Contesting development : the experience of female-headed households in Samoa : a dissertation presented in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Development Studies, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
There is a plethora of development literature, both academic and policy oriented, that problematises female-headed households in normative ways, positioning them as socially isolated, stigmatised, lacking in agency and poor, equated with the ‘feminisation of poverty’. Through positioning female-headed households as ‘other’ there is also a notable lack of regard for the diverse socio-political and cultural context which within female-headed households reside. By situating this research within a feminist postdevelopment framework, and through the use of participatory methodologies and the articulation of individual biographies of the development experience, this dissertation seeks to re-position our understanding of the development experience of female-headed households.
Drawing on the case of Samoa, this study demonstrates how fa’asamoa (the Samoan way), inclusive of fa’amatai (customary system of governance), the feagaiga (brother/sister relationship) and the practice of fa’alavelave (demonstrating love and concern), all support the welfare and wellbeing of female-headed households, including any children born of these households. They also afford women in female-headed households a certain level of voice and agency. The thesis further highlights that the category of female-headed households was not well understood within Samoa because neither villagers nor policy makers labelled women in this way. Rather, women were recognised in relation to the cultural framework of fa’asamoa which situates them in terms of their position within their family, their natal village and the wider community. This illustrates the importance of culture when attempting to frame the development experiences of female-headed households in any part of the world.
Development researchers and practitioners need to seriously question just how useful the practice of categorising and labelling is to Development Studies. In highlighting the problematic nature of universal labels and categories, this thesis concludes that the starting point of analysis for female-headed households needs to begin with the sociopolitical-cultural context, as opposed to the category of female-headed households. Shifting beyond a desire to uncritically categorise and label will provide a space for envisioning new approaches to development thinking and practice, and for truly seeing the ways that people struggle, often successfully, to create and pursue opportunities.