Feminization of poverty

Feminization of poverty

The feminization of poverty is a change in the levels of poverty biased against women or female headed households. More specifically, it is an increase in the difference in the levels of poverty among women and men or among female versus male and couple headed households. It can also mean an increase of the role that gender inequalities have as a determinant of poverty, which would characterize a "feminization of the causes of poverty".

Its precise definition depends on two subsidiary definitions: of what is poverty and what is feminization. Poverty is a deprivation of resources, capabilities or freedoms which are commonly called the dimensions or spaces of poverty. The term feminization can be applied to indicate a gender biased change in any of this dimensions or spaces. Feminization is an action, a process of becoming more feminine. It necessarily involves changes over time or populations (comparing geographical areas, for example). Feminine, in this case, is used to mean 'more common or intense among women or female headed households'.

Because it implies changes, the feminization of poverty should not be confused with the existence of higher levels of poverty among women or female headed households. Feminization is a process; ‘higher poverty’ is a state. It is also a relative concept based on a women-men (or female-male/couple headed households) comparison, where what matters are the differences (or ratios, depending on the way it is measured) between women and men at each moment. Since the concept is relative, the feminization does not necessarily imply an absolute worsening in poverty among women or female headed households: if poverty in a society is sharply reduced among men and is only slightly reduced among women, there would still be a feminization of poverty.

Poverty among women or among female headed households

Measures of poverty "among female headed households" and "among women" are not indicators of the same phenomena. Both capture a gender dimension of poverty but in distinct ways. They differ by the unit of analysis and by the population included in each group, and obviously have different meanings. There are reasons to consider both. The goal of headship-based indicators is to represent what happens to specific vulnerable groups of women and their families, therefore their unit of analysis is the household and the population considered includes both men and women (and children) living in these households, but excludes women and men living in other household formations. Indicators of poverty among females, by their turn, make a complete separation of men and women as individuals, counting or not children as a gendered group in their aggregations. Interpreting the results based on individual-based measures of poverty is affected by the fact that poverty is usually measured at the household level and therefore male poverty is intrinsically associated with female poverty and vice-versa.

History of the Term

The idea of a ‘feminization of poverty’ dates back to the 1970s but was popularized from the 1990s on by some United Nations documents [United Nations. (1996). Resolution Adopted by the General Assembly on the report of the Second Committee (A/50/617/Add.6) - Women in development. 9 February 1996, Fiftieth session, Agenda item 95 (f), General Assembly A/RES/50/104. New York: United Nations.] [United Nations. (2000). Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on the report of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Whole of the Twenty-third Special Session of the General Assembly (A/S-23/10/Rev.1) - Further actions and initiatives to implement the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. A/RES/S-23/3, 16 November 2000, Twenty-third special session, Agenda item 10, 00-65205. New York: United Nations.] . The concept became renowned as a result of a study by Diane Pearce [Pearce, D. (1978). The feminization of poverty: Women, work and welfare. Urban and social change review, 11, 28-36.] which focused on the gender patterns in the evolution of poverty rates in the United States between the beginning of the 1950s and the mid-1970s. It was initially used to mean “an increase of women among the poor” and “an increase of female headed households among the poor households”. This approach was abandoned because the measures of feminization of poverty based on them can be affected by changes in the demographic composition of population - for instance, the impoverishment of female headed households can be neutralized by a reduction of the numbers of female headed households in the population. For that reason, subsequent studies adopted an alternative approach, comparing the evolution of the levels of poverty within each gender group.

Evidence of a Feminization of Income Poverty

The overrepresentation of women among the income poor at a given moment seems to be a much more common phenomena than the process of the feminization of income poverty. Actually, despite the enormous political controversy around the issue, there is little support to the claim that there is a systematic feminization of income poverty in the world. It seems that feminization occurred in the United States between the 1950s and the mid-1970s [Pearce, D. (1978). The feminization of poverty: Women, work and welfare. Urban and social change review, 11, 28-36.] [Northrop, E. M. (1990). The feminization of poverty: The demographic factor and the composition of economic growth. Journal of economic issues, 24(1), 145-160.] [Peterson, J. (1987). The Feminization of Poverty. Journal of economic issues, 21(1), 329-337. ] , although some reject the hypothesis for the years after 1970 and the 1980s [Fuchs, V. R. (1986). The feminization of poverty? Working Paper No. 1934, National Bureau of Economic Research. Cambridge.] [Northrop, E. M. (1990). The feminization of poverty: The demographic factor and the composition of economic growth. Journal of economic issues, 24(1), 145-160.] [Peterson, J. (1987). The Feminization of Poverty. Journal of economic issues, 21(1), 329-337. ] . Data from the United Kingdom indicates that from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s there was no evidence of a feminization of poverty [Davies, H., & Joshi, H. (1998). Gender and income inequality in the UK 1968-1990: The feminization of earnings or of poverty? Journal of the royal statistical society: Series A (Statistics-in-Society), 161(1), 33-61.] [Wright, R. E. (1992). A feminisation of poverty in Great Britain? Review of income and wealth, 38(1), 17-25.] . In Canada, it was found a feminization of poverty between 1973 and 1990 when ‘feminization’ was understood as an ‘increase among female headed households’, but not when the ‘increase among women’ definition was used [Dooley, M. D. (1994). Women, children and poverty in Canada. Canadian public policy, 20(4), 430-443.] . Little is known about developing countries, but the existing research reports no evidence of a feminization of income poverty after the 1990s in Latin America [Medeiros, M., Costa, J. Is There a Feminization of Poverty in Latin America?. World Development, v. 36, p. 115-127, 2007.] .

The causes of the Feminization of Poverty

What causes the impoverishment of women may also cause the impoverishment of men. Therefore, what matters most to understand the causes of the feminization of poverty is not what causes poverty in aggregate terms but the gender inequalities behind poverty. In fact, since feminization is a process, what is crucial is the changes in these gender inequalities or in the factors that result in gender inequalities.

The feminization of poverty, among many other factors, may be caused by changes in:

;Family composition:dissolution of marital unions, constitution of families without these unions, higher male mortality

;Family organization:Gender division of labor and consumption within the household, gender roles regulating the control over household resources

;Inequality in the access to public services or in their quality:Barriers to education of girls, educational segregation by sex, lack of women specific health attention

;Inequality in social protection:Contributory pensions systems reproducing previous labor market inequalities, lower access to pensions and social assistance by women, inequality in benefit concession or in benefit values in targeted policies

;Labor market inequalities:Occupational segregation, intra-career mobility, differential levels of employment in paid work, wage discrimination, duration of work shifts. ;Legal, paralegal and cultural constrains in public life:Property rights, discrimination in the judiciary system, constrains in community and political life, etc.


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