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Hidden Women: A Feminist Critique of Poverty Measurement

by Caitlin James on April 5, 2018

‘Poverty’ is one of those issues that receives extended and diverse attention globally. After all, the reduction and eradication of extreme poverty have been at the top of the global ‘development agenda’ since the 1990s. The United Nations enshrined the global community’s commitment to poverty reduction in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), as signatories pledged to “halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day”. But what is poverty? And what does it really mean to live on “less than $1 a day”?

Endless debate and literature have attempted to answer these questions, proving the complicated and multifaceted nature of extreme poverty. It crosses material, economic, social, cultural and political boundaries, creates a state of wariness, insecurity and vulnerability, and has pronounced implications for inequality and economic prosperity. When the negative consequences of poverty are this clear, being able to accurately capture or calculate the problem becomes increasingly important.  Accurate measurement is more than just an academic preoccupation – it has very real consequences for those affected.

The goal of my thesis, “Hidden Women: A Feminist Critique of Poverty Measurement”, was to examine these issues, and answer the question: how has feminist scholarship contributed to the debate around poverty measurement? And can a feminist critique offer a more inclusive, intersectional alternative?

I began by examining the feminist literature that has historically challenged women’s social and cultural roles. Unpaid domestic labour, the valuation of female work, and the ‘feminisation’ of poverty emerged as key concepts.  Throughout my research, the household emerged as the focus of academic discussion.  My examination of feminist discourse revealed that gender and sexism have a strong and discernible influence on systems of both poverty and inequality, as they uniquely influence an individual’s position in society. For example, the “triple labour burden” of childcare, domestic work and paid employment places additional weight on many poor women, which accentuates their vulnerability and insecurity. It was clear to me that acknowledging and analysing the different experiences of women and men is integral to an analysis of poverty measurement. While poverty is an issue that impacts the wellbeing of many, it becomes a women’s issue when women are responsible for the bulk of caring and reproductive labour in conjunction with paid employment. Gender inequality can therefore create a gendered experience of poverty that traditional metrics have not historically captured.

I utilised this knowledge to present a critique of traditional measurements of poverty; including the International Poverty Line (IPL) and the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). The IPL is criticised for its focus on poverty as a lack of income or purchasing power. The idea that poverty is determined by access to income attributes value to paid employment, and therefore devalues unpaid labour. From a feminist perspective, this obscures the reality of women’s work, as it devalues the reproductive and domestic labour necessary for a family’s wellbeing, security and health.  The MPI attempts to counteract this criticism, by focusing on more than just income. In conjunction, it measures health, education and standards of living to provide a more comprehensive picture of poverty. However, the MPI maintains some of the gender-blindness of the IPL, particularly as it uses household surveys, which obscure the inequalities between individual family members. The power dynamics between different household members create individual experiences of poverty, which will influence opportunities for different people.

The idea that poverty is a distinctly gendered issue lead me to the conclusion that it must also be viewed as an intersectional issue.  The concept of ‘intersectionality’ highlights that an individual’s life is influenced by multiple, interrelated social categories, including gender, race, age, ability, location, sexuality and religion. If an intersectionally-minded approach is taken, measures of poverty must acknowledge that different social positions influence a person’s experience of poverty. Poverty should therefore be understood as something influenced by more than gender alone.

This thinking lead me to the Individual Deprivation Measure (IDM). This new metric, initially conceived by an international research team based at the Australian National University (ANU) through an ARC Linkage grant with many partners, is now being further developed by an interdisciplinary research collaboration led by the ANU, International Women’s Development Agency and DFAT’s Australian Aid program. The IDM is a unique and innovative poverty metric that aims to shift the focus of the poverty debate by prioritising an individual, intersectional and gender-sensitive approach to poverty measurement.

The IDM focuses on fifteen key areas that influence poverty among individuals, including food, water, shelter, health care, education, energy and fuel, sanitation, relationships, clothing, violence, family planning, environment, voice, time-use and work.  These key dimensions of poverty were identified through participatory research with more than 3000 individuals with lived experience of poverty across six countries. The IDM then surveys individuals in relation to these dimensions, which allows researchers to develop a more nuanced understanding of poverty.

The importance of this approach cannot be overstated, as the IDM’s focus on individual, as opposed to household data, has immense implications from a feminist perspective. The focus on the individual captures the reality of poverty and vulnerability faced by many women and ensures that female experiences are not hidden from view.  The survey, which prioritises the individual, can therefore provide a more sensitive and intersectional alternative to measuring poverty. It was designed in a way that data can be broken down into specific groups, such as age, gender and ability, to help identify the needs and deprivations of specific demographics. I would argue this is vitally important for any measure of poverty. If the global development community wants to truly tackle the problem of poverty, we must be able to make data work for us. It must be tangible and dynamic and help to provide real-world solutions in the face of a global, yet highly individualised phenomenon.

The sensitivity and individuality of the IDM shows just how important it is to understand that poverty is a unique experience. A measure of poverty should be able to capture if, and how, intersecting inequalities play out in communities and households.  As the 2030 deadline for the Sustainable Development Goals, and the goal of eradicating poverty altogether draw closer, development theory must begin to internalise this intersectional concept of poverty. To achieve these goals, we need to properly capture who is poor, in what ways and to what extent. The IDM has provided an opportunity to fix the inadequacies of traditional measures, as it paves the way for more inclusive, nuanced and feminist perspectives in the poverty debate. The IDM is a viable alternative in the development space, as it makes a concerted effort to capture poverty and gender inequality in their entirety.

Caitlin James
Caitlin is a feminist political economist, whose work focuses on development economics. She is particularly concerned with the poverty measurement debate and its implications for women and the gendered experience of poverty.

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