Feminization of poverty

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Feminization of poverty is the concept that describes the idea that women represent disproportionate percentages of the world's poor.[1] UNIFEM describes it as "the burden of poverty borne by women, especially in developing countries".[2] This concept is not only a consequence of lack of income, but is also the result of the deprivation of capabilities and gender biases present in both societies and governments.[1] This includes the poverty of choices and opportunities, such as the ability to lead a long, healthy, and creative life, and enjoy basic rights like freedom, respect, and dignity.[3] Women's increasing share of poverty is related to the rising incidence of lone mother households.[1] The term feminization of poverty itself is controversial and has been defined in many different ways. In 1978, Diana Pearce coined the term, "the feminization of poverty" after doing much research and seeing how many women struggled with poverty within the United States, as well as globally. According to Pearce's research, two-thirds of the poor who were over age 16 were women.[4]


Several factors affect the feminization of poverty, and these factors place women at high risk of poverty. Though low income is the major cause, there are many interrelated facets of this problem. Lone mothers are usually at the highest risk for extreme poverty because their income is insufficient to rear children. It then lowers their children's possibilities for good education and nourishment. Low income is a consequence of the social bias women face in trying to obtain formal employment, which in turn deepens the cycle of poverty. As the number of women in poverty increases, the diverse causes affecting their poverty must be examined.[5] Poverty is multidimensional, and therefore economic, demographic, and socio-cultural factors all overlap and contribute to the establishment of poverty.[6] It is a phenomenon with multiple root causes and manifestations.[6]

Disparate income[edit]

Further information: Gender pay gap

Lack of income is a principal reason for women's risk of poverty as it deprives women of their basic needs and capabilities. Income deprivation prevents women from attaining resources and converting their monetary resources into socioeconomic status. Not only does higher income allow greater access to job skills; obtaining more job skills raises income as well. As women disproportionately earn less income than men, they are deprived of basic education and health care, which eventually becomes a cycle to debilitate women's ability to earn higher income.[7]

Deprivation passes down from one generation of women to the next, leading to a perpetual feminization of poverty. The main reason behind this cycle of poverty is the lower earnings of women, due to having to care for their offspring. In many places, persistent gender discrimination in the labor force does not allow the majority of women quality work.[8]

Single mother households[edit]

Single mother households are critical in addressing feminization of poverty and can be broadly defined as households in which there are female headships and no male headships. Single mother households are at the highest risk of poverty for women due to lack of Income and resources.[9] There is a continuing increase of single mother households in the world, which results in higher percentages of women in poverty.[1] Single mothers are the poorest women in society, and their children tend to be disadvantaged in comparison to their peers.[10] Different factors can be taken into account for the rise in the number of female headship in households. When men become migrant workers, women are left to be the main caretaker of their homes. Other factors such as illnesses and deaths of husbands lead to an increase in single mother households in developing countries.[11]

Female headed households are most susceptible to poverty because they have fewer income earners to provide financial support within the household.[11] According to a case study in Zimbabwe, households headed by widows have an income of approximately half that of male-headed households, and de facto female headed households have about three quarters of the income of male headed households.[11] Additionally, single mother households lack critical resources in life, which worsens their state of poverty.[3] They do not have access to the opportunities to attain a decent standard of living along with basic needs such as health and education.[12] Single mother households relate to gender inequality issues as women are more susceptible to poverty and lack essential life needs in comparison to men.[citation needed]

Social and cultural exclusions[edit]

Poverty cannot be defined only by statistics and reports, such as the poverty line, to see whether or not people are impoverished in their respective countries.[6] The concept of social and cultural exclusion helps to better convey poverty as a process that involves multiple agents.[6] Many developing countries have social and cultural norms that prevent women from having access to formal employment.[13] Especially in parts of Asia, North Africa, and Latin America, the cultural and social norms do not allow women to have much labor productivity outside the home as well as an economic bargaining position within the household.[13] This social inequality deprives women of capabilities, particularly employment, which leads to women having a higher risk of poverty.[14] This increase in occupational gender segregation and widening of the gender wage gap increases women's susceptibility to poverty.[5]

Measures of poverty[edit]

An important aspect of analyzing the feminization of poverty is understanding how it is measured. It is inaccurate to assume that income is the only deprivation that affects women's poverty, and to examine this issue from a multidimensional perspective there must first be accurate research and indices available for policy makers interested in gender empowerment.[3] Often aggregate indices are criticized for their concentration on monetary issues, especially when data on women's income is sparse, and grouping women into one large, undifferentiated mass.[1] Three indexes often examined are Gender-related Development Index, Gender Empowerment Measure, and Human Poverty Index. The first two are gendered- indices, in that they specifically gather data on women to evaluate gender inequalities,[3] and are useful in understanding disparities in gender opportunities and choices.[3] HPI, however, focuses on deprivation measures rather than income measures.[3] GDI adjusts the Human Development Index in three ways:

