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The Social Poverty Of Women


Margaret Atwood, well-known as an author of feminist dystopia, said recently, so much about the state of women has changed and yet so little!  Most of us raised in cities with reasonably enlightened parents are oblivious of the discourse around the feminisation of poverty, though the discourse around inequality is loud and clear. When we think about poverty, we presume that the poor, whether men or women, boys or girls are equally poor. The truth is that women experience poverty differently and more acutely due to their social and cultural gender roles and culturally constructed subordination. Women (and girls) are naturally assigned to domestic roles and this limits their access to formal education and knowledge. This, along with deep-rooted social and family hierarchies, limits their access to material resources (such as land and other family assets), but more importantly to social resources, i.e. participation in economic, political and social decision making. I call the latter, the social poverty of women. Many of us in the social sector recognize that poverty and gender are inextricably linked, but do little when it comes to incorporating gender in poverty reduction strategies. As funders and donors, we are either gender agnostic or claim to use a gender lens by classifying our beneficiaries as Girls or Adolescent Girls or Women. As community-based organizations (CBOs), we like to define our programmes around clear themes ? education or health or livelihoods or advocacy and policy. Most thoughtful CBOs, though recognise that these are services only and that they need to work concurrently around changing social norms and practices, which require sustained multi-generational effort.  But very few of us in the community use the gender lens as an intrinsic part of our work i.e. designing strategies and programmes for poor communities, by giving equal importance to the question of whether women form a growing, disproportionate and disenfranchised contingent among the poor. Using the gender lens also means improving our understanding of how households work and uncovering truths around hierarchies and unequal resource distribution patterns in families. With complex social restrictions, titles and responsibilities that are different from men, women live their lives to a large extent outside the formal economy. The broader concept of poverty, particularly in the case of women, must include both economic and social autonomy, and gender violence (including trafficking and slavery). Not using the gender lens leads to an over-reliance on household incomes as the key metric in poverty measurement systems. It also exacerbates the lack of attention to both the economic and social poverty of women. It causes funders to simplify their theory of change to support specific service-based programmes, such as those in girls education or skilling or primary health. Anyone working long enough in the sector recognises not only the inter-connectedness and complexity of the sector, but also the need to work deeply with communities around influencing and nudging sustainable change in social norms and practices.  Specifically, much-needed attention and funding to gender violence of all kinds from female infanticide to domestic violence and trafficking is missing in the poverty discourse among funders. These are seen as edgy investments and not as an integral part of the continuum that makes the social poverty of women. Since household income does not reflect the multi-dimensionality of poverty, we need to develop better mechanisms to measure individual poverty within households. These mechanisms would include measuring the highest level of education of the girl (versus the boy) in the family, age of marriage and age at birth of the first child, participation in key family decisions, ownership of land and other assets, presence and pre-eminence of self-help groups and representation of women in local government. In fact, broader studies could reveal the poverty of women without their own income within non-poor households, thus throwing the spotlight on power differences within families that determine access to resources, as also the lack of value placed on unpaid domestic work. I do recognise that in developing these mechanisms, we could introduce some subjective elements that could limit their accuracy. However, the failure to capture gender differences in poverty will limit our understanding of the important dimensions that fully characterise the state of women in poverty and consequently, our ability to design better policies in this regard. Elena Ferrante, the enigmatic Italian author of the Neapolitan novels said in an interview to the Financial Times: The awareness of limits keeps weighing down on women. I am talking about women in general. This isn’t a problem when we are dealing with self-regulation. It is important to set limits for oneself. The problem is that we live within limits set by others, and we are disapproving of ourselves when we fail to respect them. Male boundary-breaking does not automatically entail negative judgments; it is a sign of curiosity and courage. Female boundary-breaking, especially when it is not undertaken under the guidance or supervision of men, is still disorientating: it is loss of femininity, it is excess, perversion, disease. We need more women to break the boundaries set by others and we need the discourse around poverty to allow and nurture that.
Vidya Shah is the CEO of EdelGive Foundation, which is the philanthropy arm of the Edelweiss group (www.edelweissfin.com).     

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