Women and Children in Poverty - Progress Toward International Goals

informal households world female

Progress has been made toward many of the development goals outlined by the UN during the 1990s. According to the UNDP (http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2005/pdf/presskit/HDR05_PR1E.pdf), since the 1990s more than 135 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty (having an income of less that one dollar per day per person), 1.2 billion people have gained access to clean water, thirty million more children attend school, and child deaths have been reduced by two million per year. However, as of 2005, 2.5 billion people stilled lived on an income less than two dollars per person per day, more than one billion people still did not have access to safe water, 115 million children were still not in school, and more than ten million children per year still died of preventable causes.


In March 2005 during a conference in New York City that became known as Beijing+10, the UN Commission on the Status of Women assessed progress toward the goals outlined in the Beijing Platform (http://daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N04/636/83/PDF/N0463683.pdf?OpenElement). According to the report, as of 2004 women were more likely than men to be poor, and female-headed households were more likely than male-headed households to be poor. Among the statistics cited by the UN, in Malawi a full three-quarters of the poor are women; in Zimbabwe, 72% of female-headed households are poor, compared with 58% of households headed by men. Even in the developed world women fared worse than men; according to the UN report, for instance, women headed 62% of poor households in the Netherlands. Only Burkina Faso reported that men experienced higher poverty rates: 46.9% of households headed by men experienced poverty in that west African country, compared with 36.5% of households headed by women.

Many of the national programs begun since the Beijing Platform focus on increasing women's employment opportunities, ensuring social safety nets, and improving training and education. Some countries instituted minimum wage laws, affecting the poor women who make up the majority of low-income workers. In Portugal, for example, 69% of the people who benefited from the country's minimum wage in 2003 were poor women, according to the UN report. Other countries created lines of credit, loans, and other incentives for self-employment and entrepreneurship. In 2002 Vietnam's program granted loans to more than 20% of poor households headed by women. Some developing countries—including Liberia, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and the Dominican Republic—have changed their laws on inheritance and land ownership to include women.


However, implementation of programs consistent with the goals of the Beijing Platform has not been uniform throughout the world. In Beijing Betrayed: Women Worldwide Report That Governments Have Failed to Turn the Platform into Action (Women's Environment and Development Organization [WEDO], March 2005, http://www.wedo.org/files/beijingbetrayed.htm), organizations from 150 countries reported on actions taken—or not taken—since 1995.

One of the trends cited by WEDO as having a significant impact on women in poverty is the proliferation of informal paid labor, or work that is outside the formal labor sector and therefore not subject to legal protections such as safety and wage regulations. The WEDO report estimates that at least 60% of women in developing countries are employed in the informal work sector, although precise figures are impossible to obtain because this type of work falls outside government purview. In Figure 7.2 the three FIGURE 7.2 Segmentation of informal employment by average earnings and sex, poverty risk of households by sources of income, poverty risk of households by primary source of income Martha Chen, Joann Vanek, Francie Lund, James Heintz, with Renana Jhabvala, and Christine Bonner, "Figures 3.1-3.3. Segmentation of Informal Employment by Average Earnings and Sex, Poverty Risk of Households by Sources of Income, Poverty Risk of Households by Primary Source of Income," in Progress of the World's Women 2005: Women, Work, and Poverty, United Nations Development Fund for Women, 2005, http://www.unifem.org/attachments/products/PoWW2005_eng.pdf (accessed April 8, 2006) pyramids represent the top-to-bottom structure of informal work and poverty according to gender. Employers—the highest paid people in the informal sector—are overwhelmingly male, while those working exclusively in the informal sector and those performing industrial outwork—overwhelmingly female sectors—have the highest risk of living in poverty.


Costs of informal work

Direct costs

  1. High costs of running informal businesses, including direct and indirect taxes
  2. High costs of informal wage work
    • Long hours and unscheduled overtime
    • Occupational health hazards
  3. High costs of accessing capital in informal financial markets and high indebtedness
  4. High costs associated with periodic 'shocks' to work

Indirect costs

  1. Lack of secure work and income
    • Greater insecurity of work
    • Variability and volatility of income
  2. Lack of worker benefits and social protection
    • Few (if any) rights such as paid sick leave, overtime compensation or severance pay
    • No childcare provisions
    • Little (if any) employment-based social protection
    • No health, disability, property, unemployment or life insurance
  3. Lack of training and career prospects
  4. Lack of capital and other assets
    • Lack of/vulnerability of productive assets
    • Limited (if any) access to formal financial services
  5. Lack of legal status, organization and voice
    • Uncertain legal status
    • Lack of organization and voice

