The hidden aspects of women’s poverty

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by Claudia Vinay,

Policy Specialist on Economic Empowerment, Gender Team, UNDP

A Hmong woman and her child in VietNam. According to UN Women, women do two and a half times as much unpaid work as men, including caring for children, the elderly and the ill. Photo: Kibae Park/UN

“Let’s make the invisible visible.”

This statement, by Argentina Minister of Social Development Alicia Kirchner, captured a recurrent theme at the global conference on women and social inclusion, recently co-hosted by UNDP in Buenos Aires. Despite the gains that women have made over the past decades, there are still too many factors affecting women’s lives that are not recognized in public policies. Unless they are addressed, efforts to eradicate poverty and drive sustainable development will fall short.

Topping this list is the substantial amount of unpaid work that women do throughout the world, in countries both rich and poor. According to a recent UN Women report, women do almost two and a half times as much unpaid care work as men, from caring for children, the elderly and the ill to preparing meals and gathering water and fuel for cooking. But despite this daily reality that women know all too well, official measures of poverty don’t take into account either the time women spend on unpaid work or the money they might spend to “outsource” this work – such as to arrange childcare so they can go to work.

If these factors were recognized and included in poverty measurements, many more women would be classified as poor, pointed out Ajit Zacharias of the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College at the conference. He called these women the “hidden poor.” In fact, a five-country study conducted by the Levy Institute found that the gap in poverty estimates could be as high as 11 percentage points.  Recognizing the cost of these constraints on women’s ability to get out of poverty is the first step toward developing policies to reduce and redistribute them.

We also need a greater recognition of the disproportionate number of women working in the informal sector, often in vulnerable jobs without social protection. In Nigeria, for example, the many women working in the informal sector, mostly in agriculture and small-scale trading, are not accounted for, noted Abike Dabiri-Erewa, a Member of Parliament in Nigeria. “These women are not recognized and have no access to credit,” she said. “They are working for subsistence, when they could be doing it to grow their businesses. Let’s have a framework that will make it easier for these women to have access to credit. If we can make the informal become formal, it can be a major source of economic and national development.”

There is also a need to bring more attention in policy making to women’s experiences and contributions in conflict and crisis situations and in adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change.

We at UNDP welcome the inclusion of a specific goal on gender equality in the new Sustainable Development Goals expected to be adopted by the General Assembly in September, but call for more work to ensure that these “hidden” issues holding back women, and development progress overall, are addressed and supported with specific indicators for measuring progress in the development goals.


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