  • Shows longevity, or life-expectancy of females and males
  • Education or knowledge
  • Decent standard of living[1]

The aim of this index is to rank countries according to both their absolute level of human development and relative scores on gender equality. Although this index has increased government attention to gender inequality and development, its three measures have often been criticized as neglecting important aspects. Its relevance, however, continues to be integral to the understanding of the feminization of poverty, as countries with lower scores may then be then stimulated to focus on policies to assess and reduce gender disparities.[15] GEM measures female political and income opportunities through:

  • Analyzing how many seats of government are occupied by women
  • Proportion of management positions occupied by women
  • Female share of jobs
  • Estimated female to male income ratio[1]

HPI is a multidimensional, non-income based approach. It takes into consideration four dimensions:

  • Survival
  • Knowledge
  • Decent standard of living
  • Social participation

This index is useful in understanding and illuminating the differences between human poverty (which focuses on the denial of basic rights, such as dignity and freedom) and income poverty. For example, despite the U.S.'s high income stability, it is also ranked among the highest developed nations in human poverty.[3] In her article, "Towards a Gendered Human Poverty Measure", Elizabeth Durbin critiques HPI and expands on the possibility of a gender-sensitive index. She argues that HPI incorporates three dimensions of poverty: life span measured by the proportion of the population expected to die before age 40, lack of knowledge measured by the proportion who are illiterate, and a decent standard of living measured by a composite index of access to health services, access to safe water, and malnutrition among children less than 5, that could specifically account for gender disparities. Despite its uses, however, it is important to note that HPI cannot be a true measure of poverty because it fails to examine certain deprivations, such as lack of property ownership and credit, that are essential to a stronger bargaining position in the household for women.[16]

Multidimensional approach[edit]

It is critical to analyze the feminization of poverty from a multidimensional perspective, and to understand that there are many facets of gender inequality that cannot be solved by any one solution.[17] Rather than focusing solely on lack of income and assets, it is essential to analyze human poverty and the deprivation of capabilities as a way to focus on deep-seated structural causes of poverty that policy makers may then use to empower women.[3] The capability approach studies different aspects of poverty that can enable people, especially women, to become agents in their own lives.[17] In order to address the feminization of poverty, it is necessary to focus on the opportunities and personal choices available to women.[3]


Women in poverty have reduced access to health care services and resources.[18] Gender inequality in society prevents women from utilizing care services and therefore puts women at risk of poor health. Women in poverty are specifically more vulnerable to sexual violence and risk of HIV/AIDS, because they are most often, not able to defend themselves from influential people who might sexually abuse them.[19] Disproportionate numbers of women are affected by poorer health outcomes and the issue of poverty worsens women's health conditions. As poor health is a key factor in household poverty, increase in health services continues to be implemented in order to mitigate feminization of poverty.[20]


The education of women and children, especially girls, can create greater opportunities for women to lift themselves out of poverty and increase their social position.[17] Countries with strong gender discrimination and social hierarchies limit women's access to basic education. Even within the household, girls' education is often sacrificed to allow male siblings to attend school.[21] An important aspect of capabilities is the freedom to make informed choices and have opportunities to achieve goals, and a basic requirement to actively use resources and information is basic education.[21] This enables not only women to reduce household poverty,[21] but as well increases children's chances of education,[22] and enhances maternal health and freedom of movement.[22] Individuals with no prior education have low incomes which stay that way throughout the rest of their lives, provided by bridge.ids.ac.uk/ Since women are not given the education they deserve their salary possibilities are restricted, keeping them from progressing; provided by boundless.com

Decision-making power[edit]

Decision-making power is central to the bargaining position of women within the household. It is how women and men make decisions that affect the entire household unit. However, women and men often have very different priorities when it comes to determining what is most important for the family. Factors that determine which member of the household has the most power in decision-making vary across cultures, but in most countries there is extreme gender inequality. Men of the household usually have the power to determine what choices are made towards women's health, their ability to go visit friends and family, and household expenditures. The ability to make choices for their own health affects both women and children's health. How household expenditures are decided affects women and children's education, health, and well-being. Women's freedom of mobility affects their ability to provide for their own needs as well as for the needs of their children.

