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Income, Care, and the Gendered Nature of Poverty

04 Mar 2022
By Professor Sharon Bessell
Anju Salvi (in the middle), president of the Sakhi Sangam Women’s Federation, photographed with UN Women’s Second Chance Education programme beneficiaries in 2018. Source: UN Women, Flickr,

COVID-19 has had devastating impacts on livelihoods and reversed the downward trend in the numbers of people living in extreme poverty globally. But in order to innovate responses to poverty, we must acknowledge its deeply gendered nature.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating impacts on the world’s poorest. The World Bank estimates that about 97 million people have been pushed below the International Poverty Line, and into extreme poverty. As shocking as they are, these estimates reveal only a small part of the story. The low threshold for “extreme poverty” globally masks the extent of poverty and the focus on income, while important, renders invisible the ways in which the gendered division of labour — especially of unpaid work and care — shapes the nature of poverty for women and girls.

Despite increasing recognition of the multidimensional nature of poverty, income remains its dominant measurement. Global poverty reduction efforts remain focused on extreme poverty, defined as less than US$1.90 per person per day. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was considerable celebration around the downward trend in extreme poverty, despite progress levelling off from 2017. However, success in addressing extreme poverty, as currently defined, can be achieved by very small increases in individual or household income that move people just above an arbitrary line.

With the global pandemic came projections that extreme poverty rates would rise markedly. This matters deeply and indicates just one of the many devastating human costs of the pandemic. Yet the impacts are far greater than indicated by the trends for extreme poverty. The threshold for extreme poverty is obscenely low. Yes, it does give us a means of measuring and comparing over time what proportion of the world’s population is living in the direst circumstances. But it is set far too low to fully reveal the extent of poverty — and excludes the many tens of millions of people living marginally above that threshold.

More problematically, extreme poverty tells us little about the nature and causes of poverty. By focusing on very low levels of monetary poverty, extreme poverty is unable to reveal the non-material and systemic nature — and drivers — of poverty that are essential to addressing it. Conventional wisdom has been that higher rates of economic growth will eventually increase the incomes of all. Yet, this promise has not been fulfilled and fails to address the gendered nature of poverty while the distribution of income remains unequal. Moreover, a focus on extreme poverty — defined by incredibly low income — does not reveal the multidimensional nature of poverty, and the ways in which it impacts women in particular.

Gender matters in understanding the causes of poverty and the ways in which it constrains the lives and choices of both women and men. It is also crucial to properly addressing. Focusing on low or falling incomes, as important as that is, does not sufficiently uncover the ways in which the stickiness of socially constructed gender relations, roles, and responsibilities shapes experiences of poverty. In 2018, colleagues and I undertook a study of poverty in Indonesia, using the Individual Measure of Multidimensional Poverty, which was designed to be sensitive to gender. We surveyed 5,696 individuals, across 14 dimensions of poverty. The study found that more women than men were multidimensionally poor. It also highlighted the ways in which poverty is gendered. Women were more likely to experience anxiety about running out of food, reflecting their responsibilities for feeding their families. While both women and men experienced health problems, women were more likely to experience headaches, dizziness, and/or difficulty in breathing, resulting from exposure to smoke and fumes from cooking fuel. Women could not avoid the resulting ill-health not only because they could not afford alternative forms of energy, but also because they could not avoid their gendered responsibilities. Women experienced far heavier time burdens than men, with a greater proportion of women working longer hours and undertaking both paid and unpaid work. In one district, only two percent of women reported undertaking only paid work, with no unpaid domestic work and care, compared with almost 27 percent of men who only undertook paid work.

While deprivation in regard to food, health, or time do not alone indicate poverty, they interact with other dimensions to create multidimensional poverty. For women, the obligation to provide care within the household shapes and deepens experiences of poverty. Yet, this is masked when we consider only income. More problematically still, solutions can only be partial when the focus is on increasing individual income, often marginally, rather than addressing the failure of public services, infrastructure, and policies in ways that exacerbate women’s responsibilities.

Why does any of this matter in the context of COVID-19, when paid work and incomes have been in sharp decline for so many?  The unpaid care that women provide, particularly in contexts of low income, is essential to the wellbeing of families and societies. This has been clearly revealed during the pandemic, as it was by our research prior. Yet, as we move beyond COVID-19 responses to long term recovery, what we can learn from the gendered nature of poverty matters even more.  Unless the unpaid work that women undertake in context of poverty is illuminated and valued, and the burden reduced, the gendered dimensions of poverty cannot be addressed — even if incomes rise. Addressing poverty requires deep investment in, and commitment to, collective care at a societal level, rather than a continued reliance on women’s unpaid care.

For decades, poverty has been measured by money, either income or expenditure, and societal progress has been measured by GDP. Neither of these measures have sufficiently revealed the multidimensionality of poverty or the ways in which unpaid care is central to it. As a result, women have carried an unequal burden of poverty and societies have been impoverished by the undervaluing of care.

As the world moves out of the lockdowns and restrictions triggered by COVID-19 there is an opportunity to think differently about poverty — and about what is valued and supported. There must be a focus on those who are in dire material hardship, as well as a concerted response to the underlying causes of multidimensional poverty. There is an opportunity to recognise that ending poverty cannot be achieved by old formulas around economic growth. Rather, there is an urgent need to place care at the centre of policy discussions and for governments to recognise its value. In doing so, the burdens that women shoulder as a result of the gendered nature of poverty are likely to be reduced, and communities and societies are likely to be enriched in ways that go beyond money alone.

Sharon Bessell is a Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.