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Disparities and diversities among female-headed households in rural Malawi after 20 years of economic liberalization

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Using data from a survey carried out in six tobacco growing villages across Malawi in 2004–5, this paper summarizes some main differences found in subsistence production and income levels between male- and female-headed households and the disparities among female-headed households in the light of economic liberalization policies of the past two decades. The disadvantaged position of female-headed households in terms of land and labour endowment, together with the high cost of inputs since the structural adjustment programmes and removal of subsidies since the 1980s has prevented poorer female-headed households not only from attaining maize self-sufficiency, but also from engaging in high-return agriculture such as tobacco production. Although livelihood diversification is adopted by both male- and female-headed households, many female-headed households still depend on low-entry-barrier activities such as agricultural waged labour and are unable to break out of the poverty cycle. However, female-headed households are a heterogeneous category and factors such as the availability of nonfarm income opportunities, social networks to access labour and capital, land acquisition through flexible applications of patrilineal inheritance rules, and the existence of formal channels for credit and informal tobacco trading have enabled some to improve agricultural productivity and achieve high incomes.
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Keywords: Africa; Malawi; farm income; gender; livelihoods; nonfarm income

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2009-11-01

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