Global Policy Forum

Poverty: An Analysis From the Gender Perspective


By Dr. Sarah Bradshaw

Catholic Institute for International Relations
October 17, 2002

In Nicaragua 68% of the population live in poverty and 17% of these in extreme poverty1 In 1998 the income per person (measured in terms of gross national product) according to the World Bank was the lowest in Latin America. Within this frame of generalised poverty, women are even poorer, because they are mainly employed in insecure jobs, with low earning potential and are dependent on men. The real poverty levels facing women are even more dire, when we realise that current methods of measuring poverty do not reflect women's true situations, not only because of the absence of specifically gender based data but because the usual measuring methods are incapable of reflecting the gender based inequalities that govern access to and control over resources.

Definitions of poverty

Discussion of the best way to define and measure poverty began with MacNamara's now well publicised presentation at the World Bank in 1973. From that time on, there has been wide-ranging debate among organisations and individuals working in the "development" field, over the various ways of conceptualising the term poverty, without any agreement being reached. During the eighties the focus on non-economic factors introduced new levels of complexity into the discussions with the inclusion of ideas such as "powerlessness", "capabilities" and "sustainable livelihoods"2. With the development in gender considerations, from MED to GED, debate flourished. There were also advances in feminist economic analysis, which made fierce criticisms of the "neutrality" concept in macroeconomic policies and the presentation of the household as a unit.

In the nineties preoccupation with the effects of structural adjustment policies led to the launching of a new concept, "vulnerability". The thinking was that this would be able to give a better account of historical changes, since it not only concentrates on the "lack of" but also on "the ability to respond" to and is based on a much wider range of elements3. Recognising the importance of methods that allow wider participation also resulted in the inclusion of the personal definition which poor people themselves give to the term poverty when discussing the subject. Interest in poverty in Europe has widened the discussion beyond the aspects previously discussed, (such as multiple privations, including low incomes, poor living accommodation, little access to health services and education), in the context of "social exclusion", to include the form in which such privations are experienced. It identifies exclusion scenarios such as legal and democratic systems, markets, provision of rights, resources and relations4 of the benefactor State, the family and the community.

Along with the introduction of new aspects in conceptualisation of the poverty, a whole field of debate has opened up concerning how it should be measured. The desire for a better understanding of the phenomenon gave way to the need to find feasible means for measuring poverty. The biggest problem with more inclusive and participatory indicators is that it is not possible to make aggregations or generalisations based on them or to use them to produce figures comparable at national and international level. So arguments are in practice concerned with epistemological differences and the predominant consideration that "objectivity" and quantitative methods are more acceptable and scientific.5

However, other elements have also been proposed for analysis, including the need to consider the effect on the members of the household, rather than continuing to consider the household itself as the basic unit for analysis, though such elements have not previously been taken into consideration for reasons which may be thought of as ideological rather than methodological.

Causes of poverty

Although we have spent years discussing the definition of poverty and how to measure it, very little attention has been given to analysing its causes. In this instance the synthesis worked out by Killick is instructive 6:

The causes of poverty

Inadequate income and productivity
System of global economic growth; concentration on agriculture/ unregulated sector

Socio-political factors
Lack of power in the market; weak political system; self-perpetuating economic dependence

Development system which concentrates opportunities on restricted groups; lack of increase in employment

Inequalities in the household
Disadvantages for women

In his specialised discussion of the causes of poverty he takes no account of gender differences in three of the four causes presented. He leaves women in a category apart - the household. Although he states that "it is universally accepted that the gender dimension of poverty requires special attention", his own analysis is an example of what happens in practice.

We have reached the stage of attempting to "make women fit" into existing frameworks or of compartmentalising them in separate and marginal categories, but have not arrived at an analysis of their own particular position.

In analysing the specific causes of women's poverty we may think of three factors;

1. Women have less chance of benefiting from gainful employment - because of their exclusive responsibility for child rearing, the generally accepted idea of their gainful activities as an "aid" to their men and their concentration in the unregulated sector.

2. When women have earnings, it is more difficult for them to ensure that these afford them decision making capacity or enable them to choose what their earnings are spent on - assessments of their value and their contribution to the household, the social rules and levels of independence affect their capacity to speak out when decisions are being made at all levels.

3. When women take decisions, they do not improve their own welfare but generally decide in line with general "family " well-being - this is not only because of the "traditional" responsibilities of child care, but because the structure of the feminine identity involves being altruistic.

The causes of women's poverty operate at different levels or exist at different poverty "sites". At the level of society in general -including labour markets and the political power -due to institutionalised discrimination; at community level where social rules affect the roles and responsibilities of men and women and at household level where unequal power relations operate depending on sex and age.

So when explaining women's state of poverty, it is not correct to accord priority to the inequality they suffer in the household, given the central place the household occupies as the place where production, consumption, reproduction and socialisation of identities merge according to sex. But this does not, however imply denying the need to recognise and understand the interaction with other social units and to respect the complexity of the structure and function of the household as a site of both conflict and cooperation.

The traditional image of a household is that of a nuclear household (one couple with their children). However in countries like Nicaragua there is significant proportion of households (41%) composed of extended units (a nuclear household with the addition of other relatives or friends) or single parent households although the majority of units are constituted by a single couple.7

In general when there is a male partner in the house. He assumes the role of "head", and this includes households where it is the woman who maintains the household with her earnings. This has important consequences as regards the woman and children and their "secondary" poverty which standard methods of poverty measurement cannot detect.

· The standard methods of measuring poverty, income or household consumption do not take into account of the fact that men in the household consume a disproportionately larger quantity of household resources, both food eaten and income kept back to spend on themselves (games of chance, drinking with friends or going with other women).

