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To reduce extreme poverty, focus efforts on women and Sub-Saharan Africa

“The number of people living in extreme poverty stood at 736 million in 2015," reports the World Bank

In our world of plenty and technological innovation, it may surprise some people that hundreds of millions of people live on less than two dollars per day.

Indeed, extreme poverty is a complex problem that defies easy solutions. And yet reducing extreme poverty is still possible and remains one of the great moral challenges of our troubled times.

When it comes to the campaign to reduce extreme poverty around the world, there is both good and bad news to report. According to the World Bank, significant progress has been made in recent decades to rescue people from crushing poverty.

“In 2015, more than a billion fewer people were living in extreme poverty than in 1990,” states a World Bank Group report entitled Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2018: Piecing together the poverty puzzle. Much of the progress has been powered by global economic growth and increasing wealth in many developing nations, especially in East Asia, the Pacific, and South Asia.

“This impressive progress has brought us closer to achieving the World Bank’s target of reducing extreme poverty to less than 3 percent of the world’s population by 2030,” the report declares. “Half of all countries included in the global poverty counts already have less than 3 percent of their populations living under the international poverty line (IPL), which defines extreme poverty for global monitoring.”

In 1990, approximately 36 percent of the world’s total population endured extreme poverty. Extreme poverty, notes the report, is “defined by the IPL as consumption (or income) less than US$1.90 a day in 2011 purchasing power parity.” Flash forward to 2015, the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty had dropped to ten percent.

“The number of people living in extreme poverty stood at 736 million in 2015, down from nearly 2 billion in 1990,” the World Bank reports.

However, the poverty puzzle is far from being solved. In many developing countries women lack economic empowerment and tend to be poorer than men. For example, when wider consumption patterns, including food and other goods, were taken into consideration, the World Bank found that in Malawi, “women have a significantly higher poverty rate (73 percent) than men (49 percent).”

Broken model

“The current economic model is broken,” asserts a recently published report from Oxfam Canada. “While the top 1% accumulates extraordinary amounts of wealth, the poor are incapable of escaping poverty despite working long hours day in and day out,” declares the nongovernmental organization’s report, which is entitled A Feminist Approach to Women’s Economic Empowerment: HOW CANADA CAN LEAD ON ADDRESSING THE NEGLECTED AREAS OF WEE.

The report, which focuses on the issue of women’s economic empowerment (WEE), points out that women around the globe “consistently earn less than men and are trapped in the lowest paid and least secure jobs, which rarely provide formal workplace protections or social security.”

The report also states that women “experience multiple and intersecting disadvantages due to, for instance, their race, class or religion, and are especially vulnerable to gender-based violence at home and in the workplace." And Oxfam Canada contends that "gender inequality and economic inequality are inextricably linked.”

“With global momentum on WEE, a feminist prime minister and a government committed to feminist aid and foreign policy, Canada is well positioned to play a leading role in the promotion of the economic empowerment of women,” the Oxfam report states. And the feminist document offers a set of recommendations for the Canadian government on how to “adopt transformative feminist programming and policies.”

First, Oxfam urges the Trudeau government to “promote and invest in women’s collective organizing, and support feminist and women’s rights organizations and movements working on women’s economic and labour rights.” And Oxfam is calling for stable, long-term funding for such groups so that they will have the capacity “to consistently and effectively advocate to government, civil society and the corporate sector.”

Second, the NGO wants Ottawa to “promote women’s economic rights by working with trade unions, labour movements and feminist and women’s rights organizations to advocate for government reforms, gender budgeting and impact assessments, and the removal of legal barriers to WEE and to unionization.”

Third, Oxfam recommends that the Canadian government advance labour rights for women and access to good job opportunities “by engaging the business sector and governments to pay living wages, adopt gender-inclusive policies, support collective bargaining, combat occupational and gender segregation and support organizations of informal workers, including domestic and care workers.”

Fourth, the feminist NGO is asking Canada to “become a global leader in addressing women’s unequal responsibility for paid and unpaid care.” And that means Canada should invest in programs that aim to help “the most marginalized workers and addresses the 4Rs of care work: recognition, reduction, redistribution and representation.”

