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Failing women, sustaining poverty: Gender in Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers

Report for the UK Gender and Development Network

by Ann Whitehead


May 2003

This report has been posted with the permision of the UK Gender and Development Network.
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This report explores how the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) of four countries deal with gender issues. It assesses how far poverty is analysed as a gendered phenomenon, and whether gender is integrated into each country’s policies on poverty and spending plans to combat it. It also addresses the processes by which different voices and interest groups influenced the content of the PRSPs and the processes’ gender balance. The report examines the form that gender issues take in the PRSPs of Tanzania, Bolivia, Malawi and Yemen, why they take this form, and how this is linked to the unique design of each PRSP process. The analysis is based on telephone interviews and a review of primary and secondary documents.

The twin requirements of broad-based participation in PRSP formulation and endorsement by the Boards of the World Bank and IMF have produced major contradictions for the content, as well as the process, of PRSPs. In many cases governments have conducted national dialogue on poverty policy not out of a genuine commitment to participation in policy-making, but simply to fulfil this condition of the Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) initiative and to access debt relief funds. In some of the case studies, civil society opposition to neo-liberal adjustment, macroeconomic policies and indebtedness take the form of alternative visions of development that embody deep-rooted criticism of past government economic policy. Their criticisms of the link between these issues and poverty reduction have not been allowed to surface within the PRSP process.

Poverty analysis in the PRSPs is limited. The description of impoverished groups does not extend to analysis of why they are poor, so gender relations cannot be advanced as an explanation of women’s poverty. There is insufficient disaggregation of data by sex. Women’s incomes, livelihoods and resource constraints are poorly captured. Although attention is paid to the qualitative dimensions of poverty (vulnerability, ‘voicelessness’ and powerlessness) these are poorly integrated with the rest of the poverty analysis. There is inadequate integration between the poverty diagnosis and the policy sections of PRSPs.

Gender issues appear in a fragmented and arbitrary way in the body of the PRSPs dealing with policy priorities and budget commitments. Some women’s needs issues are raised, especially in the sections on health and education, but gender is not integrated or mainstreamed. Despite being recommended by the PRSP Source Book, the separate chapter on gender is missing in half the PRSPs reviewed. They pay very limited attention to women’s material well being, and there is no recognition that macroeconomic policy and national budgets can be gendered. In some cases a more elaborated set of gender and development policies is made, but the link between these general goals for improvements in women’s position and tackling women’s poverty is unclear. Governments’ efforts to listen to and consult women at all levels were unsatisfactory. At the popular level, the choice of who to consult and the way those consultations were carried out usually meant that few or no women’s voices were sought. When more participatory processes were used in the PRSP formulation process, gender issues were given greater attention, but they were not then used to inform the policy priorities and spending plans.

Consultations with Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in general were flawed, and civil society representatives had to work very hard to get their views recorded. However these views were rarely then reflected in the content of the PRSPs. Men’s and women’s voices were stifled in the contested space between government and CSOs, but this was exacerbated in the case of women and women’s organisations. Women citizens were hardly consulted at all and gender advocates within national CSOs had little success in influencing strategies. Women’s voices have hardly been sought and have definitely not been heard.

National governments and the international financial institutions (IFIs) have played the biggest role in determining PRSP content. Their understanding of the scope of gender issues and the causes of women’s poverty are thus extremely important. Within the IFIs, comprehension of gender issues is very uneven. Within national governments, understanding of gender issues is generally poor, particularly in the finance and planning ministries that are responsible for developing PRSPs. National bodies that represent women’s interests, government ministries and civil society groups are often weak, lacking in influence and have limited capacity for gendered poverty analysis.

Within national civil society organisations as a whole, the commitment to and understanding of gender issues is at best variable and often weak. Gender advocates in national women’s organisations and in a limited number of donor organisations and international NGOs (INGOs) are being left with the responsibility for pushing gender issues and advancing the understanding of women’s poverty. In these case studies, donors and INGOs played a bigger role than national actors in getting gender onto the agenda. The influence and legitimacy of women’s advocacy organisations affects their dialogue with other groups and some have been de-legitimised as they work within a hostile environment. In some cases, this is true of their relationships with other CSOs, but more often true of their relationships with governments, which are often very tense. The poor development of gendered poverty analysis and gendered analysis of macroeconomic issues is common among all the key actors in PRSPs. These analyses should include attention to the sphere of reproduction; deconstructing the household; a focus on women’s livelihoods, incomes and employment; and an analysis of gender implications of budget priorities and public spending. Integrating the non-economic dimensions of poverty – vulnerability, powerlessness, voicelessness and male-biased governance systems – with these economic dimensions is essential. Expertise in macroeconomics and in gendered national budgets, together with a specific focus on the micro issues that effect women’s material well being, are needed in order to make PRSPs gender sensitive and effective in reducing the poverty of women and men.

