Women and Poverty

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The last few years have seen historic achievements in reducing the number of people who are poor, making the end of extreme poverty possible in the coming generation. That requires cutting the multiple roots of impoverishment. One of the deepest is gender discrimination, which imposes a disproportionate burden on women.

When women are poor, their rights are not protected. They face obstacles that may be extraordinarily difficult to overcome. This results in deprivation in their own lives and losses for the broader society and economy, as women's productivity is well known as one of the greatest generators of economic dynamism.

While both men and women suffer in poverty, gender discrimination means that women have far fewer resources to cope. They are likely to be the last to eat, the ones least likely to access healthcare, and routinely trapped in time-consuming, unpaid domestic tasks. They have more limited options to work or build businesses. Adequate education may lie out of reach. Some end up forced into sexual exploitation as part of a basic struggle to survive.

And while women at large have not yet achieved an equal political voice, women in poverty face extra marginalization. Their voices are rarely heard, for example, in decisions on managing an economy, or sharing benefits and costs.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, adopted by 189 Member States in 1995, reflects the urgency around women and poverty by making it the first of 12 critical areas of concern. Actions under any of these, whether education, the environment, and so on, help women build better lives. But measures targeted to reducing women's poverty are critical too.

Governments agreed to change economic policies to provide more opportunities for women, improve laws to uphold economic rights, and boost access to credit. They committed to collecting better information to track how poverty affects women differently, as knowing any problem is essential for solving it.

Since Beijing, much progress has been made in these areas. There is still far to go. Ending extreme poverty will come within reach only by fully involving women and respecting their rights—at every step along the way.


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Fast facts

Infographic: Poverty

Sources: World Health Statistics, WHO, 2014; The Global Findex Database: Women and Financial Inclusion, The World Bank, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2013.

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In the words of...

Professor Muhammad Yunus – Women at the centre of our economic activity

Photo: Yunus Centre/Nasir Ali Mamun

Professor Muhammad Yunus established the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh with the objective of helping poor people escape from poverty by providing loans without collateral to support income-generating activities. From Prof. Yunus's personal loan of small amounts of money in the mid-70s to destitute basket-weavers in Bangladesh, the Grameen Bank has advanced to the forefront of a burgeoning world movement toward eradicating poverty through microlending. Today it has 8.4 million borrowers of whom 97 per cent are women, and has lent over USD 8.4 billion with a near 100 per cent repayment rate. Prof. Yunus is the recipient of 112 awards, including, the World Food Prize, the Sydney Peace Prize, and the Seoul Peace Prize. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2009.

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Editor's picks

"I bought a mattress and health insurance" – rural Rwandan farmer

UN Women
Photo: UN Women/Stephanie Oula

Where: Rwanda
Organization: UN Women

Through Farmer Field Schools, women farmers are learning about nutrition, modern agricultural techniques and business skills while pooling savings, creating cooperatives and safety nets.

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In southern Malawi, reaping the benefits of investing in adolescent girls

Photo: UNFPA Malawi

Where: Malawi
Organization: UNFPA

Impoverished girls in Malawi who have dropped out of school are being given the chance to return to the classroom and learn income-generating skills. Scholarships to girls from low-income families are allowing them not only learn how to read and write, but also gain knowledge in vocational areas of work to promote their self-reliance.

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Women's cooperatives changing lives and lands in Upper Egypt

UN Women
Photo: UN Women/Fatima Yassin

Where: Egypt
Organization: UN Women, UNDP, UNIDO, ILO

A cattle-raising cooperative in Luxor is securing decent jobs and working conditions for rural women. They are earning an income and are the primary decision-makers on land and labour.

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In the words of family farmers

Where: Guatemala, The Gambia
Organization: IFAD

2014 is the UN's International Year of Family Farming. In this video series, family farmers share their challenges and successes in their own words. Almost half of the world's agricultural workers are women — but in Africa, less than 15 per cent of them own land. Many women, like weaver Ana Maria Gonzalez from Guatemala and rice farmer Awa Jagne from Gambia, depend on both farm and off-farm income to survive.

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Ecuador: Struggling Refugee Family Finds Welcome Breathing Space

Photo: WFP/Gabriela Malo

Where: Ecuador
Organization: WFP

Carmen and her family are impoverished refugees in Ecuador, leaving behind their small business to flee the violence in Colombia. Income for the family now depends on selling coconut juice in the street. WFP works with other UN agencies and local governments to assist them.

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Community listeners' clubs empower rural women and men

Photo: Christiane Monsieur

Where: Africa
Organization: FAO

Community listeners' clubs are groups of rural women, men and young people who meet regularly to find solutions to development challenges together. Working with community radio stations to produce interactive radio programmes who work to overcome poverty through the power of information.

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