Sunday, October 24, 2010

Women and poverty - an analysis by Ritu Dewan of Bombay University

From the Skoch Foundation's Inclusion website

That poverty is gendered is a given, whether in terms of causes, results, or impacts. Consequently, it becomes essential to incorporate gender into development paradigms and specifically into poverty reduction strategies as well as planning processes; unless this takes place, the very concept of gender equality not only becomes marginalised but is, in fact, fully negated, says Ritu Dewan

It is necessary to point out that no analysis of gender mainstreaming into pro- poor strategies, plans and developmental processes can be made until and unless viewed in the context of national and international global forces. Thus, it is quite possible that certain currently operative policies may come into conflict with both accepted definitions of anti-poverty strategies as well as the prevailing dominant development paradigm.

Poverty issues in different countries need to be perceived in a specific historical setting, given the fact that all underdeveloped countries have undergone colonisation. This historical perspective has the necessity to be integrated with the current location of each economy in the prevailing international scenario which is dominated by the neo-liberal paradigm of growth. This paradigm is being increasingly debated and sought to be replaced by country-specific alternatives, all focusing in varying degrees on the major issues of poverty and gender.

While not getting into the details of the discourse on what defines ‘gender’ and ‘poverty’, there can be no debate on the fundamental issue that women and men generally experience poverty differently, whether in terms of causes, processes, impacts, outcomes, results, or coping strategies. The central issue, however, is that perceiving poverty as a static ‘outcome’ negates the fact that it is primarily a process, one that is fully gendered. The loci of economic and patriarchal power determine how, when, where and who makes choices. A woman’s choice is determined for her by her economic resource position, by ‘home responsibilities’ assigned to her by society and by the socio-cultural as well as religious sanctions imposed on her. As a consumer, the woman acts as the purchasing agent for the family and buys the raw materials she uses in household production. As a producer, she is involved mainly in subsistence economic activities, which, even though not recognised as work, underline the basic survival strategies of especially poor households.

The absence of gender incorporation and analysis in development leads not only to misallocation of resources but also virtually denies the very existence of households as well as ‘vulnerable’ sections. Policies that do not take into account gender discrimination - particularly those relating to access to resources and production outlets - negate women’s multiple roles in production, reproduction and maintenance tasks, as also in the distribution and absorption of resources within producing households. This brings into question the very appropriateness of using market analysis in underdeveloped countries where the unit of production is primarily the household rather than the firm, where the non-monetised sector still predominates, and where the motive force of production remains subsistence for the majority of the population both in the urban and rural sectors.

The exclusion of the concept of the family thus has important consequences. As many of the commodities produced at home are substituted for purchased goods, what is maximised is a common utility function in which the household is the unit of inquiry. This utility function is generally equated with that of the household head. The assumption here is thus that the head of the household is genderless - neutrum oeconomicum.

The fundamental problem, however, arises when analysis is based on the notion of the ‘household’. The presumption here is that there are no inequalities within a single household, that its ‘well-being’ is represented by the head of the household. This assumption is one of the most prevalent conceptual biases in both poverty as well as gender analysis. In most Asian countries the ‘head’ is determined by culture and tradition rather than by the economic definition of ‘main earner’. This is very common, for instance, in India, where the reality is that almost one-third of particularly rural households are female-headed. Thus, ‘poverty lines’ as defined often hide the fact that men and women have differential household utility functions, and that both inter- and also intra-household comparisons need to be focused on. It is essential, however, to emphasise that gender analysis by itself cannot be adequate. Gender, which is an asymmetry, is based on the fact that though men do have economic and social power, this power is diluted by various societal and situational conditions that prevail, and also by specific forces that operate at a particular phase of historical development of a country.

Every economy is characterised by two interdependent systems - the system of production of material goods and the system of reproduction of the labour-force, patriarchy being fully integrated with both. The relationship between development, poverty and gender can only be perceived in all its complexities if gendered analysis is integrated at all levels.

A related problem is the eternal linking of women and children even in the sphere of the State and its developmental and planning processes. The very fact that a single ministry such as that in India and several neighbouring countries deals with the issues of both women and children implies that the two are interconnected at every level - nature of problems, solutions, resolutions. The argument for two separate ministries for women and for children is based on both conceptual and methodological grounds - that children are not the sole responsibility of only women, and that an overwhelmingly large share of the already meager allocations are spent on nutrition and other child-specific programmes and schemes rather than on gender-specific poverty alleviation strategies.

Finally, the prevailing dominant paradigm of growth and development works against the solution to the ‘central’ problem of poverty. When the paradigm itself results in raising poverty levels through non-implementation of land reforms; by increasing unemployment via informalisation where labour laws do not operate; withdraws subsidies to the agricultural sector when in fact developed nations are increasing them; reduces expenditure on the public distribution system; refuses to redefine the poverty line in terms of the economic reality of the people; denies that poverty goes beyond the concept of income; throws millions of people into the ranks of the ‘unemployable’ and unemployed particularly through displacement by reducing access to common property resources and appropriating fertile land through the setting up of Special Economic Zones, Special Tourist Zones, etc and also for national and multinational corporate houses in the name of furthering ‘development’ through industrialisation - then no anti-poverty strategy can be successful either for the poor and consequently, even more so for women.

Select References
1. Dewan, Ritu, (1999), Gender Implications of the ‘New’ Economic Policy: A Conceptual Overview, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 22, No. 4, pp 425-429.
2. Dewan, Ritu (2005), Gender Budget Perspectives on Macro and Meso Policies in Small Urban Manufacturies in Greater Mumbai, Discussion Paper Series-12, Human Development Resource Centre, UNDP, India.
3. International Poverty Center - UNDP, September (2006), Working Paper No. 22.
4. Tenth Five-Year Plan (2002-07), Volume II: Sectoral Policies and Programmes, Planning Commission, Government of India, New Delhi.
5. Eleventh Five-Year Plan. Planning Commission, Government of India, New Delhi

Ritu Dewan is Professor, Centre for Women’s Studies / Gender Economics, Department of Economics, University of Mumbai

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