Poverty and hunger cannot be conquered without meeting the specific needs of poor women. Like poor men, they lack the assets and income necessary to exit poverty, but chronically poor women and girls are also subject to a confluence of gender-based vulnerabilities that keep them trapped in poverty. Women have fewer benefits and protections under customary or statutory legal systems than men; they lack decisionmaking authority and control of financial resources; and they suffer under greater time burdens, social isolation, and threats or acts of violence. Widowhood leaves women more vulnerable to chronic poverty, since a widow may lose her family assets and be forced to leave her husband’s village upon his death.
This gender inequality fuels the intergenerational transmission of poverty. Girls systematically have fewer educational opportunities and thus lower lifetime incomes. In areas where few educational or income-earning opportunities exist for girls, they may be married as young as 13 or 14 years old. These child brides have a greater likelihood of early childbirth, resulting in serious health consequences for both themselves and their infants. The HIV/AIDS pandemic also affects women and girls who are chronically poor and hungry. In many countries, women bear the greatest burden of caring for family members stricken with AIDS or replacing the labor lost because of deaths in the family.
But the poor are not all alike, nor are all women. Very poor women experience forms of economic, social, and political deprivation different from those experienced by men and other women. Interventions to improve the lives of very poor women must address the unique dimensions of women’s poverty, as well as the local contexts in which women’s poverty occurs.
When designing programs to reach poor women, distinguishing between short- and long-term interventions is important, as is discerning interventions that help women spread risk, prevent them from falling even further into poverty, and help them or their children escape poverty. Different combinations of interventions will also be needed at different points in women’s lives, from birth to old age.