Women and Children in Poverty - The Feminization Of Poverty

informal earnings workers wage

The term the "feminization of poverty" was first used in 1978 by a researcher named Diana Pearce, who had found that two-thirds of poor adults over age sixteen in the United States were female. Although Pearce was referring specifically to U.S. data, the term entered common usage in both poverty research and women's studies. The feminization of poverty is generally understood to have three main causes:

  • The increasing number of female-headed households
  • Individual and cultural stereotypes about and discrimination against women and girls
  • Macroeconomic trends such as globalization and trade that fail to take into account women's roles in economies

There are many reasons women tend to be poorer than men. Lower wages, failed social safety nets, fewer educational opportunities, substandard health care, and a lack of employee protections and benefits such as paid maternity leave and child care all contribute to the problem. In addition, women typically are the primary caretakers of children and elders, which also makes them more vulnerable to impoverishment as they have less time to earn money outside the home.

Women's Work

The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) explains in its report Progress of the World's Women 2005: Women, Work, and Poverty that, although globalization has brought new opportunities for highly educated and skilled workers, it has in many cases had the opposite effect on those with less training and education, who typically come from poor backgrounds in the first place. According to the UNIFEM report:

Increasingly, rather than informal work becoming formalized as economies grow, work is moving from formal to informal, from regulated to unregulated, and workers lose job security as well as medical and other benefits. What we are seeing is that growth does not automatically "trickle down" to the poor. It can in fact widen the gap between rich and poor. As globalization intensifies, the likelihood of obtaining formal employment is decreasing in many places, with "footloose" companies shifting production from one unregulated zone to an even less regulated one elsewhere, employing workers in informal contract or casual work with low earnings and little or no benefits.

This situation has become common in developing countries, where 50% to 80% of nonagricultural employment is in the informal sector. More than 60% of women in developing countries perform nonagricultural paid informal labor; the figure rises when informal paid agricultural work is factored in. Additionally, many women perform informal unpaid agricultural work on family or community farms. Average wages are lower for both informal and agricultural workers, male and female, and the risk of falling into or remaining in poverty is higher for those workers as well.

In addition to earning lower wages and having a greater risk of poverty, workers in the informal sector are at a higher risk of experiencing human rights abuses, including a lack of access to social services and basic infrastructure (passable roads, clean water, reliable sanitation, etc.); a greater chance of becoming ill or disabled and of losing property; fewer work-related benefits and securities; fewer housing and property rights; and generally worse health, less education, and shorter life spans. Some specific risks for garment workers, street vendors, and waste pickers are outlined in Table 7.2.

TABLE 7.2

Occupational health and safety hazards

Problems associated with poor health and safety in the workplace vary from job to job and are also heavily dependent on the environment in which each job is undertaken Some of the common problems associated with different types of informal work include

  1. Garment makers
    • Neck and backache
    • Pain in limbs and joints
    • Poor vision resulting from eye strain
    • Headaches, dizziness and fatigue
    • Respiratory problems associated with dust and textile fibres
  2. Street vendors
    • Exposure to weather—extreme temperatures, wind, rain and sun
    • Poor access to clean water
    • Poor sanitation from dirty streets and poor drainage, as well as waste produce from other vendors
    • Diseases transmitted by vermin
    • Lead poisoning and respiratory problems from vehicle fumes
    • Musculoskeletal problems associated with ergonomic hazards at workstations and static postures
    • Risk of physical harm from municipal authorities, members of the public or other traders
  3. Waste pickers
    • Exposure to weather—extreme temperatures, wind, rain and sun
    • Poor sanitation and limited or no access to clean water
    • Exposure to dangerous domestic and industrial waste, including toxic substances such as lead and asbestos
    • Exposure to other dangerous matter, including blood, faecal matter, broken glass needles, sharp metal objects and animal carcasses
    • Back and limb pain, itchy skin/rashes
    • Diseases transmitted by vermin, flies and mosquitoes
    • Specific high risk of tuberculosis, bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, dysentery and parasites

SOURCE: Martha Chen, Joann Vanek, Francie Lund, James Heintz, with Renana Jhabvala, and Christine Bonner, "Box 4.2. Occupational Health and Safety Hazards," 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)

Female workers are at a higher risk of poverty not only because average wages are lower for women than for men (see Table 7.3; "own account" workers are those who produce goods for their own use; "private wage" earners are those working in the private sector; "public wage" earners work in the public sector; "domestic" earners work in cleaning, cooking, child care, etc.) but also because women tend to work fewer hours due to their unpaid responsibilities in the home and community. These responsibilities—which include the care of children, elderly, and sick family members; domestic chores such as cooking, cleaning, making clothing, and growing food; and unpaid work in the community—are referred to as "unpaid care work." This designation helps to distinguish it from paid domestic labor (formal or informal), such as cooking, cleaning, and/or child care in other people's homes or businesses.

