Global Policy Forum

Gender Perspective Essential to Fighting Poverty


Daniela Hecht

Inter Press Service
August 10, 2004

Ensuring the incorporation of a gender perspective in projects aimed at generating employment and fighting poverty in Latin America is the main aim of a programme carried out by two United Nations agencies.

There are more women than men in the social sectors most vulnerable to poverty in the region, and women are heads of a significant proportion of households, while less than half of working-age women have jobs and women live in poverty for different reasons than men.

These are conclusions reached by studies arising from the Gender, Poverty and Employment (GPE) programme carried out for the past year in the region by the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) and International Labour Organisation (ILO), which organised a late July seminar on the subject in Santiago.

''Around 30 percent of households in Latin America are female-headed, which means women are the main, and probably sole, providers,'' said sociologist Lais Abramo, an ILO gender specialist in Latin America. ''In 25 percent of the biparental households, women contribute 50 percent or more of the family income,'' she added. ''In addition, women dedicate a greater proportion of their income than men to their children's health, education and nutritional needs, which are fundamental factors in breaking the inter-generational cycle of the reproduction of poverty.''

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the unemployment rate in the region rose from 6.9 percent in 1990 to 10.6 percent in 2003, while the proportion of the workforce active in the informal sector of the economy grew from 42.8 percent in the 1980s to 46.5 percent in 2002. Meanwhile, poverty affected 40 percent of the population in 1980, compared to 44.4 percent today.

Abramo said that to guarantee true equality of opportunities between men and women in terms of access to employment generation and poverty alleviation schemes, it is not enough for them to be gender-neutral, because that actually makes the projects ''gender-blind'', which means they fail to take into consideration the different characteristics and conditions that women face. Those characteristics and conditions include ''the burden of family responsibilities, cultural restrictions on holding a paying job, difficulty in gaining access to networks that would help them find work, and a lack of vocational or professional training in non-traditional trades,'' she explained.

Policies and programmes for promoting equal opportunities must take this reality into account through a series of instruments and actions, such as availability of child care and flexible work schedules, Abramo argued.

But participants in the seminar underlined that the need for flexible work schedules does not mean permanent, temporary or workfare scheme jobs that are generated for the poor should be precarious. They also stressed the need for female workers to receive social security coverage.

In addition, they said one of the obstacles standing in the way of employment for women is the existence of a cultural stereotype which sees work for women as somehow less necessary than ensuring jobs for men.

Encouraged by the joint UNDP and ILO project, several initiatives are being carried out in the region to overcome these hurdles, like Enterprising Women in Peru, the Sojalí­n Cooperative in Argentina, and the Bridge Programme in Chile. The Bridge Programme forms part of Chile Solidario, a social safety network. The 125,000 families participating in Chile Solidario receive ''family support'' from professionals who follow their cases for 24 months, providing them with tools to help them build their own path out of their difficulties.

During those two years, the government gives female heads of households or the female partners of the male heads of households special support in the form of a stipend.

But the initiative, designed as an emergency programme, is criticised by some women experts and trade unionists who say that such welfare programmes cannot take the place of other instruments for overcoming poverty, like modified monetary policies, increased wages, and a shorter workday.

''These specific programmes make sense as part of global policies that have incorporated principles of equality,'' Ivonne Farah, an expert on development and gender, told IPS. ''But if that is not the case, such initiatives will lead us to a situation of unsustainability in the future, because we'll have to continue the programmes" indefinitely.

Ana Marí­a Muñoz, a national adviser to the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT) trade union federation, commented to IPS that ''emergency jobs'' or workfare schemes are mere ''bandaid'' measures for poverty, and criticised the lack of government programmes providing support to impoverished families who fall outside the category of extreme poverty.

''You are also poor if you lack the education or training to hold a decent job, if you do not have a decent standard of living, or if you have no access to things other than the bare necessities needed for survival,'' she said. ''Chile is a model of economic growth in Latin America, but it has been a kind of growth that has not done much because it has not been accompanied by social development,'' said the trade unionist.

Although the Chilean economy has grown at an average annual rate of five percent in the past 10 years, Chile is among the 12 countries in the world with the worst distribution of income, according to the UNDP Human Development Report 2003 and World Bank statistics.

In 1990, the income of the poorest 10 percent of Chileans amounted to 1.4 percent of the total, while that of the richest 10 percent was equivalent to 42.2 percent of the total. By 2000, those shares had hardly changed, and stood at 1.1 and 42.3 percent, respectively.

UNDP consultant Inés Reca told IPS that the poor distribution of wealth was due to tension between economic and social policies ''that must under no circumstances alter the macroeconomic equilibrium.'' According to ECLAC, some 220 million people in Latin America -- or 44 percent of the population -- currently live below the poverty line.

But in Chile, the statistics show that the proportion of the population living in poverty shrank from 38.6 percent in 1990 to 20.6 percent in 2000. ''Chile Solidario was designed to reach the country's poorest families,'' the national head of the Gender, Poverty and Employment programme, Juan Antonio Bórquez, pointed out to IPS.

''We could in the future talk about eliminating a system of social protection for the entire population if the government is capable of taking care of those families,'' he said. But he added that this did not seem advisable if the government "is not capable of reaching the neediest.''

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