Women & development

Feminization of poverty

International organizations, governments and donors continue to work on effective ways of fighting global poverty. It is important that such activities are largely targeted at women, as they constitute the majority of the poor. Women take care of the family, especially of children, which affects intergenerational transmission of poverty.

The reasons of women’s poverty are complex. Firstly, they do not have equal access to resources, which includes the right to land ownership, inheritance and self-determination. Often, they also have limited access to the job market and basic services, like education, social services and financial resources. It all influences the lack of security and economic independence of women.

Women serve in more traditional social roles related to household functioning than men. They are mothers, wives, caretakers, providers of water and food. Very often women must take care of the house, as well as children and the elderly, and they are unable to find paid employment, resulting in stronger consequences of poverty. In some cultures, women have limited civic rights, which makes their chances to obtain paid employment even smaller.

Feminization of poverty is a term coined in 1970s, in the United States, during the debates on social care. It later came to be often used in debates on development policy.[1]

Some of the examples of feminization of poverty found in literature are:

- women experience poverty more often than men;

- women experience deeper, more severe poverty than men;

- poverty is growing among women, as the number of households run by single women is increasing;

- women suffer from long-term poverty more often than men.[2]

Other development issues are related to the feminization of poverty, like decent work, healthcare, climate change and good governance.


Decent work

According to International Labour Organization, decent work means employment in conditions of respect for employee rights, social care and social dialogue. Decent work provides fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, as well as a perspective of personal development and social integration. People are free to express their opinions, organize and participate in decision-making that affects their lives. Decent work guarantees equal opportunities and equal treatment to all.[3]

In many partner countries,[4] basic employee rights are not respected and the economical activity of women, specifically informal, is not recognized, so it is not taken into statistical account and women are not protected by the labor code. Women are the majority of employees in the informal sector, where no labor law regulations exist.

They have no insurance, healthcare or social benefits. Neither have they any guarantee of employment, and may lose their job anytime and for any reason.

If employed legally, women often work in low-paid jobs, which do not provide for decent living. Men employed in similar positions receive much higher salaries for the same work. Employees are also often unaware of their rights or afraid to fight for them in fear of losing their jobs. In many countries, the independent activity of workers’ unions is hindered; in most cases women are also underrepresented in the leadership of such organizations and in decision-making processes.

Another factor impeding women’s opportunities for economic activity and decent work is the traditional division of social roles. In some societies, where women traditionally hold the caretaker roles, their opportunities to improve professional qualifications and access the job market are limited. The traditional division of social roles influences discrimination on the job market, where men usually obtain better-paid jobs and hold more responsible posts.[5]

Globally, only one in four senior officials or managers are women.[6] In all regions of the world, women are in minority among senior-level management: 30% in the most developed parts of the world; less than 10% in the least developed countries (East Asia, South Asia and North Africa).[7]

The key sector of economy in partner countries is agriculture. This sector employs mostly women, who perform basic jobs for a salary often delivered as agricultural products. The statistics on progress in achieving Millennium Development Goals show that employment of women outside of agriculture is slowly growing. For instance, in South Asia it was 12% in the early 1990s and grew to 19% in 2008. In some regions of the World, like South Asia, North Africa and East Asia, women are only 20% of persons employed outside of the agricultural sector.[8]

The financial crisis, which started in 2008, resulted in increased unemployment rates throughout the world. Persons on lowest posts, with low professional qualifications, usually lost their jobs first. In the case of partner countries, they were mostly women. The financial crisis also led to growth of unemployment in the informal sector. Persons who work there have no contracts, social care or any insurance.[9]

Decent work and equal opportunities for women are part of the third Millennium Development Goal: Promote gender equality and empower women, as well as the first Goal: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.


More than half the children that do not receive even basic education are girls. Women are also two-thirds of global illiterates. Social and cultural factors, as well as poverty, are the strongest factors influencing this situation. The international community emphasizes the importance of education, as it visibly influences equal gender status and sustainable social development.

In developing regions, in the 20% poorest households, girls tend to drop out of school before graduating 3.5 times more often than girls from the richest households and 4 times more often than boys.[10] Girls must often give up on their education in order to support their mothers in housework and taking care of younger children and senior members of the family. When the economical situation does not allow for educating all children in the family, boys are more prone to receive education than girls.

Equal access to education for girls is one of development priorities. The Cairo Consensus (document summarizing the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo) presents education, especially for women, as the foundation for social and economic development. Finishing primary school gives girls a chance to obtain upper level education, and it may totally change their social status and provide opportunity for a better life.

Achieving universal primary education is the second Millennium Development Goal. This goal emphasizes universal education, provided both to boys and girls.

Health Care

Women have different and greater needs in the area of healthcare than men. It is the result of natural, biological circumstances. Moreover, in different periods of life, women are susceptible to other kinds of diseases than men. The newest World Bank Report Gender equality and development[11] proves that social and cultural factors continue to exist in many parts of the world that influence high mortality among women. In comparison to the developed regions, women’s mortality in partner countries is much higher than that of men, especially in their reproductive period. Decreasing mortality of women due to complications at childbirth is still a major challenge in fulfilling the Millennium Development Goals. In sub-Saharan Africa, 1 in 22 women dies during childbirth; in Europe, it happens once in 7300 cases.[12]

Statistically, men live shorter than women due to natural health conditions. In many sub-Saharan countries the situation is contrary. Women live much shorter than men and that difference is increasing. Higher mortality of women is especially noticed in countries with high rate of HIV/AIDS incidents, but also in Central and Western Africa, where less people suffer from it.

An important factor influencing women’s mortality is limited access to health services and poor infrastructure. Even in societies, where women are discriminated but better medical infrastructure is in place, women’s mortality is not as high.

The issue of women’s health has been included in two Millennium Development Goals. The fifth MDG is related to improving maternal health, whereas the sixth MDG focuses on combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.

In conclusions to the World Bank report,[13] a troubling situation in the African countries was emphasized, where the number of women dying continues to increase, and the preventive measures undertaken by international community are not enough.

Fighting the climate change

Climate change most severely affects women living in poverty, especially in patriarchal societies. It results from their unfavorable economic situation, financial dependence from men, discrimination in access to and the control of means of production, like arable land, as well as the lack of equality in decision-making processes on any level. Higher level of illiteracy among women and girls, as well as the lack of access to education and information on climate changes intensify the problems faced by women in places particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.

Higher vulnerability of women to the results of natural disasters is striking. The number of women’s casualties during such catastrophes is 14 times higher than that of men.[14] For instance, in 2004, women and girls constituted 80% of the victims of tsunami in Asia.[15] Moreover, in 2007, due to intense rain and floods, 1.5 million people were left homeless in 18 African countries; women and children were over 75% of them.[16] A research conducted by London School of Economics, in which catastrophes in 141 countries were analyzed, showed that boys could expect privileged treatment in rescue actions.[17] It was also proved that as a result of catastrophes, women suffer more than men due to lack of food supply, as well as the issue of privacy and safety in bathrooms, toilets and organized shelters.

As main organizers of home food production (agriculture, running the household, gathering water) women are directly dependent on natural resources and particularly vulnerable to shortages in those resources.[18] For instance, in regions affected by draught, providing food and water takes more time, because women must travel further to obtain them.[19] Heavy rains and floods also increase the burden of women, as they must spend more time to secure houses from water and floods than on other household activities or doing paid work.

Due to different experience, men and women possess diverse and valuable knowledge regarding the adaptation to climate changes and their results.[20] Women, who are the most affected by climate changes, should play key role in seeking solutions to problems facing societies in developing countries.[21] Innovative solutions to the climate changes implemented on the local level are often developed by women, who have major experience in dealing with climate change results in their societies.[22]

Women’s participation in fighting the effects of climate change has not been directly included in any of the Millennium Development Goals, although the seventh MDG is related to sustainable management of natural resources.

Good governance

Women’s participation in politics, public life and on senior management level continues to be a problem, especially in partner countries. Throughout the world, only 1/5th of women participate in decision making processes. In 2008, only 7 out of 150 heads of state were women. As few as 8 out of 192 UN member states designated women as head of government.[23] More women on high posts might help increase the presence of women’s perspective in national and international policies.

Section 13 of the Beijing Declaration states that: “Women’s empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society, including participation in the decision-making process and access to power, are fundamental for the achievement of equality, development and peace”

Women’s representation on the high level posts is small due to cultural and tradition-related factors. Their civil rights are often limited. Moreover, the stereotypes influencing the perception of women and their role in society are still strong, and they often lead to the discrimination of women, especially in the public sphere.

Women’s participation in decision-making processes is present in the third Millennium Development Goal: Promote gender equality and empower women.

[1] Briefing paper on the ‘feminization of poverty’. Institute of Development Studies Sussex, p.1.

[2] Kobiety, gender i globalny rozwój.Wybór tekstów. Polska Akcja Humanitarna, 2012. The ‘Feminisation of poverty’ and the ‘Feminisation’ of Anti-Poverty Programmes: Room for Revision?. Sylvia Chant, p.208

[3] International Labour Organisation

[4] Partner countries – official term for developing countries used by OECD.

[5]  Miniprzewodnik po współpracy rozwojowej z perspektywy praw kobiet, KARAT Coalition, 2008, pp.6-7

[6] Millenium Development Goals 2010,  http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/MDG%20Report%202010%20En%20r15%20-low%20res%2020100615%20-.pdf

[7] Millenium Development Goals 2010. Link above.

[8] Millenium Development Goals 2010. Link above.

[9] Millenium Development Goals 2010. Link above.

[10] Millenium Development Goals 2010. Link above.

[11] World Development Report, Gender Equality and Development, World Bank, 2012. p.117

[12] Millenium Development Goals Report 2008: http://mdgs.un.org/unsd/mdg/Resources/Static/Products/Progress2008/MDG_Report_2008_En.pdf

[13] Report “Gender Equality and Development” World Bank 2012, http://econ.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/EXTDEC/EXTRESEARCH/EXTWDRS/EXTWDR2012/0,,contentMDK:22999750~menuPK:8154981~pagePK:64167689~piPK:64167673~theSitePK:7778063,00.html

[14]  Araujo, A., Quesada-Aguilar, A., Aguilar, L., Pearl, R. (2007) Gender Equality and Adaptation, Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), USA,

[15] APWLD (2005) “Why are women more vulnerable during disasters?” Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development, NGO in consultative status at UN ECOSOC,

[16]  UNICEF (2008) “Our Climate, Our Future, Our Responsibility”, p:22

[17] Swarup, A., Dankelman, I., Ahluwalia, K., Hawrylyshyn, K. (2011) Weathering the Storm: Adolescent Girls and Climate Change, Plan UK, London

[18] Mearns, R., Norton, A, ed. (2010) Social Dimensions of Climate Change: Equity and Vulnerability in a Warming World, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, Washington DC,

[19] Demetriades, J., Esplen, E. (2008) ‚The Gender Dimensions of Poverty and Climate Change Adaptation’, IDS Bulletin 39 (4):

[20]Mearns, Norton (2010), op. cit.

[21] Mearns, Norton (2010), op. cit.

[22] Demetriades, J., Esplen, E. (2010) op.cit.

[23] Millennium Development Goals Report 2008.