Unequal care burden, gender pay and pension gaps, cultural stereotypes and norms still make poverty more female than male

On International Women’s Day, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a conference A Gender Lens on Poverty to point out the alarming overrepresentation of women and girls among the world’s poor.

The conference, organised by the EESC Ad Hoc Group on Equality, was linked to the priority of the 68th session of the United Nations Convention on the Status of Women (UNCSW), the main international and intergovernmental body fighting for gender equality, which will kick off on 11 March in New York.

The theme of the 68th UNCSW is gender and poverty, and ways to strengthen and equip institutions with the necessary financial means to empower women and young girls.

The EESC will be present at the UNCSW for the first time as part of an EU delegation, which will include the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Women’s Lobby.

Opening the conference, EESC president Oliver Röpke said: This International Women’s Day is a powerful reminder that our collective responsibility goes beyond celebration. At the EESC, we have followed the lead of the UN and we take this occasion to look into the disproportionate burden that falls on women and on the complex challenge of fighting poverty through a gender lens. Poverty is not gender-neutral, our response to it cannot be either.

The speakers at the conference addressed the critical intersection of gender, poverty and the pressing need for inclusive policies. They pointed to the figures which paint a bleak picture of poverty among women in Europe and globally.

In 2022, 95.3 million people in the EU were at risk of poverty or social exclusion, equivalent to 21.6% of the EU population. The risk is higher for women than for men (22.7% of women compared to 20.4% of men). In the case of women, we are talking about 51.2 million women, emphasised MEP María Eugenia Rodríguez Palop, Vice-Chair of the European Parliament Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality.

According to the UN figures, presented at the conference by Léa Paccaud, UN Women Brussels Liaison Office, around the world, 1 in every 10 women lives in extreme poverty and projections indicate 342.4 million women and girls will not have moved out of extreme poverty by 2030 unless we shift current trends.

Our global economic system is failing women. The current economic structure is pushing more women into poverty. Financial investment in women remains alarmingly low. An additional 360 billion dollars is needed to achieve SDG 5 on gender equality and women’s empowerment, Ms Paccaud said.

Climate change effects are also harsher on women, especially in poor, rural households. Between 2019 and 2021, the gender gap in food insecurity has more than doubled. In worst-case climate scenarios, it is projected that 236 million more women and girls may become food insecure, compared to 131 million more men and boys.

Our data show that progress must be 26 times faster to reach the SDG 1 target and end poverty, Ms Pessaud said.

Another alarming figure is the percentage of the prime working age population in the labour force, which stands at 61.4% of women versus 90.6% of prime working age men. On top of this, women earn 20% less than men.

Most women’s employment is in the informal economy. At the conference, particular focus was put on care work, as 90% of informal carers are women. Largely due to caring responsibilities, 7.7 million women are excluded from the labour market, and 9 million have to work part time. This figure is much lower for men.

Ms Rodríguez Palop pointed to the need to invest in the caring economy, which could generate 7 million jobs in the EU. According to the UN, investing in care services has the potential to create almost 300 million jobs worldwide by 2035.

Viviane Teitelbaum, European Women’s lobby, pointed to inadequate data to measure gender equality, which renders women’s poverty invisible.  For example, household unit is a standard unit to measure average household income but, on average, partnered women earn around 60% of what their male partners earn.

The more financial income an individual brings to the house, the more likely they are to have more decision-making leverage. The current male bread winner model needs to move to an equal carer model, Ms Teitelbaum said.

Chiara Adamo, European Commission, highlighted the EU’s commitment to addressing the gender care gap, referencing recent strategies, directives and targets. She also emphasised the importance of looking at the social and economic structures to combat women’s poverty. By taking the intersectional lens, we look at the root causes that keep women in poverty.

Solutions include budgeting and planning that is more responsive to the needs of women and girls, budgetary policies eliminating gender pay and employment gaps, adaptation of pension policies or taking VAT off feminine hygiene products. There is also the need for women’s leadership in political life and economic institutions. Women’s organisations must be sufficiently resourced to be able to advocate for the rights of women.

Ms Pessaud stressed that investing in women is not only a moral imperative, but also a smart economic investment which could boost GDP per capita by 20%. Over 100 million women and girls could be lifted out of poverty if governments employed a comprehensive strategy aimed at improving access to education and family planning, fair and equal wages, and expanding social transfers.

Being poor just because you are a woman is a crying injustice. Doing nothing about abject poverty is complete moral turpitude, Ms Rodríguez Palop concluded.

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