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  • Writer's picturePro Bono Society

Poverty and Women's Rights

Updated: Sep 20, 2018


The word ‘poverty’ is layered with meanings. You could say that it is the other to wealthy, and that the people in these two categories are polar opposites. That those who are poverty stricken are the vulnerable and those who are wealthy are the strong. However, dichotomy is never a good way in which to view the world. The meaning of poverty differs across space and time and is mediated in different ways on the ground. In this essay, gender in relation to poverty will be discussed followed by analysing empowerment as a way of erasing poverty. The essay will conclude by looking at the creation of poverty through systematic structures as well as asking the question, “can poverty ever be eliminated?”

The gender binary is another way to view the world as black and white. It is one of the main problems across the world which exacerbates inequality. This happens as men and women are seen to have set roles in society. For example, in places such as Pakistan, a woman’s role is to birth a male child, look after her family and to cook and clean. A man’s role would be to provide for his family financially. So, this denies the female gender education and independence and therefore, they are more likely to end up in deep poverty without job prospects. If we look at poverty in relation to gender across space and time there any many of the same trends. If we were to look at a rural and urban area within the same country, the types of poverty faced would differ. Tradition is ingrained with gender roles in most rural societies and this would, as mentioned before, result in poverty. In urban areas, women would be subjected more to the systematic structures of cities which holds the poor in a perpetuating cycle of poverty. In the twentieth century in the United Kingdom, women were seen as having a fixed place in society and so many, especially single mothers, would find themselves in the workhouse, in cities. Therefore, there are clear patterns across space and time concerning how poverty manifests itself in the social construction of gender.

Humans have created these conditions in which poverty entraps people. They also created the very gendered view of the world and how it works. From European colonialism in the past few centuries, to the aggressive finance sector today, many a powerful male will have exclaimed that feminine attributes don’t include the zest of exploration or the stamina for money making. Many women in the majority world don’t have access to education and so they ‘live up’ to the expectation that they won’t make it far alone. Empowerment through education is therefore integral to raising the economic status of women and in reducing poverty in a society as a whole. Technical skills such as literacy and numeracy will enable women to become employable. Teaching women their rights as human beings will hopefully reduce their exploitation in many ways. This may even impact upon cultures that have held women back. For example, the abhorrent practise of female genital mutilation will hopefully stop in the future as cultures learn of the terrible consequences it has on health as well as the women in the society speaking out against it. Once half the population of a society has been liberated through education, a sensible conclusion would be that poverty would be reduced as the economy would be stronger with both of the genders working and social services like healthcare would improve; women would stand up for better maternal care and the such. This solution is advocating a ‘bottom-up’ approach to liberation.

However, poverty creation is also due to the lowest classes being trapped by systematic structures within the world as a whole. Women are often at the bottom of the ‘pile’ in society as the patriarchy is a social order in which no-one can escape from. Even if a woman is educated and manages to get a job, at times of economic crisis, they are often the ones who are sacked due to the cultural belief that it is the man who should be providing financial stability. It is the global political consensus of neoliberalism that keeps the poor classes poorer and the rich, richer. The rift between the 1% and the rest is dramatically increasing. Cheap labour is being exploited when big Transnational Corporations outsource their factories abroad and they don’t invest in local infrastructure here. Globalisation is therefore one of the key drivers of inequality where the commodity chain is further stretched out over the world. Corruption is often rife in governments of majority world countries, and many of these are on good terms with Western companies. Many members of government in these areas generate personal profit from business deals with Transnational Corporations – which may not have a beneficial effect on their country. One of the biggest problems are tax havens. Those who are in the upper echelons of society use their power and money to avoid paying tax. This is devastating as billions of dollars are lost which could have been used to develop health and education systems to lift people out of poverty. Therefore, women can surely only be empowered when these structures are altered. These structures cause crises – during these crises, women are the most vulnerable due to their perceived identity as female.

With all of these problems across the world, will poverty ever be eliminated? As well as trying to do this by empowering women, perhaps a more top-down solution is required. After all, structures such as neoliberalism are administered by those at the top. Also, women’s rights can be brought about from the top. It is the government’s decision whether to participate in neoliberalism or to cut state spending on social services such as healthcare and education. As well as countries, big global organisations also have a big impact upon what happens to those in poverty. One of the biggest organisations is the United Nations. Their scheme, the Millennium Development Goals, show a top-down approach to development. Many local actors weren’t involved in the planning of the scheme and even though there was some poverty halted, a more nuanced approach would have dealt with community specific problems. Also, some may say that the scheme was approached in a way that suited the planners more than those it was targeted at and that some of the goals were too broad. For example, increasing primary school education amongst girls didn’t account for its quality.

Overall, females are generally more vulnerable to poverty because of the construction of their identity by society. Poverty can therefore be seen to be reduced when women are empowered. The best way for this seems to be a finely tuned balance between social movements and global organisations or governments. Someone must remove barriers to the poor and someone must demand this and know what people want on a local scale. In a jointly bottom-up and top-down approach education is the key to development.

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