The development geographer Sylvia Chant, who has died aged 60 of pancreatic cancer, challenged the idea that households headed by women were automatically more likely to live in poverty than those headed by men.

When she began her research in the 1980s, much other research and policymaking portrayed households headed by women in the developing world as poverty-ridden. Sylvia argued that it was not necessarily poverty in itself that disadvantaged women in cities of the global south, but rather their multiple household responsibilities and obligations in relation to men.

Her fieldwork in Mexico, Costa Rica, the Philippines and the Gambia showed that measuring the incidence of poverty through measuring the number of households headed by women was inaccurate.

In her books Women-headed Households (1997) and Gender, Generation and Poverty (2007) she demonstrated that such households were more numerous than is usually assumed, but also could provide women with autonomy and freedom. She recounted numerous stories of how women who headed households and their daughters were much more likely to go out to work as they were free from the control of husbands and fathers who often forbade women from entering the labour market.

Even though these women were able to make their own decisions, she also highlighted the dangerous tendency for them to take on multiple responsibilities inside and outside the home, balancing domestic and paid work.

Sylvia really engaged with the women – and to a lesser extent, men – whom she interviewed and kept in touch with many of them years after her first encounters.

Sylvia Chant at the Dropping of the Knife campaign in Wassu, the Gambia, in 2013
Sylvia Chant at the Dropping of the Knife campaign in Wassu, the Gambia, in 2013 Photograph: none

Keen to work with other researchers, she co-authored and edited 11 of her 18 books, including four that we wrote together, of which the most recent was Cities, Slums and Gender in the Global South (2016). She edited the International Handbook of Gender and Poverty (2010), whose more than 100 chapters came from 125 established and early career authors.

At the London School of Economics, she was an inspiring and generous teacher, and her many PhD students, of whom I was the first, now work on gender and international development around the world.

Her ideas around women-headed households and wider gender inequalities helped shape the policy advice she gave international agencies including the Commonwealth Secretariat, UN-Habitat (the human settlement programme), the International Labour Organization, UN Women and the World Bank. For example, she co-authored the UN-Habitat report State of Women in Cities 2012-13, arguing for acknowledgment that cities everywhere had large numbers of female-headed households and that gender issues must be taken into account in urban planning if cities are to prosper in the future.

Her work with the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children contributed to the country’s final outlawing of female genital mutilation in 2015.

Born in Dundee, Sylvia was the daughter of Stuart Chant, a microbiologist, and his wife, June (nee McCartney), a legal secretary. She grew up in London and attended Lady Margaret school in Parsons Green and, for the sixth form, Kingston College. She gained a geography degree (1981) at King’s College, Cambridge, where she developed her feminist approach to her life and work.

This led to her PhD at University College London in 1984, supervised by Peter Ward and Alan Gilbert, studying the role of women in the construction of housing in Querétaro, Mexico. This was among the first studies that recognised women as key actors in self-build housing in poor urban communities in countries of the global south.

Following a postdoctoral position at UCL, and a year at the University of Liverpool, in 1988 Sylvia moved to the LSE. She worked in its department of geography and the environment and in conjunction with its gender institute (now department) for the rest of her career.

Her first book, Women in the Third World (1989, with Lynne Brydon), argued for the importance of analysing women’s roles in rural and urban areas of the global south, drawing on voices and interpretations from the grassroots rather than crude statistical analyses. Mainstreaming Men into Gender and Development (2000, with Matthew Gutmann) argued for the importance of including men in gender and development debates and projects, suggesting that genuine feminist transformation would not be possible without such engagements, while ensuring that women were not re-excluded.

Sylvia’s research also shed light on countries such as Costa Rica and the Gambia, where limited research on gender issues had previously been undertaken. In Costa Rica, she worked in the province of Guanacaste, traditionally associated with cattle ranching and tourism, to show that women’s lives in small towns were dominated by short-term out-migration of men to work in seasonal agriculture and that it was women who were the bastions of households and communities.

In the Gambia, in contrast to much research that focuses on sex tourism, she worked not only on FGM but also on gender and youth and how school enrolments alone did little to ensure that young women were able to develop personal freedom and decent employment in later life; this would only be possible with educational policies that integrated gender equity into curriculum development.

After a first marriage that ended in divorce, in 2002 Sylvia married Chris Mogridge; he survives her, along with her mother, June, and two sisters, Adrienne and Yvonne.

• Sylvia Hamilton Chant, development geographer, born 24 December 1958; died 18 December 2019


Cathy McIlwaine

The GuardianTramp

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