Fifth, Oxfam draws a direct link between women’s economic empowerment and gender-based violence. And the NGO is pressing Ottawa to adopt policies and programs that employ “a holistic and multidisciplinary approach” to the problem. And the report recommends that the Trudeau government “support governments and organizations advocating for the elimination of workplace violence and discrimination and support a new binding International Labour Organization convention and recommendation to end sexual harassment in the workplace.”

Sixth, the Oxfam report recommends that Canada appoint a senior “feminist economic adviser” to help Global Affairs Canada adopt and implement “world-class feminist aid programming.” The NGO also wants the Canadian government to “adopt inter-sectional and gender-based analysis, explore standardized methods for tracking and measuring WEE in programming and investments and invest in feminist monitoring, evaluation and learning frameworks.”

A recent Oxfam Canada contends that “the root causes of women’s economic inequality” are “economic and patriarchal structures and social norms."

Trade liberalization

Oxfam Canada is pushing for systemic economic change, alleging that trade liberalization policies have “created a ‘race to the bottom’ on taxation, wages and labour standards that hits hardest on the poor, especially women.” And the NGO contends that “neoliberal policies, prescribed by multilateral agencies, discourage governments from investing in public infrastructure and delivering basic services.”

The humanitarian NGO concludes that these policies have had the effect of forcing women “to take on more unpaid domestic and care responsibilities, which in turn limits their ability to access education and the labour force.”

Oxfam Canada also takes issue with Canada’s traditional approach to women’s empowerment when it comes to international development policy.

“For several decades, Canada’s international assistance has promoted women’s empowerment and gender equality by integrating women into economies and markets, mainly by providing access to jobs, training, credit and financial services,” the report notes.

However, Oxfam Canada maintains that “the root causes of women’s economic inequality” are the “economic and patriarchal structures and social norms that permeate and shape the market, drive expectations around women’s role as primary caregivers, perpetuate gender bias and discrimination in the labour force, and dictate attitudes towards women’s rights, mobility and the acceptability of violence against women.”

The feminist organization argues that Canada’s feminist development policy should not focus just on economic inclusion. “Focusing on economic inclusion alone cannot guarantee women’s broader empowerment—we need feminist and intersectional approaches to transform unequal power relations, norms and structures in society,” the report states.

Social norms

In a diverse world, criticizing human rights abuses can sometimes draw accusations of religious, ethnic, and/or racial bigotry. Nevertheless, it is important to address such pressing issues as child marriage, forced marriage, and early marriage. After all, as Hillary Clinton declared at the 1995 United Nations Women’s Conference at Beijing, “Women’s rights are human rights.”

According to the Oxfam Canada report, “supporting transformative change and applying a feminist lens to WEE requires changing discriminatory social norms that devalue women and girls in all their diversity.” And the NGO asserts that “not taking social norms regarding culture into consideration when promoting WEE can undermine the transformative potential of WEE efforts.”

To bring about long-term change and eliminate societal norms that discriminate against women and girls requires “sustainable programming and generally demands collective action and strategies that work towards changes at multiple levels: within ourselves, households, institutions, the economy and society.”

Oxfam Canada acknowledges that “change in social and gender norms has been often dismissed as too complex to address, part of culture and outside the scope of development.”

However, the NGO says that the need for change has been garnering greater attention in development research, policy and practice. Indeed, so-called women's issues--women’s economic empowerment, reproductive health issues, as well as child, early and forced marriage--are now being openly discussed.

“Oxfam’s WEE framework identifies the need to engage with influential ‘norm-setters’, including traditional and community leaders, as powerful allies in this work,” the report states.

In addition, Oxfam Canada says that it is vital to engage with men and boys if discriminatory social norms are to be changed over the long-term.

Not surprisingly, the activist NGO is calling for “new economic models” that address gender and economic inequality at the same time. “This means efforts to support WEE, through the programming of international assistance for example, must address the social norms, laws and economic policies, and structural barriers that restrict women’s choices and opportunities,” states the report.

Another way

Oxfam’s anti-trade liberalization message and hostile view of market economics is not shared by everyone working to lift up those in need. In fact, some very influential people and organizations advocate making capitalism more inclusive in order to lift women out of poverty and help them realize their individual and collective potential.

On Feb. 7, 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a memorandum establishing the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative