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The ‘Feminization of Poverty’: A Reflection 20 Years After Beijing

2 Mar 2015

The ‘Feminization of Poverty’: A Reflection 20 Years After Beijing
This contribution is published as part of the Think Piece Series Let's Talk about Women's Rights: 20 Years after the Beijing Platform for Action. In this series, leading feminist thinkers discuss achievements in the field of women’s rights and gender equality; identify the challenges faced in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action; and consider ways of moving forward. They offer both critical insights and highlight opportunities for realizing women’s rights after 2015. Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments space below.

This think piece interrogates the conceptual and empirical currency of a ‘feminization of poverty’ which effectively assumed the status of ‘global orthodoxy’ at the Fourth Women’s World Conference in Beijing in 1995, when it was proclaimed that 70% of the world’s poor were women, and that this figure was rising. Although evidence to substantiate these assertions remains wanting, the ‘feminization of poverty’ meme has been remarkably enduring. Aside from a lack of robust data which points to increased poverty among women relative to men in the past twenty years, I contend that there are problems with the implicit focus on income poverty to the exclusion of other privations, and with the more explicit aligning of the ‘feminization of poverty’ with the ‘feminization’ of household headship. This article offers thoughts on how to enrich the ‘feminization of poverty’ construct with attention to evidence for a ‘feminization of responsibility and/or obligation’. It also supports the wider range of gender targets and indicators anticipated for the post-2015 agenda as a basis for addressing the ‘feminization of poverty’, broadly defined.

Sylvia Chant is Professor of Development Geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she also directs the MSc in Urbanization and Development.

The ‘Feminization of Poverty’: A Reflection 20 Years After Beijing

At the Fourth Women’s World Conference in Beijing in 1995, a statistic came into circulation that 70% of the world’s poor were female and that this number was rising. Many scholars have—quite rightly—questioned whether these claims were well-founded, but the meme of female poverty at 70% and rising nevertheless seems to have become so fixed in the popular imagination that it continues to prevail two decades on. This leaves us with something of a conundrum: Was the original (guess)estimate in 1995 too high, or has poverty among women relative to men not been increasing after all? Is the ‘feminization of poverty’, the epithet that has become welded to this fact and projection, and which is routinely linked to growing proportions of households headed by women, real or imagined? Or was the main utility of stressing poverty’s distinctively ‘female face’ to provide legitimation for one of the twelve priorities of the Beijing Platform for Action, namely to address the “persistent and increasing burden of poverty among women ”?

If the latter is so, then this was arguably no bad thing. Highlighting women’s greater share of global poverty was conceivably positive if it added impetus to recognizing the significance of gender inequality, and if it encouraged the development of a wider and more refined range of tools to measure male-female poverty gaps, particularly those which might take into account the multidimensional nature of gendered privations. Subscribing to the notion of a ‘feminization of poverty’ was also productive if it motivated consideration of which groups of women were particularly prone to disadvantage, and why. For example, was the ‘feminization of poverty’ primarily the outcome of an historical legacy of male bias and thus intensified by advances in demographic ageing and the comparative longevity of women, or was it something which affected young as well as older women, and thus a cross-generational trend subject to further escalation? Exhortations to address the ‘feminization of poverty’ also had potential for giving rise to initiatives to tackle not only the symptoms of gendered poverty but its underlying causes. As I have argued in previous work, if the unprecedented suite of policy interventions wedded to the concept of women’s economic empowerment has been anything to go by, the “astoundingly rapid translation of the ‘feminization of poverty’ from opportunistic shorthand to ‘established fact’”, was “ostensibly … fortuitous” (Chant 2008:166).

But even if the ‘feminization of poverty’ gained some useful traction because it was a headline-grabbing term (albeit linked to a doubtful metric), provisos abide on a number of counts.

‘Feminization of Poverty’: A fundamentally flawed concept?

To examine whether the ‘feminization of poverty’ was really an ‘established fact’, we first have to take issue with the rather vague and problematic amalgam of assumptions and assertions which are typically embodied in conventional constructions of the ‘feminization of poverty’. Although the term is seldom defined explicitly, either in academic or policy literature, there seem to be three basic tenets, all of which are underpinned by an implicit reference to income poverty:
  • women are poorer than men;
  • the incidence of poverty among women is increasing relative to men over time;
  • growing poverty among women is linked with the ‘feminization’ of household headship (Chant 2008).

The first element—that women are poorer than men—is arguably anomalous within a construct where dynamism is implied. As summarized by the Brazilian economists, Marcelo Medeiros and Joana Costa (2006:3):
    “In spite of its multiple meanings, the feminization of poverty should not be confused with the existence of higher levels of poverty among women or female-headed households… The term ‘feminization’ relates to the way poverty changes over time, whereas ‘higher levels of poverty’… focuses on poverty at a given moment. Feminization is a process, ‘higher poverty’ is a state”.

