Why is it that more than two thirds of the world’s poor are women, although women are only half of the world’s population? Discrimination is a key driver of poverty and women often face discrimination on multiple grounds – they may be denied their rights because they are women and because they belong to a marginalized group. Women living in poverty also face discrimination simply because they are poor. This discrimination can mean that women are excluded from access to justice, protection or services. In some countries discrimination is built into the laws, while in many other countries it persists despite equality laws. Women are often responsible for providing for their families, though are often paid less than men for the same work, do work in the informal sector with no job security and have less access to resources such as land, credit and inheritance rights. Many women living in poverty don’t have access to healthcare because they can’t afford to pay for it or reach health services. Women in South Africa, particularly black women, are disproportionately affected by poverty and the HIV pandemic. Transport costs are high in relation to people’s income and women living in poor rural communities often find it difficult to reach hospitals and maintain their treatment. Many women don’t have adequate food, which is essential for coping with the side effectives of anti-retroviral medication. Women’s low social status compounds the problem as when there’s not enough food to go around, they are likely to be the last to eat. The discrimination women face is linked to violence against women. It shapes the forms of violence that a woman experiences. It also makes some women more likely to be targeted for certain forms of violence because they have less social status than other women and because perpetrators know such women are less likely to report abuse or seek assistance. Caught in cycles of poverty and violence Violence, for women, is both a cause and a consequence of poverty – violence keeps women poor, and poor women are most exposed to violence. Women who suffer from violence lose income and their capacity to earn a wage is impaired. Being poor may make women make difficult choices which puts them or keeps them at risk from violence. A woman who is economically dependent on her abusive partner may see no way to support herself and her children if she leaves. A girl who becomes pregnant as a result of a rape may find herself excluded from school, with fewer prospects of finding safe work and an independent future. Poverty is widespread in Haiti and many parents in rural areas make the choice to send their children to cities in the hope that their life chances will be improved. More than 100,000 girls between 6 and 17 in Haiti are in domestic service. Children in domestic service work long hours doing domestic chores, looking after other children in the family and selling goods in markets and are provided lodging. Far from their relatives and friends, and trapped in a situation of total dependence on their employers, many girls are exposed to physical abuse and sexual violence. With virtually no one concerned for their welfare and few prospects of finding safer work, these girls live a lonely, isolated and vulnerable existence. Women’s lives, men’s decisions Poverty can restrict women’s opportunities to make choices about their own lives. This can be exacerbated by custom, culture and religion which often combine to deny women access to decision-making processes and even crucial choices over their lives and bodies, such as whether to become mothers. In the Philippines, government policies limit women’s control over whether and when to become pregnant as policies prioritise ‘natural’ family planning methods such as periodic abstinence or withdrawal. Lack of access to free contraception hits poor women hard as they struggle to find the money to buy the contraception they need, especially at a time of economic crisis when the costs of goods and commodities are rising. Up to three quarters of sexually active adolescents do not use any contraception. Childbirth is a high risk activity in the Philippines, where ten women die every day from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. High rates of maternal death are compounded by a total ban on abortion meaning that if women do find that they have a mistimed or unwanted pregnancy, they are left with few safe options. At least 400,000 Filipino women resort to clandestine abortions every year and estimate suggest that around 800 women die each year from complications from unsafe abortions. Girls miss out on education Violence and poverty often combine to trap women in difficult situations though education can provide an escape route. Getting an education can open up the possibility of economic independence, increasing women’s choices of how to live their lives. Education is a human right, yet more than 55 millions girls worldwide do not attend school as violence and discrimination impede girls’ access to education. In Tajikistan, many families cannot afford the basic essentials needed for their children’s schooling – text books, clothes and transport. So rather than sending girls to school, they prioritize the education of boys, who are likely to earn more in later life. Many girls do not complete their education but instead care for family members, work in the fields or at the market, or get married at an early age. A lack of education not only reduces women’s chances of economic independence, but also the possibility of them learning about their rights. Women speak out When women know they have rights, they will claim them despite all the obstacles they face. There are inspiring examples to be found throughout the world. Whether acting as human rights defenders or simply as members of their families and communities, women drive social progress and human rights advancement for all. In some countries, women are active participants in the political process and have made significant strides towards political and economic equality. Progress on paper Sustained progress by women’s rights activists over the past decade has brought significant advances in the international community’s commitment to the advancement of women’s rights. At the international level there are legally binding agreements to protect and promote women’s rights while equality between men and women is a key principle reflected in all human rights standards. At national level there are laws in many countries to protect women’s rights, though these laws do little to improve the lives of women if they are not enforced. There are no legitimate excuses to explain why governments have failed to fully implement and make effective the national and international laws passed over the last few decades to end violence against women and end discrimination and despite the leaps forward, many women’s lives have hardly improved. Women continue to be the most affected by poverty, violence, environmental degradation and disease. One thing is certain: equality and rights can only be achieved when women actively participate in political processes and when their voices are heard. The way forward States and international institutions must work harder to protect women’s rights, but everyone one of us has a role in creating the political will for change. We can challenge our governments to improve women’s rights at home, and all around the world, though international cooperation. In September 2009, all government agreed to the creation of a strong new United Nations agency for women. This agency will have greater capacity to help the UN and governments to ensure women and girls around the world enjoy their rights in practice. This new agency urgently needs sustained political commitment and funding to succeed.
Take action to support the creation of a strong new women’s agency at the UN and to stop violence against women in South Africa and Haiti