This International Women’s Day arrives as millions of women have lost their jobs and livelihoods amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Feminized sectors have been the hardest hit and women have also left jobs to care for children and other family members at higher rates than men. It may come as no surprise that poverty levels also appear to be on the rise due to COVID-19 impacts. While estimates of the impacts by sex are still lacking, existing data tell us that poverty rates are not the same for men and women, nor across regions and countries, and that we need to look at COVID-19 impacts on jobs, livelihood and poverty with a gender lens.
It has been long known that traditional monetary measures of poverty don’t work well to measure gender inequality because they apply to households rather than individuals. Nonetheless, even limited comparisons, using data were all household members are classified as either poor or not poor, can reveal important gender inequalities. A recent joint paper by UN Women and World Bank authors unpacks the gender differences we observe. Here are four facts about gender and poverty today.
Fact #1: Children are more likely to be poor, and girls are more affected in some regions
Children make up 30% of the world’s population but comprise 50% of the extreme poor. Since children rarely live alone, this means that they and their caregivers (more often women than men) are disproportionately represented among the extreme poor.
Globally, children are more likely than adults 18 or older to be poor
Source: Calculations based on data from the Global Monitoring Database (GMD). Extreme poverty is defined as those living below $1.90 per person per day.
Poverty rates among girls and boys are more or less equal (17.7 and 17.4%, respectively), with a few notable exceptions. In South Asia – home to one-fifth of the world’s extreme poor – 11% of girls aged 0–17 live in extremely poor households, compared to 10% of boys. This translates into seven more girls living in extremely poor households for every 100 boys in extremely poor households. This does not reflect differential treatment within households, since poverty is measured at the household level. Rather, it reflects different ratios of girls to boys between poor and non-poor households which emerges in countries/regions with strong son preferences.
Fact #2: Teenaged girls face greater poverty than boys at different poverty levels
At the lowest global poverty line ($1.90 a day), gender differences are marginal (less than 1 percentage point). However, at higher thresholds – reflecting the national poverty lines of lower and upper middle-income countries – adolescent girls fare far worse than adolescent boys, with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa. In East Asia and the Pacific, six more girls aged 15–19 are living on less than $3.20/day for every 100 boys, while in South Asia, there are four more poor girls for every 100 boys. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the gap equates to four more girls for every 100 boys in households surviving on slightly more ($5.50 a day).
What’s driving these gaps? Various factors are likely at play, including high adolescent fertility rates, lone motherhood, and differences in age of marriage/family formation (women tend to marry younger and marry older men).
At ages 15–19, differences in poverty rates are biased against females
Source: Calculations based on GMD data.
Note: EAP=East Asia and the Pacific, ECA=Europe and Central Asia, LAC=Latin American and the Caribbean, MNA=Middle East and North Africa, SAR=South Asia, SSA=sub-Saharan Africa.
Fact #3: The gap in poverty rates by sex are widest for women and men aged 25–34
Women are particularly vulnerable to poverty between ages 25 and 34, when they are most likely to have young children as shown globally in the figure. This observation holds across all three poverty thresholds and across regions.
Globally, differences in poverty rates by sex are widest among women and men aged 25–34
Source: Calculations based on GMD data. Extreme poverty is defined as those living below $1.90 per person per day.
Fact #4: Adults living with children are more likely to be poor
Living with children is associated with higher poverty for adults and it increases the likelihood of poverty for both women and men aged 25–34. But women are more likely to live in households with children than their male counterparts. While women in this age-group are more likely to be married and have small children, in Central and South Asia, men aged 25–34 are more likely to be living with their parents with no children.
The bottom line
Although we do not yet have the data we ideally want to speak to individual levels of poverty, the data we have does shed light on certain kinds of gender gaps in poverty. Pressures on the home front, including care of dependents, no doubt contribute to higher poverty rates for some groups of women compared to men. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be exacerbating this reality. Moving forward, strategies aimed at combating poverty should focus their attention on empowering women economically.
At the same time, more data are needed to ensure we can track progress. New methods are needed to measure intrahousehold poverty as a road map to improving global poverty estimates. And meanwhile, increased availability of high-quality, timely, reliable and disaggregated individual-level data on non-monetary and labour market outcomes – including by sex, age, and other key characteristics – can support this critical agenda.
Ginette Azcona is a Research and Data Policy Specialist at UN Women. She manages the data and statistics for UN Women’s flagship reports. Before joining UN Women in 2010, she was part of the research and writing team for UNDP’s Human Development Report Office. Ginette has authored numerous publications on human development, human rights, social justice and gender and development data and is UN Women’s leading focal point on gender, data and the SDGs.
Kathleen Beegle is a Lead Economist with the World Bank Gender Group. Her work focuses on gender, poverty and inequality issues, as well as addressing gender data gaps.
Antra Bhatt is a Statistics Specialist with UN Women’s Research and Data Team. Prior to joining UN Women, she was a researcher at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India. She holds a PhD in International Development from the University of Rome –‘Tor Vergata’, Italy and a Master’s degree in Public Policy from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.
Ana Maria Munoz Boudet is a Senior Social Scientist in the World Bank’s Poverty and Equity Global Practice with the Mind, Behavior, and Development Unit (eMBeD). Her work focuses on gender, poverty and inequality issues.
David Newhouse is a Senior Economist in the World Bank’s Poverty and Equity Global Practice and a fellow at the Institute of Labor Economics. His work has focused on economic measurement and analysis related to poverty and jobs in developing countries.