Demographers and social scientists in India have paid little attention to female headed households that constituted roughly eight percent in 1981 and rose to a little over ten percent of the total households in 2001. In 1981, among the major states, Kerala had 19.4 percent of female headed households while Himachal Pradesh had 16.3 percent of such households. In 2001 the proportion of female headed households in Kerala increased to 22.6 percent and to 17.9 percent in Himachal Pradesh. What then has been the cause of this substantial rise and what would be the differential in male and female headed households if examined by age.
Female Headship – state wise
A study of pan India’s female headed households through the 2001 census throws up three iconic examples of Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand that are well above the national average of 10.4 percent. Again, among the smaller states, Goa, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland, feature higher on the female headship count. In contrast, this proportion was substantially low in Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
A suitable reason for Kerala’s higher proportion is the significant emigration of its male population to gulf countries and the practice of matrilineal kinship system, especially among the Nairs. Similarly, Himachal and Uttarakhand, the two hill states, send a large number of its males to the plains to eke out a living, leaving their women, children and older people behind. In such situations women acquire the status of household heads. The north eastern states however have established matrilineal societies where females are normally the household heads.
As for the states of heartland India, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, the strong patrilineal system and their general disregard for women, translates into fewer households being headed by them. Only and only if there is no male member of an appropriate age to occupy the place does a woman take charge. Slight rural and urban differentials may be noted in female headship rates – being marginally higher in urban areas.
Female Headship – Age wise
Young women, less than 20 years, seem to run independent lives as they form the modal group in female headship in India. In urban areas there are two
categories, one ‘less than 20 years’ and the other ‘70-79 years’ age group that occupy prime spots. Female household head above 60 years are likely to be widowed and presumably living alone. But a high proportion of young women heading households probably show that India is shaping up as an empowered state where unmarried women live separately.
Female Headship – Marital Status
It is an obvious societal norm among currently married males to head their households, as we inadvertently assume that a husband has a predisposition to run his household efficiently. It is thus not worth reporting that more than 95 percent of young males between 30 to 49 years age group are household heads. Where female headship is concerned it is found more prominently among widowed females. Among young women, who are yet to be married, the proportion of household heads is as high as 84 percent. A pattern that is echoed in both rural and urban areas, this high proportion of headship rate for persons below 20 years implies that these are mostly single member households.
Records of 61st Round (July 2004 to June 2005), National Sample Survey (NSS) and National Family Health Survey (NFHS) III, closely corroborate with the 2001 Census data, indicating a similar rise of women headed households, resting around 11 percent on both counts. But, the underlying reason needs vindication. Although it is a fact that the number of women white collared job holders are rapidly rising, it is not the job alone, but the ease of mobility and an increasing sense of confidence that women today are finding homes away from their usual place of residence. They are thus sole hands wherever they go and consequently feature as female headship in the data enumeration process. On the downside however is the desolation of widows. With an increasing wave of consumerism rapidly eroding age old values – the propensity to consume necessarily focusing on pulling in of all productive familial resources, widows are left outside. Considered a burden, increasingly turned away from homes; old women find themselves alone in their last tenure on earth. And census records reflect their growing number as women headed households.
The proportion of female headship has been comparatively high in certain states – emigration and out migration is likely to explain a large part of the phenomenon but we still need to find reasons for a high proportion of female headed households in other southern states. We may conjecture that women are more empowered in southern states yet this needs substantiation through data.
We work within certain inherent limitations. Full length monographs and tabulations of district and block level data are needed to establish linkages conclusively. Even sometimes that may not prove to be enough, as the enumerators posing questions may not have been sensitised to procure the correct answers. Census data in most cases, do not reflect intricate underlying understanding of social change; it only presents a broad overall pattern, that provides a direction to policy makers and researchers.