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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

Gendered Poverty and Social Change: An Issues Paper



This paper argues that the interlinkages between gender and poverty have, until recently, escaped careful analytical scrutiny. At one level, the relationship between gender disadvantage and poverty appears to be quite straightforward: women (or female-headed households), it is very often argued, suffer more from poverty than men (or male-headed households) in numbers and/or in intensity. This particular approach has been prominent in aid agency writings on “gender and poverty”, which have used social and/or economic indicators to capture poverty outcomes. An exclusive focus on poverty outcomes, however, very often means that the processes leading to poverty are either overlooked or otherwise analysed through regressions or correlations of a few variables abstracted from a far more complex scenario wherein a wide range of institutions interact. It also, inevitably, means that gender will be dealt with through a process of disaggregation either of households, using the gender of the “household head” as the stratifier, or of individuals, differentiating males and females which is analytically limited. Moreover, sweeping generalizations about female disadvantage (in mortality, nutrition, education) need to be revised in view of the contradictory findings of detailed studies of gender bias in well-being outcomes, which show incredible diversity not just across different regions, countries and localities, but also across social class, and over the life cycles of men and women.

A somewhat different understanding of the gender/poverty interface is therefore adopted and developed, drawing on some of the existing gender and development writings on the subject, as well as on a number of papers commissioned by UNRISD. This understanding begins from the position that the gender analysis of poverty is not so much about whether women suffer more from poverty than men, but rather about how gender differentiates the social processes leading to poverty, and the escape routes out of destitution. An understanding of the causal processes leading to poverty has important policy implications: it raises important questions about whether it can be assumed, as is often done, that the kinds of policies and asset interventions that can strengthen the position of poor men are going to have much the same impact on poor women.

Methodologically, the paper highlights some of the potential strengths of both (a) the “capability” framework, and (b) “participatory” approaches in capturing gender bias. But it also notes: (a) the intractable data problems in the area of social indicators (on which the capability framework relies), as well as the difficulties involved in making meaningful comparisons between male and female well-being when men’s and women’s bodies are so different in form and function; and (b) that while the potential is there for non-survey, participatory techniques to produce dynamic accounts of gendered poverty, whether this potential is realized in practice largely depends on how they are used. It also suggests that despite the serious data deficiencies and methodological difficulties involved in using household-based measures of income or consumption to arrive at individual levels of well-being, some understanding of household (and preferably individual) opulence may be useful. This is particularly the case when analysing the gender dimensions of poverty, given the complex (and contextually varied) ways in which opulence/poverty (along with many other factors) impact on women’s livelihood strategies and the degree of autonomy they enjoy within familial and conjugal spheres. It is also argued that the “entitlements” framework may prove useful in focusing poverty analyses on the social forces and institutions implicated in the creation and perpetuation of poverty after relaxing its excessively legalistic view of the rules of entitlement. This revision would provide some analytical space for considering individual and collective attempts to subvert, bypass or ignore the rules and norms that entitle people differently and unequally an actor orientation that is very often missing from structuralist accounts of poverty.

Two critical components of the current agendas for poverty alleviation land rights/tenure security and “labour-intensive growth” are explored from the point of view of gendered poverty trajectories. The issue of land rights for women has figured prominently on both donor and feminist agendas. But policies in this area need to be wary of a number of issues: (a) not only are there stark differences in how women in different regions relate to land, but there are also critical gender differences in how men and women in the same locality relate to land, with women’s ability to function as fully acting subjects in relation to property being less than that of men, and mediated through her relationships with men; (b) given local power structures, the pursuit of tenure security can in practice end up entrenching existing inequalities in access to land by formalizing informal rights and registering them in the names of household heads (and richer and well-connected ones at that), unless poorer women can be organized effectively to engage with and make use of the formal structures and legal opportunities that are put in place; (c) even where women’s provisioning roles, as well as their engagement in production for the market, are socially recognized, as in sub-Saharan Africa, land tends to be valued as a resource in gender-specific ways and farming does not always define women’s interest in land; and (d) while for some women in sub-Saharan Africa discriminatory inheritance laws and poor land access are significant constraints, only in a minority of cases is inadequate access to land because of an inability to secure usufruct rights by itself a cause of poverty.

The current policy consensus on poverty, which vehemently maintains that labour-intensive growth is pro-poor, presents a number of serious problems both from a poverty perspective and, particularly, from the point of view of poor women. First, labour-saving technologies that reduce drudgery can be valuable for both men and, especially, women in smallholder households, who strive to reduce the effort-intensity of their work, and also given the important interlinkages between the physical burden of work and well-being. The policy obsession with extracting work from the poor, which is being validated through the New Poverty Agenda, thus needs to be viewed with concern since it may not provide much of an escape from poverty. The emphasis on agriculture as the sector that can produce labour-intensive growth in sub-Saharan Africa is also open to question, given the increasing importance for the rural poor of “straddling” different economic options when the returns to farming are so pitiful. In fact, food security considerations very often push farmers into casual labouring on a daily basis, which effectively diverts their labour from their own production and becomes an important part of the dynamic of impoverishment. This is not meant to endorse the global policy prescriptions for the agricultural sector, which condemn in advance any attempt by the public sector to intervene in agricultural markets through protective tariffs, quotas and subsidies. Nor is it meant to suggest that the off-farm sector, or the urban labour market, can be a panacea for poor women. The social and poverty implications of women’s entry into the manufacturing labour force have been highly context-specific, opening up a Pandora’s box of diversity in modes of domination and resistance.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Sep 1998
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD