance laws and in other channels of acquiring assets – including state land distribution programmes – leave women and children at greater risk of poverty. The consequences of exclusion from owning property or assets can be even more direct, particularly when a marriage breaks down or the husband dies.

Levels of education: In addition to increased levels of knowledge, self-confidence and assertiveness, education confers social status and increases income-earning potential. The level of each spouse’s education varies among households. The findings of a study undertaken in 40 developing countries indicate that, on average, men tend to spend more time in education than women.

The education gap tends to be widest in South Asia, where men spend an average 2.5 years more in school than women, declining to 1.3 years in sub-Saharan Africa and 1 year in Latin America and the Caribbean. Disparate levels of education may reinforce gender inequalities, ensuring that women remain disadvantaged.

Age gaps: The distribution of household bargaining power is also influenced by a woman’s age at marriage and the age difference between a woman and her husband. Evidence from around the world shows that the age gap between husbands and wives can vary enormously among households. The average age at first marriage in Western Europe is estimated to be 27 for women and 30 for men. In developing countries, age differences are far greater. In South Asia, for example, husbands are approximately five years older than their wives; the gap rises to six years in sub-Saharan Africa (excluding southern Africa).

In cases of child marriage, when the age gap between spouses is most extreme, the burden of domestic work and childcare severely constrains the life choices available to married girls and child mothers. This, in turn, affects the power that women have over household decisions.

Education is key in the fight against discrimination and against practices that deny women a say in household decisions. Read how Fatna, a Sudanese girl living in a refugee camp in Chad, who is determined to continue her education to guarantee a better future for herself.