Why Women Make Up a Large Part of the World’s Extreme Poor with CARE Canada

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Around the world, women and girls are disproportionately affected by poverty. Organizations like CARE Canada are working to empower and uplift them for the benefit of all.

Courtesy of CARE Canada

Poverty is a global issue that knows no boundaries. It affects people of all ages all over the world, and while we’ve made progress in tackling this pressing problem, things like the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and conflicts like the war in Ukraine have caused setbacks that continue to push people to the brink.

According to the World Bank, around 700 million people currently live in extreme poverty, subsisting on less than $2.15 USD per day, across the globe. (The World Bank also notes that children are hit the hardest, with them being more than twice as likely to live in extreme poverty compared to adults.) In the special edition of their 2023 Sustainable Development Goals Report, the United Nations states that if current trends continue, 575 million people will still be living in extreme poverty by 2030, “and only about one third of countries will meet the target to halve national poverty levels.”

While poverty affects people of all genders, between 50 and 60 per cent of the world’s extreme poor are women and girls, says Barbara Grantham, President and CEO of CARE Canada, a charity that works to save lives, end poverty and achieve social justice, with a focus on women and girls.

Exploring the Gender Gap in Poverty

“At the root of poverty is inequality, whether you look at it through a lens of gender or through a lens of income or whatever it might be,” Grantham says. The gender gap in poverty, she adds, can be boiled down to “a set of laws, norms and practices that give women less opportunity, less privilege, and reduce their right and their ability to make decisions that impact their lives.”

This inequality extends to several areas, including education, economic opportunities and health. In developing nations, for example, far fewer girls finish school than boys. “In some contexts, girls simply aren’t allowed to go to school, or it isn’t the norm that they carry on for as many years. That automatically discounts their ability to earn a livelihood over time,” Grantham says, adding that for every additional year of education a girl receives, it adds seven years of income-earning capability. 

“When family finances are tight, girls usually drop out of school first. The household chores of caring for other children or for elders usually almost always fall on the shoulders of women and girls. And so that burden of unpaid care work severely restricts their ability to earn and save money,” Grantham adds. 

“And when they do have more, at least, latent opportunity to have access to resources and to earn a livelihood, they don’t have the same access to land – there are many countries where women don’t inherit property, only men and sons inherit property – they’re not eligible for credit, they can’t receive financing, and so even the ability to earn a livelihood is much more constrained than it is for men and boys.”

In many cases, women and girls also have very limited access to sexual and reproductive health care and family planning services. They are severely restricted from making decisions over their own bodies and lives. This leads to higher rates of unintended pregnancies, children, early and forced marriage, maternal health complications, and sexually transmitted infections. (According to the Government of Canada, about 12 million girls under the age of 18 marry against their will each year, meaning there are currently over 650 million women and girls globally who married as children. They also note, “When girls marry early, they and their families are more likely to live in poverty.”)

“So the combination of those things — access to education, the ability to make health choices and decisions over their lives and their bodies, and the ability to pursue economic livelihood — really traps women and girls in particular in a pretty vicious cycle,” Grantham says. 

The Consequences of Gender Inequality

1. Healthcare Disparity

The consequences of this disparity are far reaching and long lasting, including higher rates of death and disease from not having equal or adequate access to health care.

“When food is scarce, women and girls are the first to eat last,” she also notes. The 2023 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report states that “Food insecurity is more prevalent among adult women than men in every region of the world,” with 27.8 percent of adult women in 2022 being moderately or severely food insecure compared with 25.4 per cent of men.

2. Vulnerability to Gender-based Violence

Economic dependence on men can create a cycle of poverty for women, making it difficult for them to break free from financial insecurity and achieve economic independence. 

This power imbalance puts them at risk of being exploited without the means to provide for themselves.”Economic dependence on male family members makes women and girls much more vulnerable to various forms of gender-based violence, domestic violence, sexual exploitation, trafficking, all of those things,” Grantham says. 

3. Intergenerational cycle of poverty

Children born to mothers who live in poverty, for instance, are more likely to experience malnutrition, poor health and have much more limited access to education, “and all of that perpetuates the cycle of poverty for those children that becomes an intergenerational cycle,” Grantham explains. 

“Women make up half the population. And when we’re not affording half the population the opportunity to be educated, to have a dignified livelihood, when they’re barred from decision making processes, when their health and safety aren’t ensured, when they’re at risk, all of the skills that they could contribute to society, all of the economic benefits that they could contribute to society – we all lose. Their families lose, their communities lose, and the bigger world. We’re losing trillions of dollars a year in human capital wealth because of gender inequality.”

One Woman Can Make a Difference

As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, we consider all the ways in which we can inspire inclusion to create a world that’s equitable for all. And when we reduce poverty and uplift women and girls to reach their full potential, everyone wins. That’s why, Grantham says, “We put women and girls at the centre of our work.” 

“The aspiration of gender equality is the focus of what we do, because we know that communities cannot overcome poverty, and we can’t achieve that social justice around the world, until all people have equal rights and opportunities.”

As a global organization, CARE works in about 100 to 110 countries in any given year (which includes life-saving humanitarian work during disaster or crisis situations). But while focusing on women and girls, CARE also works with men and boys to help turn the tide on gender inequality. “We need to engage all members of the communities where we work,” Grantham says.

Most of CARE’s projects, she adds, are focused on increasing women’s access to economic resources to support their health, their right to make choices and their safety (including supporting Village Savings and Loans Associations, where women can borrow money, start their own businesses and gain economic independence). 

“If we can invest in those three things, that gives them control and agency over their life, and it means that we can give them that pathway to a better future, not only for themselves but for their daughters and their sons and their families,” Grantham says.

Empower women and girls today

With so much happening in the world (including multiple — and often interconnected — crises involving climate change, food security and conflict), it’s hard to believe that one individual can make a difference. But when we empower women and girls, it’s the start of a sea change that can transform entire communities and create a safer, more equitable world for everyone. That’s the core message behind CARE Canada’s “One Woman Can” campaign. 

“One woman can absolutely have infinite impact: for her family, for her village, for her community. And that means investing in her education, her health, her safety and giving her opportunities for that dignified livelihood,” Grantham says.

“And when we remove the barriers to a woman being able to earn and save money, the impact that that one woman can have, because of the ripple effect across families, across communities and across generations, is measurable and real.”

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