Addressing Feminisation of Poverty

Evidence suggests that there has been an increase in the population of poor women globally, so much so that it has led to the emergence of the phenomenon of Feminisation of poverty.[1] The increasing number of women in temporary employment, part-time and low-income jobs show the category of working poor to be gender-biased.The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) reports that women represent 70% of the 1.3 billion people who live in absolute poverty, almost 900 million women earn less than $1/day and rural women that live in absolute poverty have increased by 50% while the rise in men is 30 %.[2]This is because of many factors such as population growth, the emigration of men, environmental factors, etc. These factors coupled with the intra-household inequalities make women especially vulnerable to changes in economic, social and environmental factors.[3]

The Framework to address poverty

The Human Rights Approach

Poverty has traditionally been considered as a development problem and focusing especially on women has often been considered as an act of magnanimity.[4] This approach shifts the focus to recognising women poverty as a Human Rights Issue. Here, it is argued that addressing gendered poverty is a part of the globally recognised human rights such as equality. Sandra Fredman argues that simply applying the existing framework of human rights to poverty is not sufficient, but these rights need to be engendered.[5] That is to say that formally recognising that such right exists is not sufficient.’

It needs to be acknowledged that poverty has in many ways been caused by the differential treatment meted out to women. Factors that cause and maintain gendered poverty, such as violence, the primary responsibility of women for household and childcare work, intra-household inequalities, etc. need to be taken into account and addressed. It is one thing to say that someone has a right to A, but another thing to take steps to ensure that A can be exercised.

The first thing that this approach focuses on is that ensuring equality does not only mean a negative right to protection from state interference.[6] It requires a positive obligation on the part of the state to take action to guarantee that right and prevent breaches from others. These positive obligations include ensuring health care, providing education, etc. This approach draws from the capabilities approach of Sen and Nussbaum and focuses on ensuring that the right-owner is capable of exercising those right.[7]

In-fact the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognise that that the two ideals of any human namely freedom from want and freedom from fear can be achieved only if each person can enjoy his political, economic, civil, cultural and social rights.[8] To illustrate, article 12 of ICCPR and article 19 of the Indian Constitution recognises the right to free movement. Such a right cannot be upheld unless the societal and religious norms restricting the movement of women is effectively dealt with. An example can be the recent controversy around Sabrimala.

Although not related to poverty, it provides an insight into how Human Rights cannot be guaranteed unless other intricacies that prevent the enforcement of such rights are tackled. Another example can be the right to education. It is widely recognised that providing education to girls can help alleviate poverty.[9] However, it can be effective only if factors such as violence faced by girls in and on the way to school, access to toilets in the school, family pressure to engage in household work, early marriages etc. are worked upon.

It is also to be noted that this approach does not focus only on women.[10] The increase of women in the paid workforce to a significantly less increase in the contribution of men in unpaid work shows that women have to work longer hours than men.[11] This also contributes to women opting for part-time and low wage jobs. The role of women in facilitating men’s access to work is also often overlooked. An example would be a comparison between existing maternity and paternity leave provisions. In 2004, the International labour organisation showed that around 160 nations had maternity legislation in place but paternity leave provisions are hard to find.[12] This makes the balance between paid and unpaid work more onerous on the women. Thus, there is a need for a more holistic approach. The decrease in women’s participation in unpaid work should be accompanied by an increase in men’s participation in the same.

Fredman came up with a four-prong way of tackling the issue of poverty and ensuring substantive equality. She states that synthesising these ideas should help alleviate poverty. First, she says equality should be asymmetrical in nature i.e. instead of trying to achieve gender neutrality, the focus should be on trying to improve the position of the disadvantaged group.[13] This has two implications. The first being that it talks about levelling-up that is the position of women should be made equal to men and the second states that there needs to be the special treatment of women so that the disadvantaged group can be equal to men in its true sense. This special treatment does not go against equality but helps to enforce it if the focus is on remedying the disadvantage.[14]

Second, the assumption that people need to conform to a male norm should be dispelled.[15] Instead, there is a need for change in male-biased structures. This calls for breaking through the traditional private-public divide and recognise that the disadvantage in one affects the other. Third focus on levelling up.[16] That is on reducing stigma, violence, humiliation based on gender, etc. It is based on Hegel’s concept which acknowledges that others perception towards a person shapes his/her identity in some way.[17] Fourth, regardless of the fact whether a violation of right by any individual is proven or not, there is a positive responsibility to foster change and provide voice and agency to women.[18] This lays focus on the need for those who take decisions to listen to the needs of women and make the policies engendered.

The Capabilities Approach.

It is important to focus on the nuances elaborated by Martha Nussbaum in this regard. It is a more elaborate and superior version of the human rights approach.[19] She claims that the capabilities approach of Sen can be useful only when there is a fixed list of extremely important capabilities. These capabilities are without any idea of utility because people tend to want what they can get. The difference lies between can and should. This list can also be revised from time to time. The idea was that although Sen had outlined the concept, without a list, it remains vague. She draws an analogy with the essential features doctrine of the Indian constitution.[20] This list of capabilities, therefore, enlists the basic entitlements a just society needs to deliver and thus provides a benchmark.

Nussbaumcame up with a list of ten fundamental capabilities that every society needs to provide to be a just society. Further, these capabilities need to work synergistically. These factors are

1. Life. Being able to live to the end of human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living.

2. Bodily Health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.

3. Bodily Integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and choice in matters of reproduction.

4. Senses, Imagination, and Thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason—and to do these things in a “truly human” way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing works and events of one’s own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid non-beneficial pain.

5. Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Not having one’s emotional development blighted by fear and anxiety. (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.)

6. Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life. (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience and religious observance.)

7. Affiliation. Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another. (Protecting this capability means protecting institutions that constitute and nourish such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedom of assembly and political speech.) Having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails provisions of nondiscrimination based on race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national origin.

8. Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.

9. Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.

10. Control over One’s Environment.

11. Political. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association.

12. Material. Being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), and having property rights on an equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to [work as a human being, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.” [21]

This list can be amended according to each nation’s requirements. She differs with Sen’s argument which says that liberty is the most important, the capabilities should therefore not beside constraints and hence a list should not be provided. She argues that some freedom is more important than others and this need not be lost sight of. Capabilities enlisted by her, she claims, protect the idea of liberty.

The Analysis

Defending the capabilities approach with the help of examples

Nussbaum in her book “Women and Human Development” takes the example of two women from India.[22] The first one is uneducated, childless and lives with her own family. Her father has died and her brothers sell auto parts. Her husband was an alcoholic, gambler, and physically abusive. He used the household money for gambling and went to the extent of getting a vasectomy done only to avail the cash benefits that the government was offering. She had taken a loan from Self Employed Women Association (SEWA), an NGO where she is currently employed. She has paid back her brothers and is earning 500/month now. She has two savings account and has almost paid up the SEWA loan.

The second woman is a muscular widow and lives in a hut in a squatter’s colony in Kerala. There are water and electricity in her area and it is close to schools, hospitals and has good transport connectivity. The older children in the locality are enrolled in schools and look healthy. She along with her children used to work in a brick kiln, lifting at least 20 bricks at a time. While the men in such employment get promoted to jobs paying twice as much, the women are ineligible for such promotions. Although the job pays poorly and there is discrimination since it’s a regular one she has stuck with it. Her sons don’t support her and daughters are not skilled. One of her granddaughters has done a nursing course but she’ll have to pay a bribe to be admitted as a nurse. The first woman earns at-least five times more than the second did. But they depict similar patterns of poverty.[23] This is when sex-discrimination is prohibited in India and the constitution guarantees formal equality. 

The lack of education, property and dependence on men made the first women lose her thought of herself as a human with a life plan and having the capability to make choices. Physical abuse led her to lose a sense of bodily integrity and meaningful associations. All this led to decreased self-worth. This shows how capabilities enlisted above are inter-linked. Later, minor changes in her life like financial independence, owning property, affiliation with other members of SEWA organisation, etc. contributed greatly to make her significantly less poor, boosted her confidence and increased self-worth. This also increased her political participation. She has now joined a friend who helped the police in spotting cases of domestic abuse.

On the other hand, the second woman lived in more dire conditions. Had no property, no brothers to support her, had children to provide for, had to engage in household work after working full-time at a brick kiln. However, she was better than the first one in many respects like having greater self-worth, more political participation, better health. Factors such as lack of physical abuse, government facilities like electricity, water, toilet etc. have contributed to it. However, there is still a need to remove corruption in medical services, remove sex discrimination, etc. These examples show how central human capabilities are inter-woven and if kept in mind and acted upon, the situation of poor women can significantly improve.

