Why the ‘feminization’ of poverty happened:

Men designed culture and economies that way!

by Najma Sadeque

It has probably got something to do with the male psyche or genes or an invariable kind of conditioning that is as old as hills. There was once a belief that poor men treated their womenfolk better because they understood the pains of poverty. Not necessarily.

It came as a shock that this poor man regularly hired out his family as a work gang to zamindars or middlemen. Not quite forty, he is usually found in a horizontal position, not even sitting up to talk to the visitors. He never exerts himself. His wife, older children, sister and mother do all the work. He just collects the payment from the contractor. Nor would he reveal how much he’s paid. Was it per worker? Or a lump sum for all? Family members received nothing directly, nor would they dare ask.

What if they demanded it of him? When a couple of them were taken aside and asked. They were scandalized. Such things were not done. They would get beaten, maybe thrown out of the family. Where would they go then? They would be ostracized by the community. He was the head of the family, and what he said, goes. His qualification for such an elevated status? He was a MAN. A woman was nothing without the ‘protection’ of a man (even if the woman had to earn her keep?)

Men who employ them find this arrangement perfectly ‘normal’ and advantageous. Women get half-wages or less for the same work; children are just family ‘helpers’, their productivity not counted. The man ensures they work satisfactorily, so no supervisor is needed. Maintaining the subordinate position of women is an unspoken understanding.

In the rural interior, one finds countless such gypsy-like landless families moving from farm to farm seasonally to earn their living. The men work too – but not all. There are good guys and bad guys; the problem is that the bad guys who are aggressive and have no scruples about using unwarranted and excessive force, always have the upper hand, especially if they have guns. The good guys treat their female family members well, but lack the guts to take a stand against bad guy behaviour.

That explains a lot about the state of our society, politics and governance. There are also countless cases of educated wives who are sought as wives for less qualified men, so that they can earn and support the husband and family better.

Women sometimes raise the issue of wage gaps between male and female workers. The ‘experts’ and decision-makers, mostly male, employers or government servants, have the same biased mindset. They neatly evade identifying the gender of those guilty of practicing and perpetuating inequality. They understand one another. They may be willing to give women some latitude. But somewhere they draw the line. Women, they believe, are not really equal to men because they are biologically made that way. Or they are not quite ‘ready’ or evolved to be equal.

It is not just in our country or region. It is a global state of affairs.

70 per cent of the world’s poor are women. The UN finds that women “earn only 10 per cent of the world’s income and own less than one per cent of the world’s property.” This, in spite of women putting in two-thirds of the world’s total working hours. They also produce over half the world’s food but get to eat the least of it. It all boils down to discrimination and exploitation, easy against the physically weaker.

Have women always been the poor majority? Not according to archaeological and anthropological research. Contrary to our impressions which we get from what we see and read, women actually did not get the wrong end of the stick for most of history. Certainly gender differences greatly determined the kind of work taken up, but everyone’s work was equally valued and viewed as complementary.

Ironically enough, the problem began with material improvements and quality of life, when ‘progress’ and affluence came for some – but not for all. The stronger used force or deviousness, or both, to appropriate control over resources. Leaders introduced private property for themselves and its inheritance, often exclusively for male heirs. They could employ disadvantaged people without choice, for their services.

The captives of conquest and ethnic or religious or other discriminated groups became slaves, and they and their children became the property of their masters. The status of women was demoted to being the ‘weaker sex’; they became the property of fathers and husbands, and subordinate to all males. Often, even women from well-off families could not own property or have legal rights.

Feudalism and monarchy became the stepping stone to future capitalism. It was easy enough to invent racial, religious, biological or other reasons with which to justify women’s dependence and ‘inferiority’ to men as being part of the ‘natural order’. As unpaid or least-paid labour, women became poorer and poorer.

Over time slavery was no longer economically worthwhile, even where legal. Slaves required guarding, feeding and maintaining, which cost the employer time and money. It transpired that it was cheaper to use them as ‘free’ wage-labour and let them bear the responsibility for their own survival. This held particularly true during early capitalism.

