Poverty & Gender
It has been widely observed that women are more likely to be affected by poverty than are men. This observation is due in part because of the greater numbers of women living below the poverty line as well as due to poverty's effect on the ability of women to care for their children. Women in poverty are also at a greater risk of exploitation compared to men in poverty. In an attempt to reduce the global impact of poverty in general and on women in particular, the United Nations developed the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 that include two goals specifically targeted towards women: to promote gender equality and empower women and to improve maternal health. Although some progress is being made toward meeting these goals in some areas around the globe, progress tends to be slow. More work is still needed around the globe to reduce or eliminate poverty in general and poverty for women in particular.
Keywords Economic Development; Gender; Globalization; Human Rights Movement; Poverty Line; Social Justice; Socioeconomic Status (SES); Trafficking
In the United States, sociologists talk about the feminization of poverty, or the phenomenon in which an increasing proportion of those living at or below the poverty line are women and their children. Far from being a problem only in the United States or other developed countries, however, factors converge across the globe making it more likely that women will live in poverty and more difficult for them to get out of poverty. It is widely held that women—particularly those living in developing countries—bear more of the burden of poverty than do men. Estimates range between 60 and 70 percent of those living below the poverty threshold around the world are female. In 2009, American Community Survey data indicates that 55.2 percent of the 42.9 million people living in poverty in the United States were women and girls. Contributing factors to such imbalance between the sexes living in poverty could be attributed to the longer life span of women, male abandonment of their families, and discrimination against women. However, Marcoux (1998) points out that these statistics are merely estimates and have not been backed by empirical research. The data upon which these conclusions tend to be drawn are typically not gathered from household surveys but rely on limited data and case studies. This is not to say that women are not more affected by poverty than men or that they do not represent a larger proportion of the world's poor than do men. However, the degree to which an imbalance between the sexes living in poverty exists is currently not known to a statistical certainty.
United Nations Millennium Declaration
The fact remains, however, that women in many ways are more disadvantaged than men when it comes to living in poverty, at least in part because of historical gender discrimination. The United Nations Millennium Declaration (2000) takes such factors into account in their discussion of ways to reduce poverty across the globe. The declaration states that
"men and women have the right to live their lives and raise their children in dignity, free from hunger and from the fear of violence, oppression or injustice," and that "the equal rights and opportunities of women and men must be assured."
Further, the declaration states that the participants resolve
"to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women as effective ways to combat poverty, hunger and disease and to stimulate development that is truly sustainable" and "to combat all forms of violence against women and to implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women."
As a result of this declaration, the United Nations also created the Millennium Development Goals in an effort to articulate objectives for the reduction of poverty and the factors that contribute to it by the year 2015 around the world. Of these goals, Goal 1 (to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger) and Goal 6 (to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases) speak to the reduction of poverty and improving the standard of living of all people. In addition, two goals speak specifically to the situation of women living below the poverty line. Goal 3 is to promote gender equality and empower women and Goal 5 is to improve maternal health.
Education, Employment, and Political Participation
Gender inequality is a situation experienced not only in countries that are still undergoing economic development, but in developed countries as well. To some extent, the inequality of women has to do with the gender roles dictated to them by their cultures. Women are more likely to perform tasks within the home than are men in many cultures and are also less likely to receive the level of education necessary to allow them to acquire paid employment that will help them to improve their socioeconomic status. In fact, Goal 2 of the Millennium Development Goals is to ensure that by the year 2015 all children—girls as well as boys—will be able to complete a full course of primary education. Globally, women are slowly becoming more able to participate in paid, nonagricultural employment, particularly in areas such as southern and western Asia and Oceania where historically women have had the lowest levels of participation in the labor market. Even today, however, women tend to be more likely to be unpaid for their labors than men not only within the home but also as unpaid agricultural workers on family-owned farms. As a result, women have less access to social protection or job security. Another aspect of helping women gain equality is to support them in political participation. This situation is gradually improving.
However, Schild (2000) rightly points out that even when government institutions take steps to reduce discrimination and to open opportunities for women, official strategies — necessary as they are — do not necessarily translate into true social justice for women on a grassroots level. She observes that the political goal of achieving gender equity often becomes a technical task (e.g., creation of laws that prohibit discrimination) rather than one of true social justice for women.
Goal 5 of the Millennium Development Goals is to improve maternal health. This goal affects not only the women who are mothers but their children and husbands as well. This goal has been operationally defined as reducing the maternal mortality ratio (of the year 1990) by 75 percent by 2015. Although progress is being made toward this goal, it is far from being reached. More than 287,000 women still die each year as a result of treatable or preventable complications of pregnancy or childbirth; an additional ten million women each year suffer injury, infection, or disease due to pregnancy or childbirth complications. Middle-income countries are making more rapid progress in reversing this trend. However, in low-income countries the progress is slower. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, women face a one in sixteen risk of dying of such causes over the course of their lifetimes (as opposed to 1 in 3,800 in developed countries). Nearly all maternal deaths (99 percent) occur in low-income countries and nearly all could have been prevented with the appropriate medical treatment and care; more than half of maternal deaths occur in sub-Saharan African and nearly one-third occur in South Asia. Many of these deaths are preventable with medical interventions such as contraception,...
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