How do we solve the problem of women’s poverty? 

How do we solve the problem of women’s poverty? 

Written by Leila Hawkins

Photo by Riya Kumari / Creative licence

Leila Hawkins

According to a recent UN Women report, 1 in every 10 women in the world is living in extreme poverty, with the impacts of climate change and conflict ravaging parts of the world where it is already a persistent problem. 

The statistics should horrify us all: the number of women and girls living in areas of conflict has doubled to 614 million since 2017. In these regions, which include Palestine, Haiti, Sudan, Myanmar and Afghanistan, women are 7.7 times more likely than men to live in extreme poverty. Climate change is set to leave 236 million more women and girls hungry by 2030, as competition for already scarce resources intensifies. 

How do we resolve the problem of women’s poverty? UN Women states that only 61% of women of working age are in the labour force, and more than 100 million women could be lifted out of poverty worldwide if governments prioritise education and family planning, fair and equal wages, and expand social benefits.

The report rightly points to the urgent need for “an investment in peace” by governments. The consequences of wars where women’s bodies are frequently targeted are undeniable. 

Investing in policies that enshrine women’s access to basic rights like land, property, healthcare, education and employment in law would cost less than one fifth of the $2.2 trillion spent on military expenditure in 2022 alone. 

But the UN’s approach falls short in one crucial area. Heavily focused on economic growth, the report states that closing gender employment gaps could boost gross domestic product (GDP) per capita by 20%. This places a clear monetary value on women and their worth to the economy in the context of growth. However growth cannot happen without workers, and workers must be raised – ideally in stable, safe homes out of poverty if one truly values the concepts of a healthy society and a healthy workforce. 

Raising children, caring for family members and managing households is still predominantly carried out by women, all over the world. Unpaid care work is vital for an economy to keep ticking over, but remains unrecognised in GDP calculations (it also saves governments billions – in the UK alone, this is estimated to be around £193 billion per year). This not only contributes to gender inequality but also traps many women in a cycle of poverty. 

The accepted model seems to be that the duty of care is subsidised through a mixture of state support and the private sector providing maternity leave and childcare facilities, enabling women to “participate in the formal labour market to use their time to generate income.” But this is merely a sticking plaster that comes undone in reality. Let’s consider two of the richest nations in the world: in the UK the cost of childcare facilities is staggering, while in the US 73% of private sector employees do not have access to paid family leave. It is little wonder then that mothers, particularly single mothers, are among the most impoverished people in society. As an interesting side note, women’s participation in the labour force is highest among both the poorest and richest countries in the world.

The solution is to provide a fair wage to mothers – and carers of all genders – for the critical work they do, without which societies and economies would simply not function. Such an income would transform the economic landscape for women, offering them financial independence and the ability to invest in their and their families’ health, education and wellbeing. 

Since the Covid-19 pandemic shook the world there has been a growing recognition that our current economic models, heavily focused on GDP and traditional notions of productivity, are not sustainable. Up to 80% of the world’s access to food relies on women farmers in the Global South, who, dependent on market forces, experience huge gender inequalities, including lack of land rights and insecure employment. 

A care income offers a radical yet vital reimagining of these models, prioritising wellbeing, equity and sustainability over mere economic growth. This way we can move closer to a world with true gender equality and where the economy serves the wellbeing of all its participants, not just those whose work is measured by traditional indicators of growth. 


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