SOURCE: Martha Chen, Joann Vanek, Francie Lund, James Heintz, with Renana Jhabvala, and Christine Bonner, "Box 4.1. Costs of Informal Work," in Progress of the World's Women 2005: Women, Work, and Poverty, United Nations Development Fund for Women, 2005, http://www.unifem.org/attachments/products/PoWW2005_eng.pdf (accessed April 8, 2006)

Table 7.1 lists the direct and indirect costs involved in working in the informal sector. Of particular concern to women are the indirect costs related to a lack of child care, health benefits, sick leave, and insurance. With women largely responsible for the care of children and the home, the daily insecurity of having no options for child and health care or time off to care for an ill family member, along with the longer-term problem of having no disability or employment insurance, makes working in the informal economy an extremely difficult task.


Another global issue highlighted by the Beijing Platform is the lack of female representation in governments and public administration. One of the specific goals of the Platform was to increase the proportion of women serving in national parliaments around the world to 30%. In some countries positive results have been realized: in Rwanda gender quotas led to women comprising 48.8% of the national parliament in 2005. That same year 36% of members of the Cuban parliament were female, and in South Africa 32.8% were female. Still, twelve countries had no female representatives: Bahrain, Kuwait, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saudi Arabia, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, United Arab Emirates, and Guinea-Bissau. Even in the United States, where women outnumber men in the population 51% to 49%, representation is not equal: women made up only 15.1% of the U.S. Congress in 2006.

In 2005 the African country of Liberia ushered in what international observers believe could be the beginning of change for the entire continent and for the developing world overall, electing Africa's first female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist who once headed the United Nations Development Program and advised the World Bank. Chile also elected its first female president, Michelle Bachelet, in 2006, beginning a new era of government in Latin America. With women gaining positions of power and influence, legislation that addresses female poverty should have a better chance of ratification.

The Millennium Development Goals: Five Years Later

In 2005 the United Nations published a five-year review of movement toward the MDGs (http://millenniumindicators.un.org/unsd/mi/pdf/MDG%20Book.pdf). While the UN report found progress, it conceded that the goals are not on track to be fulfilled by the 2015 deadline. For example, the goal to halve extreme poverty between 1990 and 2015 is off track, even though poverty overall has been reduced in most regions. More than 800 million people in developing countries suffer from chronic hunger—an increase since 1990—and about a quarter of children younger than five in the developing world are malnourished. Of the estimated eleven million children who die each year from treatable causes, more than half die as a direct result of malnourishment and disease. Figure 7.3 shows how achievement of the MDGs would improve children's lives. Among children under five years old, 5.5 million lives would be saved in 2015 alone.

Between 1990–91 and 2001–02, enrollment in primary school in developing regions overall increased from 80% to 83%. In five regions—Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), East Asia, Central Asia, Northern Africa, and Southeast Asia—enrollment reached greater than 90%. While this level of enrollment is considered an impressive advance, the MDG of achieving universal primary school enrollment is moving slowly. More than a third of school-age children in sub-Saharan Africa do not attend school. In South Asia, West Asia, and the Pacific Rim countries, 20% of children do not attend school.

Progress toward the MDGs that specifically address women's issues has been disappointing. The UN's MDG FIGURE 7.3 Meeting the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) would transform millions of children's lives by 2015 "Figure 1.1. Meeting the MDGs Would Transform Millions of Children's Lives in the Next 10 Years," in The State of the World's Children 2006, United Nations Children's Fund, 2005, http://www.unicef.org/sowc06/pdfs/sowc0506_eps_charts.pdf (accessed April 8, 2006)report found that women by far outnumber men in the informal workforce, both paid and unpaid; 62% of unpaid family workers are women. The UN also reported that maternal mortality rates are not dropping in the countries where pregnancy and childbirth are already the most dangerous. While in the developed world the rate was fourteen maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2000, in developing regions the rate was 450 deaths per 100,000 live births. At the same time in sub-Saharan Africa, the rate was 920 deaths per 100,000 live births—by far the highest rate in the world. On the other hand, there have been a few significant advances in the goal of improving health services for pregnant women and new mothers. For instance, the proportion of deliveries in the developing world attended by skilled professionals increased from 41% in 1990 to 57% in 2003.

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