Following on from this, poverty could still be feminized, even if poverty had been ‘masculinizing’ over a given time period. This might be particularly applicable to younger generations in light of narrowing male-female disparities in capabilities and opportunities in recent decades, and in some cases, gains made by young women in education and labour force access (Chant 2008).

In turn, and critical to the second element—that gender gaps in poverty are increasing over time—it is vital to recognize that drawing an accurate picture of trends is thwarted by a paucity of reliable, sex-disaggregated long-term panel data on income poverty, especially for developing regions.

Until now the most robust regional database on per capita income poverty disaggregated by sex (and sex of household headship) for the global South is that compiled by the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC). A detailed analysis of these data for eight Latin American countries between the 1990s and 2000s was conducted by Medeiros and Costa (2006), who explored the incidence of poverty among women and men, and according to female and male household headship. Medeiros and Costa also examined the intensity of poverty (measured by the aggregated difference between the observed income of poor populations and the poverty line), as well as the severity of poverty, which refers to “some combination of the incidence and intensity of poverty and inequality among the poor” (ibid.:20). The findings refute the idea that a ‘feminization of poverty’ has been occurring to any discernible or systematic degree since the 1990s. Concluding that there is “no solid evidence of a process of feminization of poverty”, the biggest ‘objective’ risk factor for poverty appears to be the presence of young dependent children in households, regardless of sex of household headship (ibid.:13; see also Table 1).

Table 1: Trends in the feminization of poverty, selected Latin American countries

Feminization of Poverty
Country (period)Overall Trend in Poverty
Female—Male-Headed Households
Argentina (1992-2001)Increased
Bolivia (1999-2002)Stable
(except for females without children)1
Brazil (1983-2003)Decreased
Chile (1990-2000)Decreased
Colombia (1995-1999)Increased
Costa Rica (1990-2001)Decreased
(except for females without children)
Mexico (1992-2002)Decreased
Venezuela (1995-2000)Increased

Source: Adapted from Medeiros and Costa (2006, 12, Table 1)

1. The exception occurs when comparing female-headed households without children with couple-headed households without children
N.B. ‘No’ stands for a rejection of the feminization of poverty hypothesis and ‘yes’ for the opposite.

Medeiros and Costa’s summations provide a refreshing departure from the idea that female-headed households are necessarily the ‘poorest of the poor’. However, it must also be questioned whether income poverty is up to the task of embracing the many dimensions of gendered poverty. As Gerd Johnsson-Latham (2004:26-7) has argued, income may actually be a less robust indicator of women’s disadvantage than factors such as access to land. Indeed, while women workers worldwide still only earn an average of 75-80% of male wages, often on account of restricted employment options, this pales into relative insignificance given that a mere 15% of landowners globally are estimated to be female.

There is also a major question around how income poverty itself can be inferred when gender (and age) dynamics within households can lead to inequitable allocation of resources among household members, with women and children often seriously disadvantaged by what has been termed ‘secondary poverty’, especially when households are headed by men (see Bradshaw 2002; Chant 2008). Secondary poverty pertains when household income would be sufficient if expenditure were to be optimally allocated, but this is frequently not the case where men might retain a larger share of their own income for discretionary personal expenditure to the detriment of other household members.

The latter is particularly pertinent to the third element of the ‘feminization of poverty’—namely that mounting female poverty is associated with the increasing share of households headed by women, a seemingly ubiquitous tendency in the wake of late modern demographic change, but in which there is a lack of clarity around causal links. Do increases in female household headship come about through poverty, or does female household headship itself contribute to impoverishment?

Moreover, even if we acknowledge that female-headed households might be more vulnerable to falling into poverty (because their asset bases are less robust and diverse than in households headed by men, who typically have better employment status, land, credit markets, insurance schemes, ‘social capital’ and so on—Klasen et al. 2014:4; my emphasis), at the same time, feminist scholarship has also highlighted how income allocation and consumption within female-headed households are frequently more gender-fair, harbouring possibilities for generating momentum toward greater gender equality from the bottom-up.

Gendered poverty as multi-dimensional privation?

Notwithstanding that many women, and female-headed households in particular, may lead precarious existences income-wise in patriarchal societies, it is also vital to recognize that dealing with poverty consumes considerable amounts of time and energy, the burden of which falls heavily on women and girls. While women have arguably always been at the coalface of managing household livelihoods, detailed evidence from my own longitudinal fieldwork with women and men in different age groups in the Gambia, the Philippines and Costa Rica points to a growing unevenness in household inputs along gendered lines. This has led me to propose the concept of a “feminization of responsibility and/or obligation” (Chant 2008) based on three discernible tendencies:
  • growing gender disparities in the range and amount of inputs such as labour and financial contributions to household livelihoods;
  • persistent gender inequalities in negotiations over obligations and entitlements in households leading to a growing weight of responsibility on women which they have little option other than to absorb;
  • a growing disconnect between gendered investments and responsibilities on the one hand, and rewards and rights on the other.

