Intra-household inequalities in child rights and wellbeing: a barrier to progress?

Research reports and studies
March 2015
Laura Rodriguez Takeuchi
This paper attempts to measure the extent of inequality between boys and girls within households and its contribution to overall levels of inequality in child wellbeing. This fills an important gap. We now have much better data to assess progress towards achieving child rights and improving children’s wellbeing, but little is yet known about the distribution of this progress. The neglect of intra-household inequalities affects the assessment of levels of poverty and inequality because it assumes an equal distribution of resources among household members. This could lead to a skewed view of progress towards eliminating child poverty and the effective realisation of children’s rights by making invisible those children whose outcomes are below their household average.

The paper proposes a new methodology to measure inequality among boys and girls within households. It analyses the distribution of outcomes between girls and boys for four indicators: nutrition, birth registration, school attendance and time spent doing work and chores, with data obtained from UNICEF’s Multiple Indicators Cluster Surveys. It assesses total inequality and its within-household component for two periods for up to 20 developing countries, depending on data availability.

An L-Theil index is used to measure the extent of inequality and decompose it into the between-household and within-household components. Overall inequality is sizeable. It tends to be higher in nutrition (stunting) and work hours, and relatively lower in school attendance and birth registration, where average outcomes tend to be higher. Nevertheless, the share of gender inequality that occurs within households is largest for school attendance, accounting for nearly half of the total inequality.

Intra-household inequality is an issue in countries even when there is, on average, progress towards increased child wellbeing. Across the four indicators of child wellbeing, intra-household inequalities can represent a significant proportion of total inequality. They range from a minimum of 6% in working hours, and can go up to 48% in school attendance, on average, but with great variability across countries. When looking at individual countries and years, the contribution of intra-household inequality is lowest in Gambia, Swaziland and Mongolia (1% of inequality in school attendance in Gambia and in work time in Swaziland and Mongolia), and highest in Albania (79% of inequality in birth registration).

At the country level, disparities inside households do not show a consistent bias towards either boys or girls. In school attendance and birth registration more households tend to favour girls, while in work time and stunting, they tend to disadvantage them. This pattern is reinforced when looking at biases across pairs of indicators, albeit with a weak favouring of boys.