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We won’t get women out of poverty until we leave behind ‘one-size-fits-all’ interventions

Written by Carmen Leon-Himmelstine


If the world is to live up to its commitment to eradicate extreme poverty for everyone everywhere by 2030, we need gender equality. There is growing recognition of this fact, but interventions are still failing to take into account the specific conditions and experiences of women and girls living in poverty.

Reflecting on progress

Since the Beijing Declaration was adopted almost 25 years ago, we have accomplished massive improvements in women’s lives. Today, most girls worldwide complete primary education and, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, those in least developed countries can now expect to receive 8.7 years of schooling – up from just 4.8 in 1995.

Average female life expectancy has also increased, from a global average of 68 years in 1995 to around 74 today, with the greatest progress achieved in least developed countries. More women have access to paid work while fewer women are in vulnerable employment than 20 years ago, and between 2000 and 2017 the maternal mortality rate dropped by 38% worldwide. But despite this, there is still considerable work to do.

Women’s poverty persists

Worldwide, there are 122 women to every 100 men aged 25–34 living in extreme poverty. The global pay gap between men and women will take 202 years to close because the pace of change is still too slow. In 49 countries, women are not protected by law from domestic violence, while 39 countries bar equal inheritance rights for daughters and sons.

The Beijing Declaration warned us that policies and programmes to alleviate poverty are designed in ways that do not pay enough attention to women’s specific conditions, such as unequal access to assets, wealth, opportunities or income. Often, these conditions are unpredictable, context-specific and driven by multiple, reinforcing factors. We need to stop focusing on numbers or goals and take the time to understand women’s lives and the entrenched discriminatory norms that keep them in poverty.

Designing better interventions: four things to know

So, what do those designing interventions to alleviate women’s poverty need to know?

1. The factors that contribute to women’s and girls’ poverty are multiple and do not operate in isolation

ODI’s research has stressed that differences related to age, wealth, location and ethnicity, can exacerbate women’s and girl’s poverty – from access to education and health care to clean water and decent work. Understanding women’s lived experiences in their own social context is essential; within a country, even a community, women and girls’ experiences are different. Development partners should design interventions according to the profiles of the women they are targeting.

2. There are many paths to achieving social mobility, shaped by many influences

During fieldwork in Oaxaca, Mexico, I observed the very different pathways of young women from two neighbouring communities who had benefited from the conditional cash transfer (CCT) programme ‘Oportunidades/Prospera’. In one community, a tradition of migration within Mexico and the US began in the 1990s, and girls – having completed the ‘Oportunidades’ programme or not – followed labour migration as a path to achieving a better life. In the other community, an indigenous movement that promoted local education for the benefit of the community influenced girls’ aspirations to continue studying. There ‘Oportunidades’ facilitated those aspirations and girls migrated to study.

Many programmes assume an individualised and straightforward path to development, but there are multiple ways of living that require more nuanced programme approaches that accommodate the pathways to social mobility that women choose to follow.

3. Some programmes can exacerbate gender inequalities

Take, for example, social protection. There are several programmes (graduation programmes in Haiti, CCTS in Peru, work programmes in India) that show that social protection can exacerbate gender inequalities of women and adolescent girls when the local context and gender norms are poorly understood.

For example, women may struggle to combine their programme activities with the unpaid care work within their households that they are expected to do. The failure to undertake qualitative and participatory research to fully appreciate how norms can constrain or promote women and girls’ strategies to escape poverty can be detrimental.

4. Investments that focus on empowering only women and girls aren’t always the best – or the only – approach

Thinking that such investments would immediately benefit their households and their wider communities perpetuates stereotypes of women as selfless and altruistic, and places huge – possibly unfair – responsibilities on them. It also leaves men and boys off the radar. Research shows that engaging men in interventions can be key to achieving gender equality and reducing women’s burden of unpaid care and domestic work.

On International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, we should be encouraged by the governments’ and donor supported efforts to eliminate women’s poverty. But we must also acknowledge that one-size-fits-all solutions cannot achieve lasting change for women and girls.

This blog is part of our ODI at 60 initiative.