In order to understand how these decisions are made in households, it is important to understand household dynamics and the factors that determine its structure. Gender discrimination within households is often rooted in patriarchal biases against the social status of women. Major determinants of the household bargaining power include control of income and assets, age, and access to and level of education. As women's decision-making power increases, the welfare of their children and the family in general benefits. Women who achieve greater education are also more likely to worry about their children's survival, nutrition, and school attendance.[23] This is not limited to third world countries. Studies of dual-income couples in Spain have found that many decisions are contingent on social norms, and not all decisions are negotiated or decided by consensus.[24]


"Unemployable uterus", a graffito in Ljubljana, Slovenia

Employment opportunities are limited for women worldwide.[25] The ability to materially control one's environment by gaining equal access to work that is humanizing and allows for meaningful relationships with other workers is an essential capability.[26] Employment is not only about financial independence, but about higher security through an established legal position, real world experience, deeply important for sheltered or shy women, and higher regard within the family, which gives women a better bargaining position. Though there has been major growth in women's employment, the quality of the jobs still remains deeply unequal.[23]

There are two kinds of employment: Formal and Informal. Formal employment is government regulated and workers are insured a wage and certain rights. Informal employment takes place in small, unregistered enterprises. It is generally a large source of employment for women.[23] The burden of informal care work falls predominantly on women, who work longer and harder in this role than men. This affects their ability to hold other jobs and change positions, the hours they can work, and their decision to give up work. However, women who have University degrees or other forms of higher learning tend to stay in their jobs even with caring responsibilities, which suggests that the human capital from this experience causes women to feel opportunity costs when they lose their employment.[27] Having children has also historically affected women's choice to stay employed. While this "child-effect" has significantly decreased since the 1970s, women's employment is currently decreasing. This has less to do with child-rearing and more with a poor job market for all women, mothers and non-mothers alike.[28]


Minority women in the United States, specifically Black and Latina women are twice as likely as white women to be living in poverty.[29]

Family structure[edit]

More women are living in poverty due to changes in the traditional family structure. The increase in divorce rates and single parenthood are two major contributing factors to change in the family structure. Female-headed families have the poorest economic outcomes, with economic well-being dependent on the mother’s marital status and race/ethnicity.[30] White women generally have access to other income, through marriage or relationships with the highest income earners: white men.[29] Whereas black women, in comparison to white women, are less likely to have white men as partners, and tend to have partners who earn less than white males and are less regularly employed.[29] The absence of second income-earning adults is what impedes the well-being of minority women and children.[31]


Education is considered a contributing factor to why women are more likely than men to live in poverty. 63% of female households who have children under the age of 18 do not complete high school.[32] However, for minority women, socioeconomic factors contribute to them receiving less of an education than whites. There is a high concentration of minorities in poverty living in urban areas; this contributes to poor quality of education as there is a lack of funding in inner-city schools.[31]

Access to higher paying jobs[edit]

Residential segregation by race and economic class prevent low-skilled workers, especially minorities, from moving closer to suburban jobs.[33] Female minority householders are twice as likely as their white counterparts to live in central cities.[31] As more businesses have retreated to suburban areas, the inner-city, where most low-income minorities reside, often face a decline in employment opportunities.[33]

Case studies[edit]

Many developing countries in the world are exemplars of the feminization of poverty. Many countries in Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe deprive women of access to higher income and important capabilities. Women in these countries are disproportionately put at the highest risk of poverty and continue to face social and cultural barriers that prevent them from escaping poverty.

East Asia[edit]

Although China has grown tremendously in its economy over the past years, its economic growth has had minimal effect in mitigating the feminization of poverty. Economic growth did not reduce gender gaps in income or provide more formal employment opportunities for women. Instead, China's economic growth increased its use of informal employment, which has affected women disproportionately. In the Republic of Korea, low wages for women helped instigate an economic growth in Korea since low-cost exports were mostly produced by women. Similar to China, Korean women mostly had the opportunity for informal employment, which deprives women of financial stability and safe working environments. Although women in East Asia had greater access to employment, they faced job segregation in export industries, which placed them at a high risk of poverty.[34]

China is a country with a long history of gender discrimination. In order to address gender inequality issues, Chinese leaders have created more access for women to obtain capabilities. As a result, Chinese women are granted greater access to health services, employment opportunities, and general recognition for their important contributions to the economy and society.[13]


The female population, especially in rural areas, dominantly represents the face of poverty in Morocco. There have been two major methods to measure poverty in Morocco, which include the 'classic approach' and a second approach that pertains more towards the capabilities approach. The 'classic approach' uses the poverty line to statistically determine the impoverished population. This approach quantifies the number of poor individuals and households but does not take into account how the impoverished population lacks basic needs such as housing, food, health and education. The second approach focuses on satisfying this lack of basic needs and emphasizes the multidimensional nature of poverty.[6]

