Of the 1.3 billion people who live in absolute poverty around the globe, 70 percent are women. For these women, poverty doesn’t just mean scarcity and want. It means rights denied, opportunities curtailed and voices silenced. Consider the following:
- Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, according to the United Nations Millennium Campaign to halve world poverty by the year 2015. The overwhelming majority of the labor that sustains life — growing food, cooking, raising children, caring for the elderly, maintaining a house, hauling water — is done by women, and universally this work is accorded low status and no pay. The ceaseless cycle of labor rarely shows up in economic analyses of a society’s production and value.
- Women earn only 10percent of the world’s income. Where women work for money, they may be limited to a set of jobs deemed suitable for women — invariably low-pay, low-status positions.
- Women own less than 1 percent of the world’s property. Where laws or customs prevent women from owning land or other productive assets, from getting loans or credit, or from having the right to inheritance or to own their home, they have no assets to leverage for economic stability and cannot invest in their own or their children’s futures.
Women make up two-thirds of the estimated 876 million adults worldwide who cannot read or write; and girls make up 60 percent of the 77 million children not attending primary school. Education is among the most important drivers of human development: women who are educated have fewer children than those who are denied schooling (some studies correlate each additional year of education with a 10 percent drop in fertility). They delay their first pregnancies, have healthier children (each additional year of schooling a woman has is associated with a 5 to 10 percent decline in child deaths, according to the United Nations Population Fund) and are far more likely to send their own children to school. Yet where women do not have the discretionary income to invest in their own or their children’s education, where girls’ education is considered frivolous, and where girls are relied on to contribute labor to the household, they miss this unparalleled opportunity to develop their minds and spirits. Their countries suffer too: the World Bank estimates that nations in South Asia and Africa lose .5 to 1 percent growth in per-capita income per year compared to similar countries where children have greater access to quality, basic education.
In many societies around the world, women never belong wholly to themselves; they are the property of others throughout their lives. Their physical well-being — health, security and bodily integrity — is often beyond their own control. Where women have no control over money, they cannot choose to get health care for themselves or their children. Where having a large number of children confers status on both men and women — indeed, where childbearing may be the only marker of value available to women — frequent pregnancy and labor can be deadly. World Health Organization data indicates that in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, for example, a woman’s lifetime chance of dying in childbirth is one in seven; in the United States it is one in 3,418, and in Norway and Switzerland, one in 7,300. In any given year, 15 percent of all pregnant women will face a life-threatening complication, and more than 500,000 — 99 percent of them in the developing world — will die. Some 130 million girls and women, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, have been subjected to genital cutting at the behest of their parents, and 2 million more face the blade every year, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
Around the globe, home and community are not safe havens for a billion girls and women: At least one in three females on earth has been physically or sexually abused, often repeatedly and often by a relative or acquaintance. By the World Bank’s estimate, violence rivals cancer as a cause of morbidity and mortality for women of childbearing age. Even within marriage, women may not be able to negotiate when and what type of sex to have, nor to protest their husbands’ multiple sex partners. Poverty and exclusion push some girls and women to engage in sex work, almost always the desperate, last choice of people without other choices. Further, the U.S. Department of State indicates that up to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders annually: 80 percent of these are women and girls, and the majority are forced into the sex trade. And in the midst of conflict and natural disaster in countries around the world, women’s risk of violence skyrockets. Systematic rape as a weapon of war has left millions of girls and women traumatized, forcibly impregnated, and/or HIV positive. These factors combined explain why today more women than men around the world are HIV positive. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than twice as many young women as young men are living with HIV, according to the International Labor Organization.
Which aspects of women’s poverty, their lesser economic, legal and social status, are due to sex (the physical attributes and processes mandated by the cellular presence of XX or XY chromosomes), and which to gender (the economic, social and cultural attributes and opportunities that human societies have attached to being a woman or a man)? Gender differences pattern our identities, attitudes, roles, relationships and resources more deeply and persistently than class, race or other social constructs. In all societies, including our own, sex and gender are so tightly linked that we have great difficulty disassociating them. Gender roles perpetuated over time and space are normalized: they come to seem as much the natural order as sex differences. Helping women and men uncover and uproot the profoundly unjust gender norms that keep so many women mired in poverty and bereft of dignity is surely CARE’s most challenging undertaking to date.