Analysing micro-credit facilities in light of Fredman’s argument

Micro-credit has been extremely prevalent in resolving the menace of poverty. The idea was to help women start a new business which would consequently empower them. In South Asia, almost all users of this facility are women.[24] It is based on the idea that women tend to focus more on improving their household situations and employ their income for that purpose, while men tend to use it for their benefits.[25] However, instead of leading to new businesses, the money is more likely to be used in already existing ones or on buying goods and other household items.[26]

Even if a new business is started, it is not profitable.[27] Factors like pregnancy, violence, child care also cause hindrance. The proliferation in informal sectors is the result of women entering them to collect money to repay the loan from such credit facilities.[28] Thus, the practice has become a burden on women, consuming their time which is already restricted because of the burden of household work. And in case there is no opportunity in the employment sector, they come under debts and become even more-poor. Some creditors also give loans to pay other debts, which further reinforces the cycle of debt and poverty.

Another problem with this is that it wants women to manage resources effectively, while at the same time fails to address the stereotypical role of women in household and child care work. This can lead to an increase in violence. There were reports of violent attacks in Bangladesh after they were given micro-credit.[29] This shows a correlation that violent attacks increase when there is a threat to female societal norms.

Reports also show that there is no change in structures such as patriarchy and class-based discrimination that contribute to poverty and women still take loans for their male partners.[30] An analogy can be drawn with Nussbaum’s example of the husband getting a vasectomy done only for availing the cash benefits. Here, also instead of improving the women’s position, it makes them worse off by opening up debt-traps. Thus we see that Micro-credit has failed in its attempt to alleviate women and consequently overall poverty.


Women are the poorest of the poor and there is a greater increase in women poverty than men. There has been a departure from the traditional measures of measuring poverty and the Human Rights and Capabilities approach have been put forward to help alleviate poverty. Both these approach focus on ensuring substantive equality and focus on specific issues faced by women and addressing them. Apart from the capabilities listed out by Nussbaum, there is also a need to make the policies engendered as argued by Fredman. This is clear from the above analysis of providing micro-credits. Although it specifically focuses on women and aims to make them independent and empowered. It fails to achieve what it sought to. This is because it fails to remedy the disadvantage, remove the stigma, and address the structural challenges faced by women. Thus to alleviate poverty, the policy providing the central human capabilities need to be engendered.

[1] Valentine M. Moghadam, Feminization of Poverty in International Perspective, The 5 Brown J. World Aff. 225 (1998).

[2]UNIFEM,           available              at

[3] Supra note 1, at 226.

[4] Sandra Fredman, Women and Poverty – A Human Rights Approach, 24 Afr. J. Int’l & Comp. L. 494 (2016).

[5] Id.

[6] Sandra Fredman, Human Rights Transformed: Positive Rights and Positive Duties, Oxford University Press (2008), at chapter 1.

[7] Supra note 4, at 495.

[8] Supra note 4, at 503.

[9] Supra note 4, at 503.

[10] Supra note 4, at 495.

[11] United Nations Development Programme, Gender and Human Development (1995), available at 1995, at p. 93.

[12] Supra note 4, at 504.

[13] Supra note 4, at 505.

[14] Supra note 4, at 506.

[15] Supra note 4, at 505.

[16] Supra note 4, at 505.

[17] Nancy Fraser, “Social Justice in the Age of Identity Politics”, in N. Fraser and A. Honneth, Redistribution or Recognition? A Philosophical Political Exchange (Verso, 2003), at p. 29.

[18] Supra note 4, at 505, 506.

[19] Martha Nussbaum, “Poverty and Human Functioning: Capabilities as Fundamental Entitlements,” Chp. 3, in Poverty and Inequality, David B. Grusky & Ravi Kanbur eds. Stanford University Press ( 2006), at 48.

[20] Id, at 57.

[21] Id, at 58, 59.

[22] Two Women trying to Flourish and Capabilities in Women’s Lives: A Role for Public Action in Martha C. Nussbaum, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge University Press) (2000).

[23] Id.

[24] Jonathan Morduch, ‘How Microfinance Works, Second Quarter’, Milken Institute Review (2013): 50460, at 54.

[25] Supra note, 74, at 512.

[26] Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee, Rachel Glennerster and Cynthia Kinnan, The Miracle of Microfinance? Evidence from a Randomized Evaluation, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 118950 (May 2013), available at (accessed 8 July 2014), at 5

[27] Id, at 26.

[28] Id.

[29] Linda Scott, Thinking Critically about Women’s Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries, available at ideas-impact /skill /knowledge-generation/applied-research/oxfordimpact/impact-essays.

[30] Supra note 4, at 516.

Sanya Zehra Rizvi from The West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata

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