· Existing studies in Mexico and Honduras suggest that in many cases men only contribute half their income towards family expenditure on food, clothing etc. Moreover the fact that there are women's earnings does not necessarily mean that these are will complement the men's contribution since the men often consider them as some kind of replacement to make up their contributions and so reduce these even more.8

It is important to consider the secondary poverty situation of women in households headed by a man in comparison with the situation in households headed by a woman. In recent years it has become usual to consider women heads as "the poorest of the poor". However the relative poverty of a household headed by a woman is generally based on an analysis of the household's total income. Although the total income of households with women heads is less that the total income of male headed households (because women earn less than men), an analysis of what happens inside the household suggests otherwise.

Studies of households with women heads suggest that they contribute their whole income to the household and that their children contribute a higher proportion of their earnings than in households headed by a man. Moreover women heads are in control of the available resources. However the contribution that women "partners" make to the household is undervalued by and therefore makes it less likely that they will have a voice in the decision making process (see Box 2) 9. The fact that women heading households are generally older than women "partners" also impacts on the disparity.

So although the income in households headed by a woman is less than in households headed by a man, the income available to the housewife for buying what is necessary to satisfy the needs of the family are more or less equal.

This information suggests that it is young women who are in all respects those in the worst situation. There are fewer young women living with a partner who are also gainfully employed. These women are far more likely to be found living in households in which the man buys the food, increasing their dependence, without access to financial resources (by comparison with women over the age of 26). This helps to explain why it is often believed that the man makes the most important contribution to the household and why it is often said that it is not possible for a woman to live on her own without a man. This idea is self-reinforcing, as there is little recognition of women's own value10.

On the other hand many young single mothers (who have never lived with a man) or many (separated) women heads of household have to live in their parents' households in order to survive, as a sort of "subfamily". This reduces their potential for autonomy and independence and also renders them invisible in analyses of poverty.11

So when we talk of poverty it is important to take account not only of the differences between men and women but also of the differences between women themselves, depending on their position on the ladder of life (defined by the interaction of age and key events such as gainful employment, marriage, birth of children, divorce and widowhood among others). So it is clear that there are no 'right' answers concerning the best way to reduce poverty, although there are many wrong12 ones.

Strategies for reducing poverty

Although in recent years interest focused on women has arisen when attempting to reduce poverty, gender has generally been included only as a variant of the poverty problem. That is to say projects aim to reduce poverty rather than gender inequalities, and consider women as providers of services, not as individuals with rights, needs and lives of their own. There has even been some misinterpretation of the well publicised 'feminisation' of poverty that brought about the inclusion of women, resulting in saying that the majority of the poor are women, whereas the original argument was that poverty is a phenomenon experienced in different ways according to gender. Moreover, women's poverty is often thought of as directly linked to the proportion of households headed by a woman, thus rendering invisible women who live in a couple (who form the majority) and their different experiences of living in poverty.13

The World Bank's most recent initiative, the Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS), is no different in this respect14. It contains some familiar central components - economic growth by way of full employment of the workforce; improved provision of social services (education and health) to improve the level of human capital; and security nets to protect the most vulnerable groups. Although there is evidence in Asia, which is where these strategies were first applied, that they are not able to reduce poverty, they nevertheless constitute the accepted and approved strategy (Bible) that the countries of the region have to follow as a requisite.

The poverty reduction strategy devised by the Government of Nicaragua is based on these central components. This cannot change the poverty situation, which confronts women, since it takes no account of their particular situation. Moreover it accepts and seeks to promote the image of women solely as mothers within the family - the social institution of primary importance.

The poverty reduction strategy suggests that in the future the available funds should be directed to countries with "a solid economic administration", defined by the country's economic policies (inflation indicators, budget surplus, trade liberalisation) and institutional quality, (rule of law, quality of public administration, degree of corruption) 15. Although the model that the World Bank uses to assess countries is debatable, it could have important consequences for Nicaragua and other countries of the region in the future. The change of focus could mean the allocation of funds to other countries that would supposedly be more efficient in translating the aid, received into poverty reduction16

There are in general various problems in the World Bank's generalised strategy for poverty reduction.

· Economic growth does not automatically result in better distribution of resources and the reduction of poverty nor is it necessarily sustainable, given its emphasis on full employment of the labour force within the existing global production system

· Its focus on human capital, stressing improved competitiveness for the work force, does not automatically better the welfare of individuals nor does it result in human development.

· The provision of safety nets for the most vulnerable does nothing to solve the problems that cause their vulnerability.

· A focus that takes no account of existing structural inequalities at all levels cannot achieve a reduction in women's poverty.

1 For more information on poverty in Nicaragua see "GIS"web page section

2 See documents available on web page http/; 4 See Maxwell (1999)for a more useful synthesis of the arguments

5 See Hannaway (1998) for example, for a discussion of the subject. It is available in Puentro de Encuentro SIDOC

7 Report on Human Development 2000

8 Bradshaw (1996);Chant (1985) Available at SIDO - Puentos de Encuentro

9 Adapted from Sen and Agarwel See end. For a summary in Spanish of the ideas of Sen (1987) and Agarwal (1997) seeBradshaw et al. Available in section "Gender and Disasters" (Complete documents available in SIDOC - Puentos de Encuentro)

10 Bradshaw et al. (2000) idem

11 Bradshaw (1995)Available in SIDOC -Puentos de Encuentro

12 Healey et al. (1999) Available on

13 See Jackson (1998) Available in SIDOC - Puentos de Encuentro

14 See documents on

16 See ; ; http//

More General Analysis on Poverty and Development
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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.