Gendered Dimensions of Poverty

Women tend to predominate informal employment where earnings are low and risks are high

Let me start by talking about how gender inequality makes women more vulnerable to poverty than men. First of all, what do I mean by gender? Gender is really the social construction of what it means to be male or female. It's about norms that ascribe to men and to women differences in access to resources, entitlements, and roles and responsibilities.

And those differences are often embodied in the way that markets work, in the way that institutions are structured, and of course in our own mental models. Understanding how different individuals experience poverty is critical to the design of policies to reduce poverty. And gender differences are among the most important.

Gender inequalities make women and girls more vulnerable than men and boys to poverty, and they affect how men and women, and boys and girls, react to changes in poverty status. So what are some dimensions of gender inequalities that matter?

The first is that gender inequality in labor markets is one factor that is responsible for women's greater vulnerability to poverty. Women tend to predominate informal employment where earnings are low and risks are high. The majority of women who are informally employed are really those who are what we call own-account operators, or casual wage workers, or women who earn money by the piece at the bottom of a subcontracted value chain.

A second feature of labor markets is that, around the world, women earn less than men. They're in both occupations and in industries where men are paid higher than women. And the Gender Earnings Gap is something that is very difficult to close over time. And to do that, we need to focus on moving women into male-dominated jobs and occupations and men into more female-dominated occupations to equalize wage distributions. It's important to note that poverty outcomes for employed women depend also crucially on the composition of the households that they live in. Women who can pool their earnings from paid work, at least in part, with another earner, at least face a lower risk of poverty than women who maintained households on their income alone.

There are other factors that make women more vulnerable to poverty than men, these are access to various kinds of assets, for instance, land and housing or access to finance frequently determined the livelihoods that are available to members of households, and it influences the distribution of resources within the household. Relative to men, women lack ownership over critical productive resources because of inheritance patterns, because of the way markets work, and this is particularly the case with access to land or ownership over a house or ownership over even large livestock like cattle, for instance. And these assets are super important for increasing productivity and earning power. So actually, equalizing the distribution of asset ownership can actually be an important anti-poverty measure.

Finally, women's lower income and asset inequality are compounded by the dimension of time poverty. Generally speaking women around the world are given the responsibility, and have the responsibility for care. Care of young children, care of the elderly, care of those with disabilities, and care of those who are sick and most of the work that women do in caregiving is unpaid. Women have total higher poverty because of the time component that makes their ability to control and own assets and resources even more precarious and have higher overall work burdens than men and longer working hours than men.  There are additional factors that underpin women's greater vulnerability to poverty than to men, and that has to do with disparities in health and education.

Women of reproductive age are two percentage points more likely than men to live in a poor households and gender gaps in poverty rates among this age group are wider in the poorest countries. In reproductive active years, women's labor force participation, and their ability and their care for children and dependents kick in. And women are less likely to have access to it independently earned and controlled income during this period of time, and they're more likely to be caring for dependents. South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, which account for about 88% of the world's poor, are what's behind these results and this underscores the need to consider both age and sex as it pertains to patterns of poverty.

The literatures suggest that poor households and poor women and men within them respond to poverty in a variety of ways. They have different coping strategies. First, they react not only to insufficiency of income in different ways, but they also respond very differently to insecurity and different positions of risk. So, one example of illustrating this is in a poor household, it may be likely for a household to cope that it's whatever women's assets are, those are sold first. So the fact that women may have moveable assets, like jewelry, for instance, and men may own the immovable assets like the land or the house. It's more likely that women will sell their jewelry to earn income and help them smooth their consumption for poverty.

Another strategy may be that men would take on more income-earning work and may migrate, and women would then face very difficult time allocation choices, and households would then ask children to move into income earning situations. So let me now conclude with how policy can respond to this. We need to think about policies being sensitive to the different needs, the different vulnerabilities that men and women have. A multidimensional response is required. In addition to social protection measures, there are other things that could be done. We need to leverage digital technology to enable the cash to be delivered. But here we have to reduce the gender digital divide. This is another gender inequality that disadvantages women.

Food security is another area that we have to really pay attention to both for the urban poor, and the rural poor. We need to think about agricultural policy that helps deliver to women farmers, inputs to seeds and technology, access to extension services, and probably most important, extending to women land rights and ownership over the land that they farm. Another very important anti-poverty policy is making care--childcare or elderly care-- a part of economic infrastructure. I mentioned time poverty earlier. Many countries do not have the appropriate care infrastructure for children or for other dependents. And there's a lot that governments can do through the tax and transfer system, but there's also important ways that employers can step in to provide childcare to their workers, and there's many community-based approaches for cooperative care that can help parents, men and women, better cope with poverty.

And the final area I want to mention is to just extend legal equality to men and women. Today women--our World Bank Group Women, Business and the Law database shows that there are too many countries where legal economic discrimination against women is enshrined. Around the world, women have only 75%, or one-third, of the legal economic rights afforded to men. In 2021, only 10 countries gave women full legal equality compared to their male counterparts. And there's many things that countries can do. They can pass better pay and parental leave policies. They can extend childcare policies. They can extend the regulation for financial services to be digital. But what this means is that more countries have to step up. And in conclusion, all I would say is that if we can get the data and measurement right, if we can accurately capture the profiles of the poor with age and sex desegregation, and if we can have policy and legal reforms that respond to the differential experiences of men and women in poverty, we'll have a much more sound and resilient set of economies around the world.

Shabir Ahmad is a UPSC aspirant, emerging writer from Raiyar Doodhpathri.

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