Women and Poverty or Gender and Well-Being?

Author:Jackson, Cecile

This article addresses two connected elements of the current consensus on women and poverty: One is the view, in poverty discourses, that women are "the poorest of the poor," and the other is the view, in gender and development (GAD) discourses, that gender analysis and interventions need to be mainstreamed into poverty reduction policies and practice. I argue that to characterize women as especially "poor" is to misrepresent gender disadvantage, and that rather than mainstreaming gender into poverty by defining women as especially poor within existing poverty concepts, we should seek to reformulate understandings of poverty to reflect the distinctively gendered nature of disadvantage for both women and men. This involves expanding notions of poverty beyond narrowly materialist viewpoints and toward greater recognition of gendered identities, ideologies and struggles, as well as toward a relational field which encompasses more culturalist perspectives.

Poverty reduction through development has recently become more prominent in both development studies and policy. Examples include the emphasis on poverty reduction in the 1997 White Paper produced by the new Labour Government in Britain, and the domestic social policy in Europe. At the same time, poverty thinking is also adapting to a new political environment, globalized and post-socialist, in which the understandings of social justice are shifting. In Nancy Fraser's U.S.-based analysis:

Many actors appear to be moving away from a socialist political imaginary, in which the central problem of justice is redistribution, to a `post-socialist' imaginary in which the central problem is recognition. With this shift, most salient social movements are no longer economically defined `classes' who are struggling to defend their `interests,' end `exploitation' and win `redistribution.' Instead, they are culturally defined `groups' or `communities of value' who are struggling to defend their `identities,' end `cultural domination' and win `recognition.' The result is a decoupling of cultural politics from social politics, and the relative eclipse of the latter by the former.(1) The turn to culture and to "recognition" rather than redistribution in the West has penetrated development debates in the form of the postmodernist critique of poverty, gender and development.(2) However, mainstream poverty and development discourses remain resolutely redistributionist and wedded to a materialist sense of social justice, and it is arguable that rather than "flying blind," as Fraser calls the visionlessness of current progressive struggles, poverty discourses in development are "flying blinkered," paying too little attention to cultural politics. Class politics or cultural politics should not be alternatives, and, as Fraser argues, should have a bivalency which integrates "the social and the cultural, the economic and the discursive."(3) I argue here that gender disadvantage cannot be fathomed from a narrowly materialist perspective.

There are multiple ways in which poverty is conceptualized, but arguably few capture what, for a gendered subject, makes a life go well. In other places, I have noted the tendency in development discourses to represent gender issues in development as variants of poverty problems and to reduce gender disadvantage to a claim that women are over-represented among the poor.(4) This brief review suggests that gender disadvantage cannot be understood with unmodified poverty concepts and indicators, which can both misleadingly deny the material subordination of women(5) and entirely fail to reflect the ideological and cultural bedrock of gender inequity Gender into poverty won't go. The point is not that women are poor but that poverty is gendered.

In the sections that follow, I first argue that, in the context of mainstreaming gender into poverty reduction policies, it has become important to consider both the best analytical approaches to integrating gender into poverty reduction work and the feminist politics of just how "women's needs" are constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed in the mainstreaming endeavor. The rest of the article examines some of the difficulties, in a range of poverty concepts, with identifying women as the poorest of the poor, and it identifies more promising approaches through which poverty reduction can start to conceptualize poor people as gender subjects.


Why does it matter that gender disadvantage is so frequently represented as a problem of poor women, and that "one-size-fits-all" poverty concepts are expected to apply to understanding gender and well-being? The issue of the relationship between gender and poverty is perhaps increasingly important in policy terms since gender mainstreaming has become the focus of much GAD effort,(6) after women in development (WID)-inspired projects were discredited for marginalizing women. Mainstreaming was expected to avoid isolating gender discourses as bounded and separate, bring about broader institutional transformations and allow access to resources on a grander scale than "women's projects" command. Two possible approaches to mainstreaming gender within poverty reduction work suggest either arguing a case r inclusion on the grounds that gender identity entails poverty, or alternatively arguing that poverty is gendered, in that women and men often experience poverty in distinctive ways. The problem with the former, which has been the predominant approach, is that being a woman does not necessarily lead to poverty as defined for a universal (read: male) subject, as we have outlined above. The problem with the latter is that there is considerable resistance to a gender mainstreaming which demands a transformation in ideas of what it is to be poor, although I remain convinced that this is important work.(7)

Mainstreaming has brought with it concern that the inclusion of gender in poverty debates has been on terms which diminish its analytical power. Critics point to the yawning gulf which separates the framing of gender and need in poverty discourses from feminist understandings of the complex and contradictory ways in which poverty is gendered. Mainstreaming also entails the danger of instrumentalism in terms of gender inclusion, where women are frequently seen as the means to other development ends, such as lowered fertility, environmental conservation and the well-being of children.(8) Some observers argue, however, that instrumentalism may be a misplaced concern.(9)

What these discussions suggest is the importance of understanding the politics of how needs are constructed, recognized, depoliticized and repoliticized over time. Why and how are women seen as needy, poor and deserving? Who establishes authoritative definitions of women's needs and how do they do this? What are they perceived to need, and how are these needs to be addressed? Fraser suggests three moments to the politics of needs: first, the struggle to establish or deny the political status of a need; second, the struggle over the right to define and specify a need, and thus implicitly its management; and third, the struggle over the satisfaction of, and provision for, the need.(10)

Currently, there is a generally recognized problem of women and poverty in development discourses, and an enclaving of women's needs within dominant "poverty" discourses through arguments for, and institutionalization of, mainstreaming, while non-hegemonic groups (e.g., feminist academics and women's movements in the South)...

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