Women in Poverty: The Key to Breaking the Cycle?

January 5, 2013
The feminization of poverty – or the growing number of women in poverty – has been ongoing for the past four decades. It means that the proportion of women in the world who suffer from poverty keeps growing and that it is becoming a problem that affects more women than men.

It makes sense when you consider social and cultural biases against women in both rich and poor countries. Women often aren’t allowed to own land or a business. Many are denied education as girls, since a majority of parents in poorer regions prefer investing in their boys. 

As a result, they’re even more affected by unemployment than men because their lack basic and advanced skills, which leaves them even more at risk of poverty. In rich countries, the feminization of poverty works in different ways – due to the growing problem of discrimination against single mothers who have to work and raise their children on their own.

The central role of women

It goes without saying that the role of women in families is a central one. Every culture is aware of that and each reacts in very different ways: trying to reduce this form of power by asserting “male” power over it, acknowledging the importance of women in transmitting culture or on the contrary defining strict limits to the role of women so that they don’t become too important.

There are countless social norms around this issue and the vast majority has been set by men over the centuries. Why are women so important?

  1. Education & culture - they spend more time with children
  2. Health – educated women can better identify and help sick children, thus avoiding early deaths and diseases
  3. Economy – allowing women to work makes a huge difference for poor households but also in terms of sheer economic growth
  4. Violence – women are less inclined to physical violence compared to men (be it just in terms of how they're educated early on in their childhood). They’re also one of the main victims of violence worldwide.

A hundred million missing women

women in nepal
‍How many women live a life far too short?

"Missing women" is one of the most famous aspects of the feminization of poverty. The term was coined by Amartya Sen when he observed that in India and in China millions of women were “missing”. How did he see that? Simply by observing that in many regions, there were many more men than women: the gender ratio in the population was unbalanced. In total, it’s estimated that over 100 million women are missing worldwide; i.e. there should be 100m more women - if they hadn’t been killed or otherwise left for dead.

What is killing women in poverty?

The cause lies in social and cultural biases. The one child policy in China (and to a lesser extent in India) led many families to kill or abandon newborn baby girls, so as to try their chance again and hope to have a boy. The reason is the same in most cultures around the world: boys have a higher social status. Why? 

Boys carry on the name of the family and most of all they're often in charge of taking taking care of their parents when they get old (while girls usually join their husband's family when they get married). This is the oldest type of pension system in the world, and the only option for the elderly in many societies.

So, if you have the right to get only one child, a boy means you will have a “pension” and be able to live decently in your old days. Having a girl means you’ll have to work until you die. It's all a matter of economic choice. The challenge today remains to help parents understand that girls can also attend school, make a living and help their parents. But this entails changing the way things work in entire cultures and societies.

Causes of missing women in poverty

The impact of poverty on women is in fact much more complex in other parts of the world. Missing women in some parts of Africa is rather due to sky high HIV/AIDS infection rates and because sometimes women don’t have access to treatments even when they are available. In other Sub-Saharan countries it’s actually the opposite, there are more women than men because men tend to die first in conflicts as they’re recruited by force by local militias. However, at times it causes entire families to move to refugee camps (when there are any). And many die on the road too.

Overall, there are more regions with excess of women in Sub-Saharan Africa which opens a huge door to changing the condition of women: in particular in terms of access to education and jobs. Now if the local population and governments can see that, there is a massive prospect for economic growth by providing opportunities for women in poverty to make a decent living and take control of their own lives.

Missing women in Africa: worse than Asia?

one billion women suffer from violence
‍One billion women will suffer from violence today

Unexpected findings

Comparing the fate of Asian and African women is very difficult, but a recent study on women in poverty has obtained interesting results when trying to rule out external factors specific to each culture.

This is so that we can better understand the direct impact of the environment on the feminization of poverty in each case.

The main finding is that the problem of missing women in Africa is in fact just as important as in China or India. But the problem appears completely different in Africa.

The reason why it seems at first that Africa is doing better than India and China is that at birth, there is a very normal ratio girls/boys, whereas in China the ratio is disproportionate at birth. This means that most Chinese couples get to decide whether they’re keeping their baby before it’s even born. These girls are said to be “missing at birth".

Causes of deaths in Africa...

In Africa, women in poverty suffer from very easily preventable diseases, lack of hygiene and safe water. Malaria in particular is one of the main causes of death among young African girls. Another problem is the number of women who die giving birth, which accounts for a great number of missing women too. These problems alone account for as many deaths as in India and China.

But the main killer of African women remains HIV/AIDS, which is responsible for 30% of all missing women in the continent. This explains why the “lack” of women in Africa concerns women of older age than in India and China.

… and in India & China

The estimated number of women missing at birth is about 10% in India, while the number goes as high as 50% in China. This means that - as opposed to the idea that Chinese parents massively abandon their kids on the side of the road - they rather tend to use abortion in order to avoid giving birth to a girl.However abortions are not always an option when couples find out too late about the sex of the unborn baby. And performing a belated abortion often puts at risk the life of the mother.

All this shows that women are dying at all kinds of ages - but always years before their expected life expectancy would want it. Deaths of women before the age of 18 in India and Africa make up only 30% of the lack of women. Diseases in particular are a prime cause of missing women and of the feminization of poverty. It’s not that diseases target women in particular; it’s just that women are more prone to suffer from, say, HIV as they’re victims of sexual aggression.

A good deal of women in poverty also die giving birth because of malnutrition and lack of hygiene. In India, an unexpectedly high number of women die from heart diseases (e.g. strokes and heart attacks), even though doctors are well aware that Indians – as an ethnic group – are often at risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol. In China, a lot of women also die when giving birth but there are also many who die at an early age from lung diseases. 

