Women's Informal Support Networks

In any society, individuals have networks of friends, colleagues and relatives who they can rely upon for various types of support: monetary, emotional, physical. These support networks, an important dimension of human existence, take on added importance in contexts where institutions of civil society are underdeveloped. Whereas the state usually takes over the provision of many of these services (daycare, welfare payments, social security, etc...) in welfare states, in many third world contexts, the family or larger kinship networks continue to provide these numerous forms of support. The West Bank, Gaza and, to a lesser degree, Arab Jerusalem, seem to represent some transitional form between these two extremes.

The FAFO questionnaire only dealt with monetary support networks, since other forms of support are more difficult to quantify. Sources of monetary support for men were treated in the debt and loans section; for women, the issue was treated separately in a series of questions that tried to get women to conceive of themselves as needing money on an individual basis rather than as part of the family. The questionnaire posed various sources of support grouped conceptually in growing concentric circles - beginning with husbands, then in-house relatives, followed by relatives living outside of the house, and finally, non-relatives. The resultant data suggests that this conceptual organization fits a real pattern that exists in the society; women's ability to get monetary support increasingly diminishes the further they get away from the household. While this might seem to suggest the persistence of kinship ties as economically significant, the data also shows that it is the degree of relatedness which is most important; for instance, women can depend much more on husbands than on other kin.

The ultimate importance of these questions lies in their ability to show the degree to which women are reliant on the family for economic support rather than on their own income or networks of colleagues, friends or institutions.

A full 85% of married women claim they can get money from their husbands if they are in need of money as individuals. The degree to which women cite husbands as the prime source of economic support may suggest that not only does the nuclear family have much greater economic significance than the extended family, but that, perhaps more negatively, women see themselves as extremely dependent on the spouse for economic support. This is a relationship that cuts across socio-economic, age and educational levels, and does not vary significantly between the various urban and rural categories. For age, a slight decrease in the ability of wives to get financial help from their husbands can be seen as women get older; the range being 90% of 30 to 39 year old, compared to 76% of 50 to 59 year old, and only 57% of married women over 60. Because of age differentials between women and their spouses, older women are perhaps either taking a more active role in the family's finances; or their economic dependence becomes transferred onto their sons who often replace the former role of their father as head of household.

Little variation exists among women in the different wealth categories, although only 80% of women in the poorest economic category claim they can get economic help from their husbands, compared to 85% and 90% of mid-range and high range respectively.

The issue of married women depending almost solely on their spouse is strengthened when asked about their ability to get financial support from in-house relatives (table 10.13); only 36% of married women claim they can get economic support from relatives within the household. Alternately, since most married women are able to get economic help from their husbands, the ability to get money from the father and other in-house relatives becomes more important for unmarried women; 85% of whom claim to be able to acquire financial support within the household. This difference between unmarried and married women's ability to get in-house support is logically due to the high numbers of young married women, living alone with husbands, who do not have children old enough to constitute a source of financial support. Wealth status differences seem to have little influence on women's ability to get support from in-house relatives.

Table 10.13 Can you get economic help from in-house relatives? By marital status. Percentage

Irrespective of marital status, women have much less ability to get financial support from relatives outside of the household (table 10.14). A mere 20% of all women claim to be able to get economic assistance from relatives outside of the household. This perhaps expresses the breakdown of wider extended family structures. Married women's ability to get help appears to be slightly higher (22%) than for unmarried women's (15%), since the former potentially have either parents, brothers or sons living outside the household, while the latter would only have brothers living outside the household who could be depended upon financially. This ability seems to have no relationship to wealth. The low numbers of women able to count on support from relatives outside the immediate household may also be due to women's lack of mobility.

Table 10.14 Can you get economic help from relatives outside house? By marital status. Percentage

While the wider extended family support networks seem to have weakened, non-kin relationships do not seem to have replaced them (table 10.15). Only 18% of women claim to be able to get support from friends.

Table 10.15 Can you get economic help from a friend? By marital status. Percentage

In conclusion, it seems that married women have a relatively higher ability to get economic support than unmarried women do; and they also have a wider variety of sources of support than unmarried women. More important perhaps, is the nature of the support networks themselves: women regardless of age, wealth and status differences almost consistently cite family members living in the household as not only the most important sources of support, but as almost their only sources of support.


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