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Gender dimensions of poverty

Sep 11, 2008

Women in Bangladesh are among the poorest of the poor in the absence of livelihood opportunities, and a patriarchal set up that prevents them from being economically independent. Shamima Pervin, gender and social inclusion advisor, says it is not possible to change women’s status without addressing their asset and income base.

Women own less than 4% of the total cultivable land in Bangladesh. Due to patriarchal set up, as anywhere else around the world, they are largely excluded from capital accumulation process.

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They are neither considered bread-winners nor future successors of the family, which provide ample logic to support the systemic discrimination against women.

The irony is that women head at least 25% families of all landless households and they represent the poorest category in absence of livelihood opportunity.

The incidence of ultra-poor (intake of 1600 kcal) and extreme poor (intake of 1805 kcal) is higher for female-headed households than male-headed households.

The survey

The Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2005 reveals that about 29.6% of divorced/widowed women are in poverty, against the national average of 25.1%.

In absence of asset-based entitlement, poor men have freedom to exchange their labour power in the market and obtain remuneration.

These men can also seek dowry as primary accumulation of capital. On the other hand, poor women do not have freedom to exchange their labour power, as they need their family's approval, and there is also restricted employment opportunity, due to gender division of labour.

Even with labour market access, they face wage discrimination and harassment. Women's roles in caring for their family and cultural restrictions on their freedom of mobility worsens their poverty situation.

Permitting prostitution but not rickshaw pulling

The female-headed households have virtually no options other than being destitute, as they have nothing to sell and very limited options to exchange their labour power.

The society permits a destitute woman to be a sex worker but not a rickshaw puller. A young girl cannot work in a local tea stall.

On the other hand, the poor male-headed households can sell their minimum physical asset or the homestead, achieved through patriarchal inheritance, or can migrate for wage work.

It is impossible to change patriarchal notion of ownership over means of production, as well as production relations overnight.

However, recognising the gender dimensions of poverty, and achieving MDG goal on poverty, and hunger, the state and private sector must act to transfer asset and income to women, particularly to female-headed households, to those who are widows, divorced or separated.

The income base for women would support them and their families to increase their level of consumption, income, asset, health and education, work opportunity, social status and so on.

Breaking the silence

Greater resource control by women changes expenditure patterns of the household, and outcomes that strengthen women's as well as their family's well-being. These women are more likely to spend on family and on children than men.

Also, women's empowerment, in claiming rights, is critical in order to obtain fair share in household resources, food, and access to education and health.

The asset and income base would help women and the country not only to overcome poverty, but also to curtail brutality of dowry and domestic violence.

Awareness raising activities have definitely contributed to breaking the silence against the centuries-old tradition to perpetuate discrimination and violent culture against women.

However, without addressing the asset and income base of women, it is not possible to change women's status within the family or society.

Control over production

In any given context, those who possess means of production or control over production, they ultimately devise rules, laws, norms, and values in favour of themselves. This rule of the game has created both the concept of class and gender.

This crude reality could not change the dowry or domestic violence situation despite extensive awareness raising activities, adoption of policy and laws against dowry or violence against women.

The government, NGOs and donors, spent a significant amount of fund in VAW and anti-dowry programmes without any specific change in this respect. Now, dowry has become a non-negotiable issue of interest, as it has created livelihood option for men.

To some extent, working in garment industries has given some bargaining capacity to curtail dowry price. As a whole, Bangladeshi society has observed that education, engagement with income generation, and garments work has brought substantial changes in women's lives as well as in the society, as these have to some extent the touched root causes of women's subordination.

Education helped

Bangladesh's substantial success in education helped in dropping fertility despite the low age at marriage. These achievements might have been expanded with women's increased labour force participation or involvement with entrepreneurial activities.

For instance, garments work helped women in marrying later. Working women plan families for their own interest, for which external motivation is not required. Women's asset base supports them in undertaking reproductive decisions or influence husband to be partner in using contraceptives.

High fertility among poor

Fertility is high among the poor, as male children are their key earners. If mothers are self-reliant, they will envision their children's future in a different way. So, existing concern about population threat could be minimised with women's asset and income base.

While visiting a haor area in remote Sunamganj, I have seen how gender awareness as a stand-alone activity was meaningless to an extremely poor woman, as her husband was away from her to work as a year-long bonded labourer in exchange of small remuneration.

At the same locality, to another extreme poor family, awareness with respect to equal food distribution among boys and girls meant nothing, as they had to adjust their consumption in order to save more food for the boy since he was the only earner for the family.

The family might think about the daughter equally if she had any work opportunity.

Awareness not enough

So, following the contribution of the ready-made garment industry, education programme and micro-credit or income generation, the government, private sector including NGOs, civil society and definitely families should invest more in women and transfer something concrete to them.

Neither MDG goals nor PRSP agenda nor the empowerment of women will be achieved through only awareness activities. Investing in women in concrete terms, as well as transferring asset or income, requires high priority.

For example, government's 100 days employment generation programme should devise mechanism to ensure employment of women living in poverty.

At the same time government intervention for women's development cannot be gender sensitive only with safety net programmes for women.

Women do not want to be treated as dependents but want to be included in the mainstream development process.

Shamima Pervin is Gender and Social Inclusion Advisor, DFID funded project SHIREE.

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