Thus even if we continue to adhere to the notion of a ‘feminization of poverty’, this construct would be conceivably more meaningful if expanded to include gender-differentiated inputs as well as gross household incomes, and if it were to acknowledge that the exploitation of women and girls might be even more pronounced in male- than female-headed households.

‘Feminization of Poverty’ and policy responses

In the meantime, however, and from the vantage point of policy, we have to consider the confluence of female-targeted poverty interventions with the increased entrenchment of neoliberal approaches to poverty reduction that enlist the agency of individuals to solve their own problems. The idea not only that women are poorer than men (and getting poorer), but that income in female hands may lead to more beneficial outcomes for them and their families, has led to a mounting number of poverty alleviation initiatives in which a discourse of female empowerment has become firmly embedded. Interventions on the ground have mainly taken the form of targeting women, especially mothers, in Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programmes and in micro-credit schemes. More recently, programmes have embraced young women’s and girls’ ‘entrepreneurial capacity’ through so-called Smart Economics approaches, championed inter alia by the World Bank and corporate initiatives such as the Nike Foundation’s ‘Girl Effect’, whose social media messaging includes: ‘Invest in a girl and she will do the rest’. While not denying some gains for women and girls through such interventions, it remains to be seen how much they can truly be ‘empowered’ by them. This is especially so when the onus on women and girls as a conduit of policy for the benefit of others implies a continued essentialization of “female altruism” (Molyneux 2006), and where feminized burdens of coping with the daily demands of household poverty may well be further intensified (Chant 2008). The targeting of women and girls, and exclusion of men and boys from poverty reduction initiatives, can also undermine male support for sharing this work, and, in turn, weaken struggles for gender justice (Chant and Sweetman 2012).

While gender inequalities in earnings and income need visibility in the post-2015 agenda, much more attention needs to be focused on addressing the multidimensional nature of poverty, and why freedoms, power and privileges continue to be skewed toward men. The greater prominence likely to be accorded to unpaid labour in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), along with other gender inequalities pertaining to assets, violence, decision making, and sexual and reproductive health and rights, may help to highlight a more diverse array of gendered disadvantages. In turn, this may constitute a more productive basis for interventions that arrest, as well as redress, the ‘feminization of poverty’, broadly defined, in future.

This think piece draws substantially from Chant, Sylvia. 2008. “The ‘Feminisation of Poverty’ and the ‘Feminisation’ of Anti-poverty Programmes: Room for Revision?”, Journal of Development Studies, 44(2):165-97, as well as from a public lecture delivered at the 20th anniversary of the LSE’s Gender Institute, under the title “Feminisation of Poverty: Win-win, Lose-lose, … or Gains at the Margin?”, 9 May 2014.

Bradshaw, Sarah. 2002. Gendered Poverties and Power Relations: Looking Inside Communities and Households (Managua: ICD, Embajada de Holanda,
Puntos de Encuentro).

Chant, Sylvia and Sweetman, Caroline. 2012. ‘Fixing Women or Fixing the World? “Smart Economics”, Efficiency Approaches and Gender Equality in Development’, Gender and Development, 20(3):517-29.

Johnsson-Latham, Gerd. 2004. ‘Understanding Female and Male Poverty and Deprivation’, in Gerd Johnsson-Latham (ed.) Power and Privileges: Gender Discrimination and Poverty (Stockholm: Regerinskanliet), 16-45.

Klasen, Stephan; Lechtenfeld, Tobias and Povel, Felix. 2014. ‘A Feminization of Vulnerability? Female Headship, Poverty, and Vulnerability in Thailand and Vietnam’, World Development, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2013.11.003.

Medeiros, Marcelo and Costa, Joana. 2006. Poverty Among Women in Latin America: Feminisation or Over-representation? Working Paper No.20, International Poverty Centre, Brasilia.

Molyneux, Maxine. 2006. ‘Mothers at the Service of the New Poverty Agenda: PROGRESA/Oportunidades, Mexico’s Conditional Transfer Programme’, Journal of Social Policy and Administration, 40(4):425-49.

    Sylvia Chant is Professor of Development Geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she also directs the MSc in Urbanization and Development. She has worked in Mexico, Costa Rica, the Philippines and the Gambia, and has published extensively in the field of gender and development, with particular reference to housing, household livelihood strategies, rural-urban migration, women’s employment, female-headed households and the ‘feminization of poverty’. She is currently completing a book for Routledge with Professor Cathy McIlwaine, QMUL, entitled Cities, Slums and Gender: Towards a Feminised Urban Future.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.