“70% of the world’s extreme poor are women”.
I’m sure you’ve heard this before. Or perhaps the term “feminisation of poverty” sounds more familiar? Either way, you should know this statistic might be quoted often, but it lacks robust data. No, 70% of the world’s poor aren’t women. Poverty affects each and everyone. However, poverty is far from being gender neutral since individuals experience it differently. Thus, poverty is gendered.
The 70% claim started in May 1995 in the annual Human Development Report and was further corroborated by countless politicians at countless conferences. Since then, multiple sources, including the UN Statistical Division, have concluded that this statistic was a mistake. And in fact, based on the 2013 International Income Distribution Database, poverty is split equally by gender and age.
Even though women and men experience poverty in equal proportion, they do not experience deprivation at the same level. Evidence shows that if a household lives in extreme poverty, the most vulnerable members receive smaller portions of food, less access to education and healthcare. In most cases, this translates into women, children, people with disabilities, and elders suffering the most.
Moreover, poverty rates are highest among children, particularly among girls. Children account for 44% of the global extreme poor. At the peak of productive and reproductive ages (25-34) for men and women, the gender gap in poverty widens further. As women become wives and mothers, they often stop working or work less to care for their children and husbands. Since this falls within unpaid labour, women are often left without steady earnings or savings in case of separation and/or death of their husband. Gender differences in poverty rates even out between the ages of 40 and 65, but emerge again in the elderly years in reverse. Here, events of life such as marriage, divorce, separation, or widowhood impact men and women differently but often affect women more negatively.
Interestingly enough, whereas countries with the lowest extreme poverty rate (Europe and Central Asia) have the smallest gender poverty gap, the largest poverty gap is found in Sub-Saharan Africa holding most of the global extreme poor. Gender inequality (especially the gender pay gap) has also been found to worsen poverty. Lastly, poverty exacerbates gender-based violence, which primarily affects women and girls.
Even though most of the differences in poverty can be associated with age and life events, there are still gender differences that affect women disproportionately. To understand and fight poverty, there are new measurements and opportunities to ensure that countries’ and communities’ efforts to end poverty do not leave anyone behind.
Although the 70% might represent a myth, a ‘zombie’ statistic, one should go beyond statistics and understand how a concept such as poverty remains far from being gender neutral.