Do social institutions result in gender differences in the incidence of poverty? This paper finds that discriminatory family codes, son bias, limited resource entitlements, physical insecurity and restricted civil liberties play a role in chronic poverty, specifically that of young women. It is therefore important to: eliminate gender discrimination through legal provisions; support girls’ participation in decision-making; invest in child- and gender-sensitive social protection; extend services to hard-to-reach girls; strengthen girls’ resource access; and promote girls’ control over their bodies.
Girls’ vulnerabilities in relation to poverty dynamics are different to those of boys and adult women. What happens at this critical time in their lives can reinforce their poverty status, that of their offspring, or influence their movement into or out of poverty. This paper suggests that social institutions – formal and informal laws, norms and practices – have far greater influence on developmental outcomes than is generally appreciated.
Social institutions can result in processes that lead to inequality, discrimination and exclusion. Five influential social institutions are:
- Discriminatory family codes. These include: early marriage; separation of girls from maternal presence and authority; girls’ lack of influence on decision-making; denial of material ownership and inheritance; and physical harm. They can lead to: reduced capabilities, educational attainment, employment potential and job quality; increased fertility and higher maternal and infant mortality rates; increased ill-health and physical harm; and increased life-course and intergenerational poverty.
- Son bias. Unequal investments in the care, nurture and resources allocated to sons and daughters can, for girls, result in: higher mortality, human capital development deficits, time poverty linked to labour roles and psychosocial ill-being.
- Limited resource rights and entitlements. These include discriminatory inheritance systems, such as dowry and legislation limiting married women’s property rights. Gender disparities in education, along with unequal access to and preparation for productive employment opportunities, segmented labour forces, lower wages, poor access to financial services and tensions between reproductive and productive work, restrict economic empowerment.
- Physical insecurity. Social institutions can fail to challenge gender-based violence in the household, school, workplace and community.
- Restricted civil liberties. Social institutions can result in restricted freedom of movement, freedom of association and participation in collective action. Practices which limit girls’ ability to claim an independent identity through birth registration have knock-on effects with regard to other civil rights and liberties. Restrictions on mobility linked to deeply-rooted traditions can perpetuate gender disparities in access to social and economic resources. Limited voice in family matters can lead to a gender-based experience of poverty.
Analytical and programming challenges include the following:
- Disaggregated data on girls’ poverty over time in developing country contexts are very limited, constraining well-tailored interventions.
- Within international legal and human rights frameworks, female youth in particular are not well covered.
- Definitions and understandings of childhood, adolescence and youth vary considerably according to cultural context.
- It is important to consider the experiences of boys and young men, and the role they can play in reshaping gender discriminatory social institutions.
Approaches that overlook the multi-dimensionality of gendered and generational experiences of chronic poverty and vulnerability are more likely to fail. It is important to:
- Develop and enforce context-sensitive legal provisions to eliminate gender discrimination in the family, school, workplace and community.
- Support measures to promote children’s (especially girls’) right to be heard and to participate in decisions of importance to them.
- Invest in the design and implementation of child- and gender-sensitive social protection.
- Strengthen services for girls who are hard to reach, because of both spatial disadvantage and age- and gender-specific socio-cultural barriers.
- Support measures to strengthen girls’ and young women’s individual and collective ownership of, access to and use of resources.
- Strengthen efforts to promote girls’ and women’s physical integrity and control over their bodies, especially in conflict and post-conflict settings.