Time use and food insecurity in female-headed households in Brazil

Cicero Augusto Silveira Braga, PhD in Applied Economics from the Federal University of Viçosa, MG, Brazil.

Lorena Vieira Costa. PhD in Applied Economics and Professor at the Federal University of Viçosa, MG, Brazil.

rbepop_logoAccording to the National Household Sample Survey (PNAD) Report (IBGE, 2014), Food and Nutrition Insecurity (IAN) is predominant in households headed by women in all regions of the country. The publication Time use and food insecurity in female-headed households in Brazil showed that this relationship is intensified even more in cases where food insecurity is considered severe or moderate. This result is maintained even when different measures of food insecurity are used: the prevalence of vulnerability of female-headed households is evident when food insecurity is measured by anthropometric measures, such as the Body Mass Index (IMC), level of undernourishment or insufficient intake of calories.

This relationship is, however, paradoxical. Different theoretical models of family behavior – notably collective models – have been shown to underlie the gender and welfare paradox, various characteristics that make female-headed households fundamentally different from those in which men are reported as the reference person. Female household heads would tend to allocate resources more beneficially to household welfare if they had, like male household heads, a supportive family structure and better employment opportunities to earn incomes similar to them.

This idea is supported by the discussion on the factors that lead to the feminization of poverty, which brings to light, among other factors, the family composition of households headed by women and their particularities. Among other aspects, it is pointed out that the relative disadvantage of women in terms of poverty is due to the fact that they often have to work double shifts, that is, they are responsible for both paid and unpaid work.

With the intent to contribute to this debate, the article sought to go beyond the verification of the relative situation of women in relation to household food insecurity. We aimed to verify which characteristics of the female-headed households are responsible for increasing the probability of insecurity. The discussion provided by the collective theoretical models and by the theory of the feminization of poverty suggest that family composition and the intra-household division of resources (as well as of tasks regarding domestic work) are important. Thus, we work with the hypothesis that female heads of households are vulnerable to food insecurity in part because of the need to work double shifts and the absence of a spouse with whom to share domestic tasks (as a result of either the absence of a spouse or the unequal division of unpaid labor).

The literature review presented in the article points out some trends between gender and food insecurity. First, it should be noted that this joint phenomenon is particularly strong in developing countries, where not only food vulnerability, but also the accumulation of tasks by women is more recurrent – the latter mainly due to patriarchal structures entangled in the collective cultural imaginary. Second, we see how the very limitation of data availability reinforces the vulnerability scenario, given that the channels through which these problems could be exposed are systematically notified.

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With this in mind, the study used the Brazilian Food Security Scale, a Brazilian survey conducted by the IBGE in 2014, which classifies Brazilian households as having a state of light, moderate or severe food security or insecurity. The results were explored using a probabilistic model that considered different scenarios: one in which the female head of household worked a double shift, another in which domestic chores were shared with someone else in the household, and another in which this division was directly with the spouse of the opposite sex.

In fact, it was noted that the households headed by women presented the highest incidences of food insecurity in all classifications (severe (4%), moderate (5%) and mild (16%) when compared to those headed by men (respectively 3%, 4% and 13%). While 79% of the male-headed households were food secure, 74% of the female-headed households were in this position. Of the female-headed households, approximately 40% were single-parent households, that is, they are composed of mother and children. 44% of the female heads of household worked a double shift (against 25% of the male reference persons) and only 13.62% of the household chores were carried out by the male spouse.

The effects of the empirical model were analyzed in a few steps. First, in isolation, female household headship was associated with a higher chance of observing severe food insecurity. By inserting double journeys into the model, this effect is slightly reduced, confirming that household vulnerability is not due to the fact that the head of the household is a woman, but rather to the effects associated with it. There is also a substantial reduction in the isolated gender effect when including in the model the division of household chores with another member. Finally, it can be seen that sharing household chores with a spouse causes the effect to change direction.

These results show the importance of domestic activities and chores for the production of household well-being. The empowerment of women should not be limited to the inclusion of women in the labor market, but mainly in the division of tasks and responsibilities that are independent of gender. In order for them to perform their work activities without reducing the household’s well-being (or to prevent this from being a justification for keeping them from developing their potential), families must take equal responsibility for the well-being of their members. Thus, the analysis of gender from an economic perspective that truly understands work and household configurations can help reduce the gender gap observed especially in developing countries.

If the division of tasks matters, there is still a wide space for discussing actions to ease the situation of vulnerability regarding the IA of single-parent women. It is important that they have an adequate environment for the care of their children so that, in fact, they are able to develop and achieve better job prospects in the formal market.

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To read the article, access

BRAGA, C.A.S. and COSTA, L.V. Time use and food insecurity in female-headed households in Brazil. Revista Brasileira de Estudos de População [online]. 2022, vol. 39 [viewed 8 June 2022]. https://doi.org/10.20947/S0102-3098a0200 Available from: https://www.scielo.br/j/rbepop/a/PBqD6RXp6HFzs5nGkRvQ7Rq/


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Cicero Augusto Silveira Braga: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-7035-4926

Lorena Vieira Costa: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-0293-9842

Revista Brasileira de Estudos de População – RBEPOP: https://www.scielo.br/j/rbepop


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BRAGA, C.A.S. and COSTA, L.V. Time use and food insecurity in female-headed households in Brazil [online]. SciELO in Perspective: Humanities, 2022 [viewed ]. Available from: https://humanas.blog.scielo.org/en/2022/06/09/time-use-and-food-insecurity-in-female-headed-households-in-brazil/


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