Economic Empowerment

``Our goal should always be to improve the economic assets of women as a means of enhancing their socioeconomic position.``

Noeleen Heyzer

Former Executive Director of UNIFEM, 1994-2007

1.5 billion people worldwide live on less than 1 dollar a day, and 70 percent of them are women. According to a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) study in 1995, women carry out more than two-thirds of the world’s work – the equivalent of 11 trillion dollars or almost 50 percent of world GDP. Women also shoulder almost all responsibility of meeting the basic needs of the family. Yet, they only receive an estimated 10 percent of the world’s income and own only 1 percent of the means of production.

Women’s poverty is a violation of their human rights to health, wellbeing and development. Even though there have been efforts to address global poverty, significant progress must still be made to ensure gender equity before we can truly eradicate poverty.

Presently, women disproportionately suffer from hunger, disease and impoverishment. Moreover, with the disparity in wealth between men and women set to widen, the odds for a better quality of life for the world’s poorest women appear slim unless concerted efforts are exerted.

  • It is estimated that over the past decade, women’s work has contributed more to global growth than China or India (The Economist, 2006).
  • Women in the US earned only 77 cents for every 1 dollar earned by a man in 2005. In the developing world, the ratio is just 73 cents, according to estimates by the Institute for Women’s Policy (IWPR). For women of colour, the gap is even worse – African American women earn 63 cents and Latinas 53 cents (IWPR, 2004).
  • Elderly women are 70 percent more likely to be poor than elderly men (IWPR, 2004).
  • In some regions, especially Sub-Saharan Africa, women provide 70 percent of agricultural labour, produce over 90 percent of food, and yet are not represented in budget deliberations (World Economic Forum, 2005)
  • Two-thirds of children denied primary education are girls and 75 percent of the world’s 876 million illiterate adults are women (UNIFEM, 2007)
  • For every year beyond fourth grade that girls worldwide attend school, wages rise 20 percent, child deaths drop 10 percent and family size drops 20 percent (UNIFEM, 2007).
  • Eliminating gender inequality in the labour market in Latin America would both increase women’s wages by about 50 percent and increase national output by 5 percent (UN Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, 2002).
  • Inadequate reproductive health care limits female labour productivity – in some cases by 20 percent, costing the world 250 million years of productive life per annum (UNIFEM, 2007).

Compiled from report for World Poverty Day 2007 by UNIFEM and the Women’s Funding Network

The feminisation of poverty occurs when gender becomes a determinant of poverty, where inequalities between men and women lead to women becoming increasingly poorer than men in general. This phenomenon has become more common in recent decades in both developed and developing countries, due to an increase in the number of poor households headed by women, especially single mothers.

Gender discrimination often lies at the heart of feminised poverty. Biased gender attitudes tend to lead to a disproportionate distribution of income and also restrict women from gaining access to crucial resources such as education, credit and inheritance that may enable them to improve the standard of living for themselves or any children they may have.


Causes of Feminised Poverty arising from Gender Inequity

  • When women do not have access to education, their ability to earn an income and to be protected from poverty is significantly compromised.
  • When women do not have an equal say in their reproductive decisions in terms of the number of children they have, their ascribed responsibility of raising the children curtails their ability to make a living for themselves.
  • Traditional gender attitudes that govern the division of labour and sharing of power in households often prevent women from taking an active role in economic decisions, as they are usually perceived to have a limited understanding of finances.
  • Women tend to be the custodial parents in single parent households. Therefore, they are more likely to bear the economic costs of raising children and become more entrenched in poverty as a result.
  • A lack of career advancement and disparities in wages governed by persistently discriminatory attitudes that women’s work is insignificant leave women vulnerable in the labour market, and many fall through the gaps during economic fluctuations.
  • Sexual and physical abuse of women has significant health and economic costs. Apart from the decline in productivity and the possible loss of employment following abuse, it can lead to a fear of social exclusion that often leaves women emotionally disempowered and even less able to improve their socio-economic circumstances.
  • Social and economic policies that have proven inadequate in prioritising women’s welfare needs and a lack of political representation trap women in a debilitating cycle of poverty.

Effects of feminised poverty

Poverty has serious long-term ramifications for women. Apart from poor job prospects and a lower status in society, the lack of education and training often leaves women financially dependent on men, which not only perpetuates prejudiced perceptions of women as inferior but can also leave them vulnerable to physical and emotional mistreatment. Often, women with few resources to improve their lives are also compelled into trades such as prostitution, where sexual exploitation and abuse are rife and social protections minimal.

