The issue: measuring poverty
The relationship between poverty and gender is complex and deeply embedded in the values and institutions that determine patterns of access to and control over social and material resources. Gendered roles, responsibilities and hierarchies result in women and men experiencing poverty differently – regardless of whether poverty is conceptualised as multi-dimensional or income-based. Any measurement of poverty that fails to take this into account is fundamentally flawed. Yet measurement of poverty has been curiously blind to gender. The dominant approach to poverty measurement, which is based on income, is particularly insensitive to gender as it fails to illuminate either the conditions under which income is earned or the extent to which individuals can control the money they earn.
That women and men experience differently the impacts of development, particularly economic development, has long been known within the social sciences. In 1970, Ester Boserup’s Women’s Role in Economic Development carefully detailed the ways in which the specialisation of labour, higher levels of education, and urbanisation impact differently on women and men. While Boserup did not challenge dominant assumptions about the pathway towards ‘development’, her research was among the first to draw attention to the significance of gender. The Women in Development (WID) approaches that dominated the 1970s were heavily influenced by the ideas that underpinned Boserup’s research. WID approaches sought to incorporate women into development more effectively, with the aim of enhancing productivity. Within such approaches, little attention was paid to the structural barriers that shape women’s lives and experiences of poverty, and constrain the potential for poverty to be addressed.
Enhancing women’s productivity does not necessarily address the gendered dimensions of poverty, nor does such an approach acknowledge ways in which gender-based inequality intersects with poverty. Entry to paid employment may increase women’s income and create opportunities. Yet efforts to enhance women’s incomes through waged employment have often failed to recognise, or address, gender-based hierarchies and the resulting subordination of women within the workplace. As has been pointed out in critique of Millennium Development Goal 3 on gender equality, the benefits women gain from waged employment are often countered by the exploitative conditions under which they work.
Enhancing a woman’s income, as a strategy to address poverty, fails to ensure that she has control over the money she earns. Moreover, enhancing a woman’s income may create excessive time burdens if she has no ability to negotiate down her unpaid (often care-related) responsibilities within the household. The outcomes of intra-household bargaining over money and other resources are determined by the power of individuals and the options available to them should household co-operation fail. Poverty alleviation strategies that focus on increasing income fail to recognise either the gendered nature of intra-household power or the often limited fall-back positions available to women, particularly in patriarchal societies.
While income remains the dominant means of assessing poverty, the conceptualisation of poverty as multi-dimensional has led to more comprehensive measures. The Multi-dimensional Poverty Index, for example, assesses health, education and living standards in an effort to provide a deeper understanding of the nature of poverty and of the ways in which deprivations overlap. While the shift towards multi-dimensional measurement represents an important advance in the ways poverty is both conceptualised and measured, the resulting measures have still not been sensitive to gender.
In contrast to preceding poverty measures, the recently developed Individual Deprivation Measure (IDM) is a measure of multi-dimensional poverty that is sensitive to gender. The IDM encompasses the 15 dimensions of poverty shown in Figure 1. The IDM assesses the poverty of adult women and men across these 15 dimensions and is explicitly feminist in its approach, seeking to conceptualise poverty through a gender lens and produce data that are sensitive to gender-differences.
Figure 1. The 15 dimensions of poverty measured by the Individual Deprivation Measure
Beginning from the perspectives of women and men with experience of living in poverty
Poverty measurement has historically suffered from androcentric bias. The dimensions of poverty that are measured are generally those identified as significant by male professionals, often working within the discipline of economics, most of whom have never directly experienced poverty. As a result, poverty measurement has been a top-down exercise, based on data that are regularly collected and readily available – but generally blind to gender and often not even disaggregated according to sex. As a consequence, the dimensions of poverty that are essential to women’s needs, interests, activities and concerns have been systematically ignored and effectively rendered invisible.
The research methodology used to develop the IDM did not begin with a survey of existing data sources or a review of dominant methodologies for measuring poverty (although those processes were undertaken at a later stage). Rather, the IDM was developed through a three-phase research process, beginning with research in 18 communities across six countries and involving over 1000 women and men. The research used a range of participatory methods to understand from participants what they considered key indicators of poverty in order to guide policy makers in responding appropriately and effectively to their situation. Rather than resulting from a top-down process, the IDM is grounded in the priorities identified by women and men.
In seeking to sensitise poverty measurement to gender, and to focus on the priorities identified by women in particular, it is important not to fall victim to essentialism. While gendered roles and gendered power hierarchies shape women’s experiences of poverty, that experience is not homogenous across all women. Nor is it the case that men are free from the (often deleterious) impacts of both gendered roles and patriarchal power structures. Our participatory research sought to illuminate the needs and concerns of both women and men across the life-course. Particular attention was given to issues prioritised by women or resulting from gendered roles and responsibilities, issues neglected by mainstream approaches to poverty.
Measuring what matters
Poverty is often associated with the absence of basic needs, such as food, water, or shelter, or of services, such as health and education. The IDM includes each of these as dimensions of poverty, reflecting the priority placed on each by the women and men who participated in the research.
The IDM also measures additional dimensions of poverty that women identified as fundamentally important during the participatory research. For example, one of the 15 dimensions of the IDM is relationships. This reflects the ways in which women described the existence of social networks and supportive relationships as essential in providing support during times of greatest hardship. Conversely, women described the absence of such relationships as exacerbating the experience of poverty, due to the absence of informal safety nets and support mechanisms.
