The Female Face of Poverty

I had the privilege of participating in creating “London For All: A Roadmap to End Poverty”. Although of course I think all the content is important, I particularly value the following lines:

“Poverty impacts everyone, but it impacts people differently and for different reasons. The recommendations are about ending poverty for everyone; this means we must acknowledge that some groups and communities are more likely to experience poverty today because of deeply embedded social and structural inequities.”

This equity stance is key to making progress on poverty as it forces us to look upstream at more systemic issues, acknowledging that differentials in poverty are not due to individual causes. Rather, there are structural components underlying the statistics, and I wanted to take a moment to talk about gender and poverty.

“Poverty has a woman’s face.” This quote has been attributed to human rights activist Tahira Abdullah, but also shows up in the UN’s 1995 Human Development Report. In this report it is noted that of 1.3 billion people in poverty, 70% are women. Although not to such a drastic extent, this is congruent with London, Ontario data where women out-number men in accessing social assistance, and congruent again with provincial and national poverty data.

So why is poverty gendered in our community? I would suggest that there is no single cause but rather that every component of the systemic oppression of women plays a role. These include but are not limited to:

  • The gendered wage gap
  • Occupational segregation
  • Ascribed gender roles, particularly those that are education-limiting or work-limiting
  • Barriers to participation in policy-making
  • Unequal burden of risk to exposure to violence and trauma, and cumulative impacts
  • Biases in education streaming
  • Insufficient policies related to maternity, perpetuating an ongoing disadvantage for women who choose to have children
  • The unaddressed relationship between experiences of domestic violence and job loss

This all seems rather overwhelming. However, I believe it makes the message very clear: We will not see the end of poverty until we address underlying oppressions. This means that although downstream components such as better access to healthy food, affordable housing, and public transportation are important, we also need to address discrimination based on gender, race, class, ability, and other social locations. This is harder work, it means changing culture, it means changing mindsets, it means difficult conversations. But it’s worth it, because ending poverty is the right goal and we need to take every possible step to get there.