Effective advocacy from groups who have adopted such perspectives will depend on much greater receptiveness within governments, the IFIs, some donors, and national and international CSOs. It remains to be seen whether an increased capacity for gendered poverty analysis and the understanding of national economies from a gender perspective will increase this receptiveness, or whether it will be blocked by a lack of political will.


The Gender and Development Network of the UK makes the following recommendations to the various actors involved in PRSP processes around the world:

Gendered analysis

  • The analysis on which a PRSP is based must fully demonstrate the gender dimensions of poverty – highlighting the embedded gender biases in macroeconomics and structural policies; gender inequality as a cause of poverty; the different experiences of poverty for women and men; and the different effects of policy and budgetary decisions on women and men.
  • PRSPs should be based on a multidimensional view of poverty, better integrating the non-economic dimensions of poverty (vulnerability, powerlessness, voicelessness and male-biased governance systems) with the economic dimensions, and giving space to the views of poor men and women about their own poverty.
PRSP processes

  • National governments should make gender-sensitive participatory methodologies central to poverty assessments, and the design and implementation of poverty-reduction strategies. All actors need a better understanding of how to make participatory poverty assessments gender sensitive. Particular support should be provided to the poorest and most marginalised people, the majority of whom are women. They tend to find it most difficult to participate, but are central to the success of a PRSP.
  • All stakeholders within the PRSP process need to ensure that gender is mainstreamed within their own institutions and that gender inequalities are addressed.
  • The PRSP assessment processes of the IFIs, including Joint Staff Assessments and IFI board discussions, should fully mainstream gender. They should consider whether a PRSP treats poverty as a gendered phenomenon and seeks to tackle the gender dimensions of poverty, as well as the quality of participation by women and other traditionally marginalised groups.
Policies for poor women and men

  • In order to have a long-term and sustainable impact on poverty levels, PRSPs must place measures to tackle women’s poverty at their centre, because so many poor people in most countries are women.
  • PRSP policies and associated spending plans should be firmly linked to gendered poverty analysis and gender equity.
Advocacy on gender

  • Advocacy by civil society groups around PRSPs should have a much sharper focus on the gender dimensions of poverty – highlighting the need for PRSP taskforces and working groups, and for the IFIs to take gender seriously.
  • During the PRSP process, communication and trust building need to take place between women’s organisations and other CSOs that have more access to the PRSP process.
  • INGOs working on PRSPs should give special attention to gender issues and women’s poverty in their international advocacy on the PRSP approach.
Capacity building

  • Capacity building support on gendered poverty analysis and gendered policy solutions is needed by most national government ministries, especially ministries of finance and planning which generally lead PRSP processes. They also need improved capacity to listen to CSO voices in the PRSP process, in particular those voices representing poor women.
  • Ministries of gender/women need capacity support to develop their economic analysis and advocacy skills, in order to influence PRSP processes to fully mainstream gender.
  • Donors and INGOs should use innovative ways of supporting the capacity of local and national CSOs to analyse and promote gendered poverty issues through PRSP policymaking and implementation.
  • Women and women’s groups require specific help to overcome traditional and institutional barriers and become involved in policy-making and implementation, particularly on economic issues. Specifically, gender advocates will need to develop the skills to analyse budgets in terms of their differential impact on women and men. Such support could be provided by governments, INGOs, international donors and other CSOs, which have more influence over the PRSP process.
  • IFIs must train staff, particularly those involved in advising on PRSPs, and members of technical missions that advise national governments about poverty analysis, macroeconomic policy, national budgets and sectoral policies, so that they are able to provide gendered poverty analysis and gendered economic analysis.

  • In order to avoid loosing sight of gendered PRSP policies during implementation, gender must be fully mainstreamed through PRSP monitoring indicators.
  • National actors should collect and analyse sex-disaggregated data through both quantitative methods, such as a national survey, and qualitative, participatory methods, like interviews, and use this information for monitoring the implementation and effects of the PRSPs.

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