Women and Poverty
Women make up half of the world's population and yet represent a staggering 70% of the world's poor. For the millions of women living in poverty, their lives are a litany of injustice, discrimination and obstacles that get in the way of achieving their basic needs of good health, safe childbirth, education and employment. Overcoming these inequalities and ensuring that women benefit from development requires that the needs and desires of women are not only taken into account, but be put front and centre.
We live in a world in which women living in poverty face gross inequalities and injustice from birth to death. From poor education to poor nutrition to vulnerable and low pay employment, the sequence of discrimination that a woman may suffer during her entire life is unacceptable but all too common. What does this look like throughout a woman's life?
"a mother dies every minute"
At child-bearing age, she could die from haemorrhaging during childbirth, one of the most common causes of maternal mortality for anaemic or undernourished pregnant women. Of the 500,000 women who die in childbirth every year, 99% live in developing countries. In other words, in developing countries, a girl or a woman dies every minute in giving birth.
Women work two-thirds of the world's working hours, produce half of the world's food, but earn only 10% of the world's income and own less than one percent of the world's property. On average, women earn half of what men earn.
"The atmosphere of benign neglect, compounded by the rooted gender inequality, all adds up to a death sentence for countless millions of women in the developing world. For whatever reason, we can't break the monolith of indifference and paralysis."
In many societies, women struggle with exercising their human rights, fulfilling their basic needs and participating in decision-making. Such disadvantage is both ubiquitous and historical amongst the world's poor. Modern societies have developed on unequal foundations of legal frameworks and economic structures that undervalue women, label them as 'caregivers' and fail to recognize them as fundamental participants of a healthy society. The efforts in recent decades to address these inequities have been met by astonishing lack of support, to the point at which Lewis has also argued that,
"There is no greater emblem of international hypocrisy than the promise of women's rights."
The education of girls has been shown enhance maternal and child nutrition and lower mortality rates, inhibit the spread of fatal diseases like HIV/AIDS, and reduce birth rates. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, girls do not attend school because of reasons as simple as lack of decent sanitation facilities or the need to spend hours each day collecting water.
Women and the MDGs
Gender issues are addressed specifically in three MDGs, designed and adhered to by the United Nations and UNIFEM:
MDG 1: Eradicate extreme poverty & hunger.
Target: Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women.
MDG 3: Promote gender equality + empower women
Target: Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, by 2015.
MDG 5: Improve maternal health.
Target: Reduce by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio.
Target: Achieve, by 2015, universal access to reproductive health."
Gender inequality has a much greater impact than these explicit MDGs. Gender dynamics underpin all of the MDGs, and to make progress, we need specific gender-sensitive policies and action across the entire project.
Yet not only is this a human rights issue. Societies that discriminate on the basis of gender pay the cost of greater poverty, slower economic growth, weaker governance, and a lower living standard of their people. It is crucial to address women's poverty and inequality because of the potential role women can play in turning poverty on its head.
Girls can change the world
The video looks at the social and economic change brought about when girls have the opportunity to participate in their society. They argue that adolescent girls are uniquely capable of raising the standard of living in the developing world, but are often invisible to their societies and to our media. Check it out.
What can we do?
Currently, 50 million of the 72 million children currently not enrolled in primary school are girls, and two thirds of the nearly 800 million adults who lack basic literacy skills are women. The impact of educating girls is much greater than the individual. It enables women to have a greater impact on reducing poverty in their communities, as within most communities, women are responsible for providing food, health care and education of their families.
Educating girls creates a mutually reinforcing effect of multiple benefits, such as:
Micro-credit and income generation
For many women, micro credit loans represent their first opportunity to handle money. In Bangladesh, researchers have found that having access to small loans has increased women's mobility, ability to make financial decision and political and legal awareness. Of the 100 million poorest clients of microfinance programs, over 80% are women.
This is about thinking about women (as well as men) at every step. If you build a community centre, are there suitable toilets for women? If you hold a meeting, is it at a time women can attend? If you invest in infrastructure, does it address the specific needs of women? For every dollar that is spent, how much of it benefits women? Due to the bias towards men in development programming, if gender issues are not addressed specifically, they tend to be left by the wayside by default.