Why more girls than boys die from lung diseases remains unknown and there are huge suspicions of some form of discrimination against young women in rural areas. It’s important to start more research to understand why so many women – including among the population in their 50s – die from preventable diseases, while the male population seems to be doing better.

Violence against women

stop violence against women campaign
Campaign to stop violence against women

At last, officially a human rights issue

About 20 years ago the World Conference on Human Rights acknowledged violence against women as a human right issue. At the same time, people (i.e. men) gradually realized that it was a huge challenge to economic development, just as any public health issue.

Poverty is an obvious cause of violence, against both women and children. It’s also an effect of violence: the more abused women are, the easier they fall into a poverty trap by running away from their husband, having to raise a family on their own (only one income for a household), and suffering from health problems that can stop them from finding work. In other words, the more violence there is, the more women in poverty there will be.

But violence against women is not just domestic and not all women suffer from violence at home. There are actually many other forms of violence that women suffer from every day: harassment, sexual abuse or fear of violence all force women to endure degrading situations at work or otherwise, for instance when dealing with local officials.

In fact a study by the World Bank revealed that most women consider violence one of the worst aspects of poverty. When looking for a job, when asking for a loan, government support or other, they always face the risk and humiliation of sexual abuse. Men in poverty suffer from a different type of degradation and humiliation that is based on physical violence or social humiliation. For men, there is an obvious advantage in doing so. It re-affirms their dominant position and it reinforces the economic and social dependence of women on them.

Health risks and complications

Violence against women leads to an unimaginably long list of health problems. For example, rape leads to unwanted pregnancies, sometimes in young girls who aren’t fed well enough to survive a pregnancy. Needless to say, rape also leads to several physical and mental injuries. It also involves a risk of becoming infected by STIs (sexually transmitted disease) including HIV/AIDS. Research shows that women who have been abused at a young age are much more likely to keep on having risky sexual behavior. 

The experience of abuse literally scars them for life, both physically and mentally. Violence is in effect one of the main causes of mental diseases among women in poverty, as they repeatedly lose their self-esteem, fall into depression and often try to commit suicide.

Not to mention that, when pregnant, abused women have a much higher rate of stillbirth and miscarriage than other women - i.e. more traumatic experiences. It goes without saying that this situation is most damaging to children who witness their mother suffering from violence and see their condition deteriorate year after year. As they witness their mother being regularly beat up (for example), they tend to suffer from eating and sleeping disorders along with very poor performance at school.

The economic impact of keeping women in poverty

feminization of poverty
‍The feminization of poverty has a dreadful impact on the economy

Poor health & economic exclusion

It’s a known fact that widespread poor health is a factor that can affect an entire economy's performance. For those of you with basic math skills, it’s easy to spot that women make up half of a country’s workforce and therefore if half of the workforce is abused that’s quite a waste of opportunities for both the population and the economy. 

When faced with violence, women (and anyone in general) become less productive, earn less and are sometimes forced to run away from home and accept degrading, underpaid jobs as their last resort.

But sometimes, culture also plays a different role. A great deal of violence against women in poverty also forces them to stay at home and prevent them from working. From an economic development standpoint, women represent a huge untapped source of wealth and opportunities for most countries.

 And you can’t help but realize that most social systems were been built to keep women under the control of men, which is sometimes very explicitly acknowledged.


It’s an entire process of maturation - culturally and socially speaking - to understand why women should even have the same rights as men. 

In most countries around the world, inequality is a given and should be addressed with tact by NGOs or foreign institutions. 

Showing the economic benefits of having women work for example is one way to slowly change things. But old habits die hard - especially in small, traditional communities – and these old habits contribute to sky high illiteracy levels among women, low self-esteem and poor health. 

All these problems fuel even more the vicious cycle of women in poverty. Breaking this cycle will require tons of thinking outside of the box to bring real change.


  • ‍Restructured Regions and Families: The Feminization of Poverty in the U.S., John Paul Jones III and Janet E. Kodras, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 1990
  • Finding a Better Way, Jill Duerr Berrick, Faces of Poverty, Portraits of Women and Children on Welfare 1997
  • Monitoring progress towards gender-equitable poverty alleviation: the tools of the trade, Bipasha Baruah, Progress in Development Studies 2009
  • Giving Women the Credit, Ruth Pearson; Erika Watson, Gender & Development 1997
  • The Poverty of Lone Women, Their Diversity and Income Sources, Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, Poor Women in Rich Countries, The Feminization of Poverty Over the Life Course 2009
  • Government Policies for Lone Women, Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, Poor Women in Rich Countries, The Feminization of Poverty Over the Life Course 2009
  • Missing Women: Age and Disease, Siwan Anderson & Debraj Ray, Review of Economic Studies 2009
  • Poverty Reduction and Violence against Women: Exploring Links, Assessing Impact, Geraldine Terry, Development in Practice 2004
  • "They Get You Out of Courage:" Persistent Deep Poverty among Former Welfare-Reliant Women, Lydia L. Blalock, Vicky R. Tiller, Pamel A. Monroe, Family Relations 2004
  • Women and Poverty in Morocco: The Many Faces of Social Exclusion, Loubna H. Skalli, Feminist Review 2001
  • Empowered women, social networks and the contribution of qualitative research: broadening our understanding of underlying causes for food and nutrition insecurity, S Lemke, HH Vorster, NS Jansen van Rensburg and J Ziche, Public Health Nutrition 2003

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Dario Berrebi

Digital strategist, researcher & filmmaker. 

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