Existence of considerable proportion of women-headed households in rural society of Bangladesh insisted us to do this research. The objective of this study was to identify and understand the problems faced by women-headed households. The study was undertaken with two assumptions: (1) a support system is in place which ensures that on the loss of their husbands, women will either return to their natal home, be taken in by in-laws, or be helped by relatives in the community while nominally heading their own separated khana (households), (2) participation in BRAC programmes improves the position of the poor people and will reduce the vulnerability of women-headed households. Fieldwork was undertaken in Matlab, where 18 women heads of households were studied.
Key findings included the following: that there are identifiable processes by which women become household heads. Social factor such as purdah remains an important constraint for such women and few allowances seem to be made due to their position as household heads. Such constraints further inhibit their chances of finding employment. Poverty is the most pressing problem. Women household heads are very likely to lose control of any land or assets they may have inherited. Access to employment is another severe problem, as there are few jobs available to them and they are relatively unskilled.
BRAC programmes play a role in reducing the dependency of these women on others. Women household heads who are associated with BRAC seem to have more options in terms of employment than the non-BRAC counterparts. BRAC members prefer employment.
These findings brought up a number of issues: the social safety net system which we had assumed to be in place turned out to be something which the families of the women we interviewed could not actually afford. Women were ultimately forced to look after their families themselves. Marriage has increasingly become an area of complex power relations between families. These are manifested mainly in dowry transactions, marital disruption and breakdown, and ultimately resulting in more women-headed households. BRAC can help these women in number of ways i.e. by giving special emphasis on women heads of households by targeting the Paralegal/Human Rights and Legal Education Programme at them. A package focusing on marriage, divorce and family laws should be of use in informing them about their rights in this area. The plans to expand the Income Generation for Vulnerable Group Development Programme (IGVGDP) into sericulture (which will offer suitable employment opportunity) is a most welcome step. In general it needs to be recognized that these women have more acute problems that their poverty is more far-reaching than the average male-headed household, and that provision of employment may make more sense than credit for such people.