Widows are historically among the poorest and most vulnerable individuals

In Western economies, widows were historically among the poorest and most vulnerable individuals until the introduction of pension schemes and widow benefits in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One might expect a similar situation in developing countries with underdeveloped safety net and insurance mechanisms, as well as high levels of gender inequality in rights, human development, and access to assets and employment. Yet, despite the likely relevance of widowhood in the lives of African women, surprisingly little is known about the well-being of Africa’s widows.

This is partly because poverty and vulnerability are typically measured with the household as the basic unit of observation. Potentially disadvantaged individuals such as remarried widows, young or elderly current widows, and their children are then largely hidden from view in standard data sources. In a background study to the latest World Bank Group Africa poverty report, Poverty in a Rising Africa, we mined Africa’s Demographic and Health Surveys to dig deeper into these issues.