Poverty among Women in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Review of Selected Issues

By McFerson, Hazel M. | Journal of International Women's Studies, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Poverty among Women in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Review of Selected Issues


McFerson, Hazel M., Journal of International Women's Studies


Abstract

Gender discrimination resulting in greater poverty among women is widespread throughout the developing world. However, the incidence of women poverty, as well as its depth and their vulnerability, is particularly marked in Sub-Saharan African countries of the tropical belt, albeit with significant rural-urban differences. The article reviews the interaction of traditional restrictions on women property rights, weak governance and violent civil conflict in perpetuating gender discrimination and women poverty in those countries. Statistics show some progress in women development indicators in Sub-Saharan Africa during the last decade, partly associated with improvements in governance and the end of civil war in some countries. Consolidating and advancing this progress requires targeted initiatives that take into account the circumstances of different groups of women while also encouraging the formation of bridging networks among groups and the provision of greater openings for women's "voice".

Keywords: Poverty, Gender and development, Africa, Governance, civil conflict, human rights, property rights

"Poverty was there before I was born and it has become part of life like the blood through my veins ... Poverty is watching your own children and grandchildren die in your arms but there is nothing you can do ... I know poverty just like I know my father's name. Poverty never sleeps. Poverty never takes a holiday." (1)

Introduction

The 'feminization of poverty' is a feature of much of the developing world, with females accounting for half of the world's population but 70 percent of the poor (Moghadam, 2005) (2) This article reviews major causal factors of poverty among women in Sub-Saharan Africa--mainly rural women in the countries of the tropical belt. (3) Of course, there are significant differences in the condition of different groups of women in the various countries. However, they share a common predicament, rooted in the interaction of three major factors: weak governance, traditional restrictions on women property rights, and violent civil conflict. Although each of these factors has been present at one time or another elsewhere, it is only in Sub-Saharan Africa that all three have been present in contemporary times--as shown among others by Collier, 2007, Cornwall, 2005, and Gordon, 1996. This interaction has had a severe negative impact on the status, condition and welfare of women in Sub-Saharan Africa (hereafter simply "Africa").

The aspects of poverty

Poverty results in hunger, lack of shelter, illiteracy, inadequate health care, and so on, but is not defined fully by any of them. The proximate causes of poverty include one or more of the following: low income; low assets (whether physical or human capital); lack of opportunities (whether from adverse location or other reasons); and social exclusion (often but not always associated with ethnic minorities). The worst forms of poverty are those that combine all four of these aspects: income poverty, asset poverty, opportunities poverty, and access poverty.

Accordingly, a distinction must be made between contingent poverty and structural poverty. Contingent poverty occurs as the result of a specific adverse event--e.g., a sharp rise in food or fuel prices, a natural disaster, and the like. Contingent poverty is inherently temporary (although the event may well cause households to fall into permanent poverty), and is reversible as soon as the adverse event ceases, albeit at a non-recoverable cost owing to the need for transitional sacrifices and adjustments. The appropriate policy response to contingent poverty is to address the effects of the adverse event and stimulate general economic activity and growth in the affected area. ("a rising tide lifts all boats ..."). Structural poverty, by contrast, is deeply rooted in the economic, social and political fabric of the country, and no general policy of economic stimulus or investment will succeed in reducing it (". …

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