Moroccan women represent the most economically insecure social group in the country. One of six Moroccan households are lone-mother households, which represent the most impoverished households in the country. Women are categorized to have the highest levels of socio-economic and legal constraints, which exclude them from obtaining their basic needs. Although recent surveys show that women actively help in providing for their families economically, Moroccan legal texts discourage women's participation in economic productivity. Article 114 of the Moroccan Family Law states, "every human being is responsible for providing for his needs by his own powers except the wife whose needs will be taken care of by her husband." The patriarchal social structure of Morocco puts women as being inferior to men in all aspects. Women are denied equal opportunities in education and employment before the law, as well as access to resources. As a result, the female population in Morocco suffers from deprivation of capabilities. Young girls are often excluded from educational opportunities due to limited financial resources within the household and the burden of household chores expected from them.[6]

Over time, Moroccan women have gained more access to employment. However, this quantitative increase in labor participation for women has not been accompanied by higher qualitative standards of labor. The labor of rural women in Morocco remain unacknowledged and unpaid. Women are put into a higher risk of poverty as their domestic workload is added onto their unpaid labor. This balance of domestic labor and work outside the home imposes a burden on rural women. Since the socioeconomic exclusion of women deprive them of the capabilities to be educated and trained for certain employment skills, their susceptibility to poverty is heightened. Low educational skills of women directly relate to the limited employment options they have in society. Although both men and women are affected by unemployment, women are more likely to lose their jobs than men. Recent research in Morocco shows that economic recessions in the country affect women the most.[6]

United Kingdom[edit]

An investigation of the feminization of poverty between 1959 and 1984 discovered a substantial increase in the percentage of female poor in the 1960s, but not in the 1970s or 1980s. The percentage remained relatively constant between 1969 and 1979, and then decreased between 1979 and 1984. The principal source of feminization of poverty was the increase in the proportion of women in one-sex households. This trend was more adverse for blacks than whites.[35][36]

Later research found women in the United Kingdom (UK) are deprived of employment opportunities and income, which places them at the highest risk of poverty in the country. In a 1990 study conducted in the United Kingdom (UK),[37] nearly half of the employees in the study were women but these women counted for less than a third of the total weekly earnings. Women's weekly earnings were less than half of those of men. Although more women began to actively participate in providing for their families, over half of people in poverty were female and over 40% of impoverished households were lone-mother households. Lone-mother households were twice as likely to be poor as male-headed households.[37]

Women in UK are denied equal opportunities in employment. Women's earnings in family income decrease as men's incomes increase. Inequality tends to be lower in households in which women gain access to full-time formal employment. Although married women's involvement in the labor market helped to keep their families out of poverty, their relatively low earnings were overall ineffective in moving their families up to the highest level of income distribution.[37]

United States[edit]

The United States has the largest number of homeless women and children among the industrialized nations. Seventy million women and their dependent children are living in or on the brink of poverty.[38] While women earn on average seventy-seven cents for every dollar earned by men, they are disproportionately concentrated in the lowest-paying fields. Furthermore, the majority of the pay gap between men and women actually comes from differences within occupations, not between them and this gap widens in the highest-paying occupations such as business, law, and medicine.[38] Intra-household bargaining and "threat points" hav also been described as affecting women's poverty levels.[39]


In addition to earning less, women suffer from Femonomics,[40] or gender of money, a term created by Reeta Wolfsohn, CMSW,[41] to reflect many of the inequities women face that increase their likelihood of suffering from financial difficulties.[42][43] Women are more likely than men to shoulder the fiscal and physical responsibility for their children.[44][45] Women also have unique healthcare problems/access problems related to reproduction increasing both their healthcare costs and risks.[46][47][48] Women tend to be charged more than their male counterparts for similar products and services such as insurance, dry cleaning, deodorants and shampoos.[49] Women are also more likely to be financially illiterate and thus have a harder time knowing how to manage their money.[50] Females tend to live five years longer; i.e. their funds need to last five years longer than men's funds.[51] In addition, women face gender specific challenges resulting from how they are socialized. For example, they must follow rules of negotiating for a higher salary from a mutually-beneficial framework to avoid suffering from a negative employer backlash.[52][53] As a result of all of the above mentioned inequities, women face a more complex money management situation than men in which they earn less but will be living longer and incurring higher expenses.[42][43]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

Also as: Allard, Scott W.; Danziger, Sheldon (September 2001). Proximity and opportunity: how residence and race affect the employment of welfare recipients (pdf). National Poverty Center, University of Michigan.