UNIFEM identifies four "dimensions" that create the relationship between work—paid and unpaid—and poverty for women:

  • The temporal dimension: Because women spend more time doing unpaid work within the home, performing housework and child care, they have less time to spend doing paid work outside the home, although studies have shown that, overall, women spend more time working overall than men do. This means that women tend to do more part-time paid work, which in turn means that they earn less money. In developing countries women spend much of their unpaid time performing heavier physical chores such as collecting water and fuel and growing and harvesting crops, leaving them even less time for paid work as well as for child care.
  • The spatial dimension: Women in both developing and developed countries sometimes are forced to migrate to other areas, regions, or even countries to find paid work. This might mean leaving a rural home to work in a city (or vice versa) or migrating from, for example, a country like Mexico to perform seasonal farm work in a country like the United States. In either case, a woman who migrates for work will have to find someone to care for her family while she is away. At the same time, however, women who have children often are not able to migrate to regions with better work opportunities.
  • The employment segmentation dimension: Women's traditional role as caretakers within the home has led to a narrow choice of work outside the home. Without specific training or education, women in almost every culture tend to fall into the same occupations: domestic servants, clothing and textile workers, teachers, and care workers. These occupations tend to be relatively unstable, informal, lower-paying, and, in some cases (such as in the textile industry), more dangerous than other jobs.
  • The valuation dimension: The value placed on work that is seen as traditionally female is related to employment segmentation. "Women's work," meaning the kind of work that women typically do for free within their homes and communities, generally is considered less valuable than work that is perceived to require more training or education. Therefore, it is less regulated and brings in lower pay.

Gender is not the only factor that determines women's greater likelihood of impoverishment and TABLE 7.3 Women's hourly earnings as a percentage of men's hourly earnings, by selected country and type of employment, 2005 Martha Chen, Joann Vanek, Francie Lund, James Heintz, with Renana Jhabvala and Christine Bonner, "Table 3.6. Women's Hourly Earnings as a Percentage of Men's Hourly Earnings," 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 7.3
Women's hourly earnings as a percentage of men's hourly earnings, by selected country and type of employment, 2005
Costa Rica Egypt El Salvador Ghana South Africa
Notes: n.a.=data not available or insufficient observations to derive statistically significant estimates. Hourly earnings include all reported employment income. Usual hours worked were used to compute a standard hourly rate. Individuals reporting excessive hours worked (generally more than 140 per week) were dropped. The value of non-wage benefits and in-kind payments were included in earnings calculations. However, there is a tendency to underestimate these contributions. Also, only employed persons who reported their income are included in the estimations. The computation of self-employment income varies from country to country. For the Egyptian household data, no information on self-employment income is provided. In most cases, self-employment earnings included the value of goods produced in a family enterprise.
SOURCE: Martha Chen, Joann Vanek, Francie Lund, James Heintz, with Renana Jhabvala and Christine Bonner, "Table 3.6. Women's Hourly Earnings as a Percentage of Men's Hourly Earnings," 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)
Formal
Non-agricultural
Employers 56.6 n.a. 78.9 n.a. n.a.
Own-account 62.1 n.a. 45.1 54.6 n.a.
Private wage 84.6 151.9 87.5 n.a. 89.5
    Public wage 87.7 107.6 116.2 84.2 95.6
Agricultu
Private wage 85.1 n.a. 105.4 n.a. 66.3
Informal
Non-agricultural
Employers 97.6 n.a. 83.8 n.a. 83.6
Own-account 50.6 n.a. 65.1 80.2 59.6
    All wage n.a. 263.3 n.a. 69.8 n.a.
Private wage 79.5 317.1 75.4 n.a. 107.0
    Public wage n.a. n.a. 135.2 88.0 99.2
Domestic 57.4 n.a. 56.2 n.a. 100.0
Agricultural
Own-account 53.3 n.a. 56.9 65.0 n.a.
Private wage n.a. n.a. 86.4 n.a. 98.5
    Public wage n.a. n.a. 177.6 n.a. n.a.

difficulty obtaining and holding on to work. In different cultures religion, race, and especially class play a role. However, as the dimensions of work described above demonstrate, women in general

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