World poverty is an increasingly important issue getting the attention of individuals and organizations globally. Poverty coincides with many factors including geographic location, race, and education. None of these factors predict poverty as consistently as gender.
The overwhelming impact of poverty on the world’s female population is generally referred to as “the feminization of poverty.” This phenomenon happens for a variety of reasons, including pay disparity, gender stereotypes preventing women from working in certain fields — or working at all, the idea of “the second shift,” and others. The latter refers to the fact that for many working mothers, the burden of childcare falls disproportionally on their shoulders. These women effectively have a “second shift” of unpaid work after coming home from their paying jobs. This leaves less time for paid work as well as possible exhaustion causing a lack of quality in work as compared to male colleagues who have fewer outside-of-work responsibilities.
The UN has recently employed a new model of measuring poverty, which evaluates multiple indicators of impoverishment. The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) considers health, education, and living standards to categorize people into poverty levels. When these other factors are considered, women fare even worse than in indexes using only the “dollars per day” model.
Women regularly have less access to nutrition and health programs than males, girls account for the majority of children not attending school, and living standards are often less humane for women than for men globally. Maternal and child healthcare often suffer in the contraction of an economy, impacting young mothers directly.
The indicators listed by the MPI to evaluate living standards almost all deal with cooking, water, and sanitation—all fields generally left to women to care for and control. If cooking fuel is unsafe or unavailable, it is often the woman who is punished or impacted most. Water is almost exclusively a woman’s job in areas where well-water fetching is the norm. In Kenya, the average rural woman expends almost 85% of her daily caloric intake on fetching water for her family. When we look into the MPI, it becomes clear that the feminization of poverty extends into multidimensional poverty as well as monetary poverty.
The feminization of poverty impacts every person in the world, regardless of gender. When women are impoverished, we all lose out on the contributions that they could make towards their individual fields. When a woman is bogged down in the responsibilities of motherhood without a partner to share the burden, we miss the ideas she might have had to combat a new disease. When a girl is forced to forego her education because of her sex, we may pass by the next diplomat who could have avoided a war. When a woman dies in childbirth due to a lack of access to healthcare, we lose an active member of her community who could have made a difference worldwide.
Poverty affects us all, whether we know it or not. That makes it worth fighting. Focusing on women and girls to improve access to education, jobs, and status is an effective way to stem the feminization of poverty.