The Beijing Platform for Action, developed at a 1995 United Nations conference, sets an agenda for women’s empowerment and identified 12 critical areas of concern. Twenty years after Beijing, ShareAmerica assesses global progress in each critical area. This article focuses on women and poverty.

“Poverty is a gendered experience,” says UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta. More women than men are poor. They are often the poorest of the poor. Women may be more vulnerable and less able to emerge from poverty because of their social status in some cultures. Helping women out of poverty requires taking a hard look at cultural values and the dynamics of power between men and women.

In many countries social norms dictate that a woman’s place is in the home, caring for the family. Men provide for the family by working outside the home. Such norms influence laws, policies and access to education, employment and property ownership in many societies. Girls and women have less access than men to education, employment and other resources that bring economic stability and advancement. This is especially true in poor households.

A homeless woman prepares food under a bridge in Jammu, India. (© AP Images)

Women’s experience of poverty

Girls and women do most of the work in poor households to care and feed their family members and other essential tasks. They may gather firewood, water and fodder for animals, care for livestock and tend to crops. This time-consuming, unpaid labor limits poor women’s ability to learn skills and earn outside incomes. Older girls, expected to care for younger children and help their mothers with household chores,  are unlikely to go to school, which perpetuates the cycle of women’s disadvantage and poverty.

Women’s work often includes tending crops. These Rwandan women weed a rice paddy. (© AP Images)

Why focus on women in poverty?

Women’s paid and unpaid work is crucial for the survival of poor households. Yet women own only 15 percent of the land worldwide, work longer hours than men and earn lower wages. Studies show that income earned by women is more likely to be spent on children’s education and well-being, while men spend more of their income on personal needs. Women need equal access to opportunities. Investing in women as economic agents with power to control resources is an effective strategy to reduce poverty for all.

Ways to reduce women’s poverty

Microfinance — small loans and other financial services for poor women who have no access to the formal banking system — has successfully increased the incomes of millions of poor households worldwide by placing money in the hands of women.

Roshaneh Zafar started Kashf Foundation to help women in Pakistan overcome poverty through microfinancing. (Courtesy of Kashf Foundation)

Roshaneh Zafar, a Pakistani social entrepreneur, started Kashf Foundation to help impoverished Pakistani women improve their lives. “I am passionate about transforming the lives of families, bringing them out of poverty,” she says. Kashf has lent U.S. $279 million to help 1,500,000 families to date. The average loan is $300. “Microfinance is not all about giving loans to individuals, but it is meant to change mindsets of communities to enhance their ability to earn their livelihoods and live in dignity,” Zafar says.

Honduran Dulce Marlen Contreras learned this soon after starting Coordinadora de Mujeres Campesinas de La Paz (COMUCAP) to educate women about their rights. Poverty is a chief factor in domestic violence and other problems women face. COMUCAP soon evolved into an agricultural cooperative that grows and sells coffee and aloe vera, giving members economic stability and better lives.

Strategies that put women in touch with resources — money, education, property — are the best means to help women achieve gender equality and alleviate poverty.

The Beijing Platform for Action has more on the 12 critical areas of concern regarding women’s rights. Find out about progress for women in poverty in the 20 years since the Platform for Action was declared.

Learn more about International Women’s Day.