Women's poverty is characterized by low income, lack of access to assets and by insufficient employment opportunities. According to the the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), systematic discrimination in education and healthcare are also features of poverty affecting women.
According to data published by the United Nations (UN), women bear a disproportionate burden of global poverty and account for 70 percent of the world's poor. This contrasts to the fact that women perform 66 percent of work globally and produce 50 percent of food. Such trends have been institutionalized in the term "feminization of poverty," coined by American researcher Diana May Pearce in 1978. She first used the concept after discovering that two-thirds of poor adults in the United States over 16 years of age were female.
Figures from 2008 reveal that the average pay gap between men and women globally was 17 percent, with the difference particularly significant in the developing world. However, the developed world has not been spared from pay inequality. In 2004, women's earnings in the European Union were about 16 percent lower than men's, according to research by the European Commission. In the United States, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that full-time earnings of American women in 2004 were about 80 percent of what men earned. According to the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW), in 2005 one in seven Canadian women were poor, while the wages of women who were working full-time were just 71 percent of what men earned.
Several factors that fuel the feminization of poverty include the high number of women carrying out informal paid labor. A report by the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) from 2005 states that at least 60 percent of women in developing countries are enrolled in the "informal" work sector. These women face increased poverty risks, due to high indirect costs related to a lack of health benefits, sick leave and insurance. Another factor responsible for women's poverty is migration, as it implies high costs for relocation and taking care of families.
Social factors are also crucial in relation to women and poverty. Juggling work and a family remains a challenge for many women. If women remain longer at home to take care of their children, they have less time to work formally. As a result, more women work part-time, which results in lower earnings. Prejudices about the role of women in society and economy also have an impact. Opinions about what constitutes "women's work" can sometimes result in many women getting jobs as cleaners, domestic servants or textile workers, which are often low paid positions. Cultural traditions in many countries limit the access of women to employment. Human rights group Amnesty International has warned that in some countries women are denied the right to inheritance, especially of property. In other countries, there are concerns that domestic violence can lead to women abandoning their jobs. In some cases, violent spouses can force women to start unpaid work in their family businesses.
According to statistics, there is a lower participation of women in government or other policy-making institutions, which also contributes to the feminization of poverty, as women are deprived of the right to have a say on important matters. Poor access to healthcare services can be both a cause and a consequence of poverty among women, as poor women cannot afford high-quality services. At the same time, they cannot work unless they are in good health. Limited access of women to education in many countries due to religious, social and economic factors, is also a major cause for women's limited range of employment options. A lack of education or poor education ultimately drives women into low-paid jobs or out of the labor market altogether.
International institutions, including the UN and the World Bank, have recognized the problem of women's poverty and have developed strategies to tackle it. Methods of solving the problem include adoption of government policies to eliminate gender inequality and improving women's access to education. UN Women, a new agency launched on 6 July 2011, aims to help the UN to tackle gender inequality and to ensure that millions of the world's poorest girls and women escape from a lifetime of poverty. It is helping 15 countries adopt legislation against domestic violence and is backing efforts to allow women to participate in political decision-making in 25 countries.