I said that my husband and I made decisions jointly. This caused some consternation, for the census questions are structured around the idea of a single household head to whom every one in the household is “answerable” (as the preliminary census results put it).
What do most people mean when they refer to the head of the household? It can mean the chief income-provider, the chief decision-maker or the person recognised by other members of the household as being the highest authority. It can refer to power over other household members or responsibility for their welfare. The concept’s very lack of clarity undermines its usefulness.
The Namibian census defines the head of household as “the person of either sex who was looked upon by the other members of the household as their leader or main decision-maker”.
This is inadequate to capture reality, as different decisions can involve different persons, processes and degrees of participation. There may be situations where various family members consult each other, where input is solicited from different persons but one person has the final say, where the influence of some household members is marginal at best or where some persons are completely excluded.
Another problem is that responses to questions about household authority may not be straightforward; as one woman reportedly told a researcher exploring responses to a similar census question in Samoa, “publicly he is the household head but privately I am”.
In legal contexts, the “head of household” concept can prejudice women’s rights. It was for this very reason that the 1996 Married Persons Equality Act eliminated the legal assumption that the husband is invariably the “head of the household” in civil marriages. But the 2012 Flexible Land Tenure Act has just reintroduced the idea.
This law is designed to improve access to secure tenure in urban areas by providing starter titles which protects certain basic property rights and can be upgraded over time. But it is premised on the concept of a single “head of household” who will be registered as the holder of the starter title, with joint title-holding being available only to couples married in community of property. In similar fashion, the current criteria for state maintenance grants assume that households have a single “breadwinner”.
Our censuses and laws are failing to keep pace with evolving social norms. The 2006-07 Namibian Demographic and Health Survey found that half of all married women said that they and their husbands make joint decisions about the use of the women’s earnings, with even more reporting joint decision-making regarding their husbands’ earnings. In addition, roughly 40-50% of married women reported joint decision-making with their husbands on healthcare decisions, purchases for everyday needs, major household purchases and visits to the wife’s relatives – with less than one-quarter reporting that their husbands were the main decision-makers on any of these issues.
A 2008 Legal Assistance Centre study of widows and communal land allocation found that some married couples view their fields and land as joint assets and share decision-making about land and livestock.
Yet the prevailing academic assumption seems to be that where there is a married couple, the man will normally be the head of household if he is present. We usually speak of “female-headed households” to denote households where there is no adult male, or at least no male who is economically active. Such households are often identified as being particularly economically and socially vulnerable. But since a female-headed household usually means one without adult men whilst a male-headed household may contain adult women, the perceived disadvantage of female-headed households can stem from the total number of wage-earners rather than the sex of the perceived “head”.
What do other countries do in censuses? South Africa’s most recent census was centred around a head of household conceptualised as the “main decision-maker” – but allowed for the possibility of equal decision-makers, in which case the oldest was treated as the head.
Some countries (such as New Zealand and Australia) focus on a single “reference person” for each household to simplify questions about the relationships between the household members. The reference person is simply the person who answers the census questions and can be any individual in the household.
Other countries (such as the USA) use the concept of “householder”, which means the person who owns or rents the dwelling. Where no such person can be identified, any adult, or the eldest adult present, is used as the reference individual.
The purpose of research on families and households is to inform law, policy and planning. This purpose is not well-served where households are forced to identify a single “head” – which is not only discriminatory but so oversimplified that it constitutes a fiction.
A household can be defined in terms of the people who are physically present to sleep or eat there, or on the basis of the people who contribute to and utilise household resources (whether physically present or living elsewhere). The relationships of people within a single household can be evaluated in terms of family ties, economics, decision-making authority or some other dynamic.
Some researchers have proposed systems of classification which focus on “family type”, such as whether there are children in the household and if so, whether they are living with both parents, a single parent, grandparents or other adults.
Future censuses should be carefully constructed to avoid unhelpful assumptions. It may be necessary to use multiple questions to understand household decision-making practices in relation to the sex and family relationship of the various persons in a household, keeping in mind that Namibian living arrangements can be complex and fluid. But the more accurate information gained would be worth the effort.
By insisting that household members identify a single “head of household”, the census enumerators implicitly projected this outdated concept as an acceptable norm to every single family in the country. What a retrogressive idea to be propagating! Please, Namibia Statistics Agency, can’t you come up with a better approach next time around?
* Dianne Hubbard is the Coordinator of the Gender Research & Advocacy Project of the Legal Assistance Centre.