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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Middle Class Privilege and the Realities of Global Poverty

My friend Marta is working at the YWCA this summer, which I am totally jealous of. She wrote this article for them about the feminization of poverty both in the United States and around the world. I thought it might be of interest. Marta is a rising senior majoring in Health and Society at my alma mater (weird to say that), Beloit College. She is from San Diego, CA, but is working at the YWCA of Rock County in Janesville, WI this summer as the Economic Empowerment Intern.


Women and Global Poverty

Globally, seven out of every ten people who go to bed hungry each night are women.[1]

The feminization of poverty is the direct result of the increasing number of female-headed households world-wide. Previously a western phenomenon, women around the world are increasingly becoming solely responsible for their households. Because men have more earning power than women (30% more in the United States and even more in the developing world), households headed by women automatically lack a tremendous resource. This has resulted in women constituting more than 70% of the world’s poverty.[2]

Poverty is a feminist issue. As the economy takes a turn for the worst, it is clear that many women are carrying twice the burden of their male counterparts. But female poverty goes well beyond the economic depression in the United States. Globally, more than 1.5 billion (yes, BILLION) people live on less than $1 per day, and the majority of them are women who are responsible for children, agriculture (food production), and earning money.[3] Women have suffered profoundly at the hands of misguided cultural practices and norms, as well as urbanization and the emergence of cash economies in rural areas (which generally move men towards cities and away from their families and, consequently, their monetary responsibilities.) Inequalities between men and women run rampant around the world, sometimes subjugating women and girls so profoundly that their lives are literally at stake. It is not uncommon for women to lack the monetary support of a male partner, but also lack entitlement to basic human rights, access to inheritances, as well as land and property ownership. Globally, women are too often excluded from credit as well, which deeply disturbs their ability to rise out of poverty.

So, what are female-focused solutions to global poverty? Short of a global uprising against economic disparities between men and women, many have suggested that “investing in women's access to land, water, fertilizers, [and] farm labor… is the long-term solution to preventing a hunger crisis”[4] as well as lifting women (ever so slightly) out of the type of poverty that threatens their day to day existence. Others have suggested, and in some cases successfully implemented, microcredit programs that specifically target women, giving them access to credit and encouraging entrepreneurial activities. And still others claim that education is the way to brighter economic futures for women (in many countries women and girls are denied educational opportunities, therefore stunting their economic potential.) While these are all wonderful and decidedly practical solutions to helping women around the world make ends meet, none of them directly combat the root of the problem: a global epidemic of negative, harmful, and archaic views of women.

Poverty is a feminist issue. As feminists, how can we ignore the fact that so many of the people living in poverty are women, and many of those women are single mothers supporting their families?

I have privilege living in the middle class and growing up not being deprived of anything important (though I didn't see it like that at the time). But I try to always be aware of this class privilege (as well as my other privileges). It's not always easy, but it's important to point out privilege when it is present to bring it into light and into discussion. This is the only way that the privilege will ever be addressed.

So as feminists, we have the responsibility to acknowledge that privilege that class gives some of us and the realities of women and families that live in poverty. Because of the feminization of poverty is prevalent throughout the world, feminists have to address this social reality. If feminists don't have a say in tackling this massive problem, the women who live in poverty will not have the voices heard all of the time.


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