Poverty can also lead to health and nutritional problems. Half a million women die from poverty-related health problems, which arise when women encounter difficulties in supporting themselves and their children. Many women give up their own meals so that their children are fed, and as a result they become susceptible to infections and diseases. If left unaddressed, the effects of malnutrition will eventually affect their children as well.

However, society bears the greatest costs of feminised poverty, as it results in lower economic growth and tremendous social repercussions. Moreover, unless substantial interventions are made, the children of these women are also likely to grow up in poverty without the economic and emotional means to free themselves from their circumstances, hence perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty.

When women are given the equality of opportunity that is their basic human right, this can lead to considerable improvements in their economic situation. Giving women access to education, healthcare and economic opportunities is pivotal in enabling them to break out of the cycle of poverty, arming them with important skill sets for greater economic independence. Moreover, studies have demonstrated that society as a whole benefits when women are empowered, as this translates into healthier families, higher productivity and greater wealth.

Giving women a greater say in household decisions will also lead to an improvement in the standard of living of children. Studies by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have shown that if men and women had equal influence in decision-making, the incidence of underweight children less than three years old in South Asia would fall by up to 13 percent, resulting in 13.4 million fewer malnourished children; in Sub-Saharan Africa, an additional 1.7 million would be adequately nourished. Similarly, children also stand a higher chance of being educated when women are empowered, and communities as a whole become more resilient.

Governments can also do their part by providing and ensuring sufficient and effective social protections for women, such as legal assistance, health services, and education.


The Beijing Platform for Action

The Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 culminated in the Beijing Platform for Action, which called on all governments to review their policies and laws to address the feminisation of poverty. It also appealed for governments to devise strategies and administrative practices that reduce discriminatory attitudes towards women while increasing their access to critical economic resources.

These goals were emphasised again at the ten-year review and appraisal of the Beijing Platform for Action, Beijing+10, in 2005, and action for change is ongoing.


Gender-Responsive Budgets

The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Commonwealth Secretariat and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) collaborated in 2001 to launch a website on Gender-Responsive Budgeting to help governments and other organisations uphold their commitments to gender equality in their plans for expenditure by linking these commitments to the distribution, use and generation of public resources.

Government expenditure has different effects on women and men. Therefore, gender-responsive budgets help governments to see how policies can be fine-tuned and resources distributed to ensure fairness to all. It thus promotes equality, transparency, efficiency and accountability.


Strategies Worldwide

Different countries have adopted various measures to address the feminisation of poverty.

  • In Iran and Japan, the government has allocated funds to programmes that help to assimilate rural households headed by women into constructive employment.
  • In Greece, special allowances are given to female-headed families for their benefit.
  • At home, the Singapore government has introduced the Small Families Improvement Scheme to offer financial assistance to low-income families and widows.



Microfinance has proven successful as a tool for empowering women in poverty. Organisations such as theUnited Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and FINCA International have extended loans to impoverished women in countries such as Sudan, Tanzania and Mexico to begin businesses of their own so that they can develop assets that help them to exit poverty. Moreover, evidence from micro-credit lenders also indicates that women have excellent repayment records, are more risk-averse and invest more productively.

This is especially beneficial for women, as they tend to have the least access to credit even though they contribute a significant amount to the family income. Microfinance not only increases their economic autonomy, but also improves the quality of life of their children. Furthermore, it also enhances attitudes towards the role of women as prominent and productive members in their households and communities.


Changing Mindsets about Gender Roles

The government and stakeholders in society play a major role in leading the way towards ensuring gender equality through public education and policies. Until due recognition is given to women’s economic contributions and concerted efforts are made to review and re-adjust perceptions that cast women in roles of inferiority, women will continue to face obstacles in becoming full contributing participants of the labour force and enjoying the economic benefits that they deserve.

The Economist. 2006. Women in the workforce: The importance of sex (click here).

Stephen J. Rose & Heidi I. Hartmann. 2004. This is for full-time workers, Still a Man’s Labor Market: The Long-Term Earnings Gap (Washington D.C. :IWPR) (click here).


UNIFEM. 2007. Investing in Women – Solving the Poverty Puzzle Facts & Figures (click here).

UN Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women. 2002. Gender Mainstreaming An Overview (click here).

World Economic Forum. 2005. ‘Women’s Empowerment: Measuring the Global Gender Gap’ (click here).


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