Women and the cost of poverty

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In a United Nations report, Transforming economies, realising rights, survey results showed that women aged 20 – 59 were more likely than men to live in a poor household, in 6 out of 8 Middle East and North Africa countries. The majority of the world’s absolute poor are females.

Too often women bear the burden of poverty. This has impact on a range of areas of their lives. Poverty is particularly destructive to women’s health, especially their reproductive and sexual health. Women and girls are often the last to eat and their health problems are considered secondary to other family priorities.

Maternal mortality rates soar where poverty is rampant. In part, this is because of the link between poverty and early marriage. More than half of Yemeni women are married before they are 18. The average age of marriage for a girl in Yemen is just 14 years. Early marriage is one of the main causes of high maternal mortality. A United Nations Development Programme report on Yemen suggested that every day 8 women die during childbirth and for every 100,000 live births, 366 women die. It said that approximately 19% of maternal deaths occur in women aged 15 – 19.

Early marriage feminizes poverty. Girls do not complete education, trapping them in cumulative cycles of deprivation, powerlessness, insecurity and poverty. The gender values that permeate all aspects of life and affect all social groups are intrinsic to a woman’s access to life and services.

The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) identified 4 key indicators of the feminization of poverty.

  1. The temporal dimension. Women are often primarily responsible for childcare and household duties—tasks for which they receive no pay. Women living in developing nations may also be relied upon to participate in exhausting physical and/or agricultural labor to help support the livelihoods of their families and villages. Having so many other responsibilities, these women have less time to devote to paid employment, and consequently earn a smaller income, even though they are effectively doing more work than their male counterparts.
  2. The spatial dimension. When employment is sare, women may have to migrate to other areas to find work temporarily. If a woman has children, however, she may be unable to pursue a job that takes her far from her family.
  3. The employment segmentation dimension.Being naturally classified as caretakers, women have often been corralled into specific lines of work, such as teaching, caring for children and the elderly, domestic servitude, and factory work such as textile production. These kinds of jobs lack stability, security and a higher income.
  4. The valuation dimension.In the same vein, the unpaid labor that women perform in taking care of family members and other household chores is considered of far less worth (at least economically) than positions that require formal education or training.

https://www.mtholyoke.edu/~abbat22l/classweb/feminizationofpoverty/causes.html

There is a negatively-geared symbiotic relationship between poverty, which most affects women, and the gender disparities that marginalise women. The rigidity of socially prescribed gender roles in communities exacerbates the burden of poverty that women bear.

This burden is part of the daily cycle of life that many women must negotiate for their own survival, as one Egyptian woman described: “When our father died we suddenly found ourselves cast upon the waters like a ‘band of cripples’ … We would have to struggle from this time forward to keep ourselves alive … I recall my mother crying and saying, ‘O poor one, are you not like a creature drowning now. Where do I go now? To whom have you left me? I have neither brother or sister to lean on and no shore on which to rest. In whose hands have you commended my fate, O lost one? … early we learned to work not only in our own fields but as field hands picking sweet potatoes for others at seven or eight paisters a day” (Om Naeema in Khul Khall).

Untying the hard knots of women’s subjugation is essential to tackle other social issues that burden our world, one of which is poverty.

Child Marriage

A prized rite that every girl must undergo at a young age, the result of poverty, destiny, life’s role … too many young girls are forced to marry too young.

The International Centre for Research on Women gives the following statistics:

  • One third of girls in the developing world are married before the age of 18 and 1 in 9 are married before the age of 15.
  • In 2010, 67 million women 20-24 around the world had been married before the age of 18.
  • If present trends continue, 142 million girls will be married before their 18th birthday over the next decade. That’s an average of 14.2 million girls each year.
  • While countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage are concentrated in Western and Sub-Saharan Africa, due to population size, the largest number of child brides reside in South Asia.[1]

Research indicates that economics plays a significant role in the early marriage with girls from poorer households more than twice as likely to marry young than girls from higher income families. Girls with higher education are also less likely to marry at a younger age. The impact of women’s marginalisation economically and in education has consequences for generations.

For girls who are married young the consequences can be devastating. Girls younger than fifteen are five times more likely to die in childbirth, with pregnancy being the leading cause of their early death. Violence seems to stalk girls who are married young, with those who marry before eighteen more likely to experience domestic violence than their peers who marry later. Girls who have been married young show symptoms of sexual abuse and stress that is associated with marital life.

It is not just a question of alleviating poverty, though that is an essential step, nor of increasing educational opportunities for girls, though girls should be given access to education; underlying these issues are questions about attitudes to women. Whereas Ban Ki Moon has urged recognition of child marriages as a key indicator in female empowerment, tackling the roots of female marginalisation is necessary alongside measures to protect young girls who are most vulnerable.

[1] http://www.icrw.org/child-marriage-facts-and-figures

Watch this Video on Child Marriage