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Regional themes > Gender Last update: 2020-11-27  

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United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)

Women, work and poverty

Martha Chen, Joann Vanek, Francie Lund, James Heints with Renana Jhabvala & Christine Bonner

United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)

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2005 marks the fifth anniversary of the UN Millennium Declaration, adopted in 2000 and the tenth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995. In the decade since Beijing, the number of people living on less than $1 a day has fallen; the gender gap in primary and (to a lesser extent) secondary education has been reduced; and women enjoy greater participation in elected assemblies and state institutions. In addition, women are a growing presence in the labour market– the global indicator used to approximate women’s economic status (UN 2005).

However, the decline in overall poverty masks significant differences not only between but also within regions. Asia experienced the greatest decline in extreme poverty, followed by Latin America, but sub-Saharan Africa experienced an increase. Even where the numbers of extremely poor people have declined, notably China and India, poverty persists in different areas and social groups, reflected in rising inequalities (UN 2005).

For women, progress, while steady, has been painfully slow. Despite increased parity in primary education, disparities are still wide in secondary and tertiary education—both increasingly key to new employment opportunities. And while women’s share of seats in parliament have inched up in all regions, women still hold only 16 per cent of parliamentary seats worldwide. Finally, although women have entered the paid labour force in great numbers, the result in terms of economic security is not clear. According to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals Report 2005: “Women’s access to paid employment is lower than men’s in most of the developing world…. Women are less likely than men to hold paid and regular jobs and more often work in the informal economy, which provides little financial security” (UN 2005).

Today’s global world is one of widening income inequality and for many, increasing economic insecurity. Informal employment, far from disappearing, is persistent and widespread. In many places, economic growth has depended on capital-intensive production in a few sectors rather than on increasing employment opportunities, pushing more and more people into the informal economy. In others, many of the jobs generated by economic growth are not covered by legal or social protection, as labour markets are de-regulated, labour standards are relaxed and employers cut costs (see Chapter 4). As a result, a growing share of the workforce in both developed and developing countries is not covered by employment-based social and legal protection.

Moreover, in the process of economic growth and trade liberalization, some informal workers get left behind altogether. This includes wage workers who lose their jobs when companies mechanize, retrench or shift locations. It also includes the smallest-scale producers and traders who have little if any access to government subsidies, tax rebates or promotional measures to help them compete in export markets or against imported goods. These ‘losers’ in the global economy have to find ways to survive in the local economy, many resorting to such occupations as waste picking or low-end street trading.

Progress of the World’s Women 2005 makes the case that strengthening women’s economic security is critical to efforts to reduce poverty and promote gender equality, and that decent work is basic to economic security. It provides data to show that:
  • the proportion of women workers engaged in informal employment is generally greater than the proportion of men workers;
  • women are concentrated in the more precarious types of informal employment; and
  • the average earnings from these types of informal employment are too low, in the absence of other sources of income, to raise households out of poverty.
The report concludes that unless efforts are made to create decent work for the global informal workforce, the world will not be able to eliminate poverty or achieve gender equality.

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