When factory production came about in the west, millions of poor women were forced into the highly exploitative wage-based labour market. There were many jobs that men and women could do equally well. But because women were docile and could be paid less for the same work they were preferred as workers. Because they were desperately in need, they accepted what was offered rather than not get the job at all, not least because they had to support children and family, often as sole breadwinners.

Things haven’t changed much since then. Globally, on an average, women earn half as much as men for the same work and productivity; in some countries a third or fourth. On top of that, unpaid chores designated ‘women’s work’ – cooking, cleaning, washing, housework, carrying water over distances, fuel gathering – constitute between a quarter to half their labour, which means working even longer hours alongside paid work.

In earlier societies, it was understood that all of nature’s endowments – especially land, water bodies, forests, wild plants and minerals – came free, and therefore everyone was entitled to a fair share or its equivalent for survival. But when some groups or rulers appropriated and claimed exclusive ownership of natural resources under any pretext such as ‘divine right’, the dividing line between the rich haves and the poor have-nots became sharply delineated. People became even poorer when denied access to land on which they grew their food and got a surplus for sale.

So violation of natural rights began long ago, first with the violation of women’s rights. They suffered discrimination and violation in the home, the workplace as well as in public spaces.

With capitalism came heightened violation of human rights. As far as today’s economists, planners, political representatives, statisticians and other ‘experts’ are concerned, ‘work’ applies only to those activities that get paid for, although without women’s housework and child-rearing, men would not be able to take women’s home services for granted to be able to go out to work.

Even today, women working outside the home are expected to continue being the primary care providers at home. Those who can afford nannies are exceptions. Globally, most working women work ‘double shift’, paid for farm or factory work, but without any remuneration for housework. Raising children who have special needs, costs money, and for most families, two incomes are necessary. Women work to cover all or most of that cost, while earning proportionately less. When only one income comes from the male, it means the needs of the woman and children get less served, contributing to the feminization of poverty.

At the cost of low-paid and exploited women factory workers, Asia’s export industries have done extremely well over the past decades, especially in textiles and clothing. Most are contract workers who are permanently ‘temporary’. A look inside Pakistan’s barred factories and export-processing zones, if one can sneak in, would be very revealing.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), women earn between 50 per cent and 96 per cent of men’s wages depending on the country. Most women’s jobs are found at the lowest levels, where wages are lowest and there is no job security. These include factory jobs, and home-based work, referred to as the informal sector which is not subjected to labour regulations and inspection, so that the women are exploited at will.

This is not confined to South countries – even in Northern industrialised countries, between 65 and 90 per cent of all ‘part-time’ workers are women. “This cycle of poverty cannot be broken until women receive fair wages,” states ILO.

One-third of the world’s total factory workers are women – that’s over 60 million women. Not that the World Bank and IMF care, but the ILO is among many global institutions confirming that economic hardships in the South are caused by structural adjustment programmes. Prices rise, and wages lose purchasing power. When employers seek to cut corners and find opportunity, men working in the formal sector are replaced by ill-paid women as contract workers. Women have made no progress in the past decade.

If you think discrimination doesn’t happen to well-educated, highly-paid women professionals in the west, think again. An interesting story comes from Bloomberg, the international business news agency. In 1998, a woman manager in a multinational corporation received an anonymous note. All it stated was her monthly income along with the pay of three men doing the same job, all of who started to work the same time she did 19 years ago. But all the men were earning much more than she was – between 15 to 40 per cent more. That really hurt. She raised a stink which all came out in her 2012 book, titled, ‘Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond’.

An award winning labour economist at Cornell University found that in USA, women, on an average, earned 77 per cent of what men did. It was better than the 60 per cent they earned in the fifties, but it still wasn’t fair.

So it really must have something to do with the male psyche or genes or an invariable kind of conditioning …

Published in You Magazine – The News on 19th February, 2013



About denebsumbul

Documentarian, Activist, Journalist, Photographer, Capacity Trainer
This entry was posted in Poverty, Women, Women's Issues and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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