Dimensions of voice and time-use are particularly important to understanding the ways in which poverty impacts on women. ‘Voice’ is a complex concept, and one that relates closely to agency and empowerment; each of these is notoriously difficult to define with precision, let alone measure. Voice is included as a dimension of the IDM despite the measurement challenges because the participatory research indicated the extent to which lack of voice deepens the experience of poverty, particularly for women. The dimension of voice intersects with that of relationships. If a women is prevented from visiting or engaging with friends and family members, her opportunity to draw on supportive networks in times of hardship is reduced. Here we see that while the IDM is comprised of 15 separate dimensions, deprivation in more than one dimension (such as voice and relationships, for example) has a compounding effect.
The ways in which time is used provides important insights into the nature of poverty: both through the need for very long hours of work in order to earn sufficient to survive and through under-employment and the resulting challenges. For women, recognition of unpaid work and of multi-tasking is essential if the gendered nature of time-burdens – and the extent of women’s work – is to be captured.
In responding to the priorities identified during the participatory research, the development of the IDM was influenced by feminist standpoint theory. The poor experience a reality that can be observed but never fully understood by those who have not experienced poverty. Poor women, as a result of gendered power hierarchies and discrimination, experience poverty differently from poor men. During the participatory research women often emphasised that everyone – female and male, young and old – suffers as a result of poverty. They went on to describe the particular ways in which their caring roles (especially providing for children) placed additional burdens – both emotional and material – on them. Women in some sites also described the pressures on men to fulfil socially prescribed roles as providers for the family, even when work was unavailable.
The value of standpoint theory is in the recognition that how one is socially situated shapes one’s experience and realities. If measures of poverty are expert driven, they cannot illuminate the ways in which poor women experience poverty; nor can they provide the information necessary to respond to the social situations of the most deprived members of society.
The individual, the social, and intersectionality
A novel and fundamentally important feature of the IDM is that it uses the individual, not the household, as the unit of analysis. Most poverty data are collected at household level, often by surveying the (usually male) head of household. Standpoint theory teaches us that such an approach will reflect the social situation of the head of household, but not necessarily that of other household members. This is particularly the case when the gendered division of roles and responsibilities leads to women and men spending much of their time in separate spaces. Feminist researchers have long challenged the idea of the household as a site of pooled resources. Measuring at household level makes unjustifiable assumptions about the nature of resource allocation, as well as potentially problematic assumptions about the social group that is the most appropriate focus of analysis if poverty is to be understood.
In measuring deprivation at the individual level, the IDM allows for analysis of the level of deprivation experienced by individuals with shared characteristics, and for identification of the dimensions in which those individuals experience deprivation. Importantly, however, the IDM enables analysis that goes beyond an ‘additive’ approach, to deepen understanding of the relationship between social identities and poverty. In measuring at the individual level and then analysing the data according to various social characteristics or identities (i.e. gender, ethnicity, religion, language group and so on), the IDM has the potential to reveal the nuance of intersectionality in ways that are significant for policy. In moving beyond the assessment of basic needs and access to basic services, and including dimensions such as voice, relationships and time-use, the IDM seeks to illuminate not only material deprivation, but also the social and relational nature of poverty – and the ways in which social divisions contribute to and exacerbate multi-dimensional poverty.
The complex and divergent ways in which women and men experience poverty, indicate the urgent need for better measures of poverty, which are sensitive to gender. Feminist research into women’s and men’s experiences of poverty, and its identification of the structural inequalities involved, underpins the IDM and has enabled the rethinking of how we measure poverty. In doing so, the IDM seeks to overcome the flaws that characterise many existing measures.
The IDM has the potential to make a significant impact in two spheres of policy-making: local and global. Locally, within nations or at sub-national level, the IDM provides policy makers with information not only on the percentage of the population that lives above or below an income- or consumption-based poverty line, but with the detail and nuance that is required for the development of effective policies and interventions. For example, the IDM is able to identify the specific social groups that are experiencing deprivation in specific dimensions (such as the absence of health care or family planning, vulnerability to violence, or excessive time burdens), as well as identifying how deprivations overlap to deepen the experience of poverty. The IDM also addresses problematic assumptions that are often associated with uni-dimensional assessments of poverty. For example, the IDM overcomes the problem of measuring income but failing to recognise the exploitative nature of work or excessive time burdens, discussed earlier. The IDM dimension of work includes an assessment of whether work is undertaken in conditions that are hazardous or undermine an individual’s dignity.
At the global level, the IDM has the potential to address some of the gaps making it difficult to measure the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Of the 88 indicators associated with the SDGs, fewer than half have widely available data for which established methodologies and standards exist. For 53 gender indicators, either data are generally not produced (despite methodologies existing) or no methodologies exist. Data produced by the IDM has the potential to contribute up to one third of the missing indicators.
Gender innovations such as the IDM have the potential to contribute to a rethinking of poverty measurement, with fundamentally important implications for policy.
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UN Women. (2015). Monitoring gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in the 2030 agenda for sustainable development: Opportunities and challenges. New York: UN Women.
The IDM Program is a partnership between The Australian National University, International Women’s Development Agency, and the Australian Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Earlier research was supported by an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant LP0989385, Assessing development: designing better indices of poverty and gender equity. My thanks to Janet Hunt, Jo Crawford and Marian Sawer for very useful feedback.