The dynamics of female-headed households, economic vulnerability, and climate variability in South Africa

Martin Flatø, of the University of Oslo, Norway, examined households in South Africa in which women are the senior figure—so called female-headed households—and demonstrated that they are substantially more economically vulnerable to climate variation.

Martin Flatø

Martin Flatø


Existing gender inequality is believed to be heightened as a result of weather events and climate-related disasters that are likely to become more common in the future. We show that an already marginalized group—female-headed households in South Africa —is differentially affected by relatively modest variation in rainfall.


Data from three waves of the National Income Dynamics Survey (NIDS) in South Africa allowed us to follow the incomes of 4,162 households from 2006-2012. By observing how household income is affected by variation in rainfall relative to what is normally experienced during the rainy season in each district, our study employed a series of naturally occurring experiments that allow us to identify causal effects. Furthermore, much of the vulnerability to poverty literature cannot distinguish differential vulnerability of female-headed households from heterogeneity which not only makes this group worse off, but may also create a different income trajectory over time, and which may have contributed to the household becoming female-headed in the first place. In this study, we are able to control for characteristics of the household through fixed effects, and also take into account that different headship groups may have diverging time trends.

Results and conclusions

We find that households where a single head can be identified based on residency or work status are more vulnerable to climate variability than households headed by two adults. Lower initial earnings and to less extent other household characteristics that contribute to economic disadvantages explain why single male-headed households are more vulnerable, but only some of the differential vulnerability of female-headed households. This suggests that there are traits specific to female-headed households, such as limited access to protective social networks or other coping strategies, which makes this an important dimension of marginalization to consider for further research and policy in South Africa and other countries. Households headed by widows, never-married women, and women with a non-resident spouse (e.g., “left-behind” migrant households) are particularly vulnerable. We find vulnerable households only in districts where rainfall has a large effect on agricultural yields, and female-headed households remain vulnerable when accounting for dynamic impacts of rainfall on income.


Raya Muttarak, World Population Program, IIASA


Martin Flatø, of the University of Oslo, Norway, is a citizen of Norway and was funded by the IIASA Norwegian National Member Organization during the SA-YSSP.

Please note these Proceedings have received limited or no review from supervisors and IIASA program directors, and the views and results expressed therein do not necessarily represent IIASA, its National Member Organizations, or other organizations supporting the work.   

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Last edited: 02 February 2016

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