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Women & Poverty II

Women in Poverty

Thoughts on Intergenerational poverty and the case for women empowerment

By Madumezulu Girlie Silinda



The main purpose of this article is to explore the elements under which empowerment is promoted and enabled to the extent that it breaks intergenerational poverty. In particular the article considers the barriers and challenges of disabling the vicious cycle of impoverishment from one generation to the other faced by women in rural areas. It argues that by creating a conducive environment (institutional reforms, inclusion and participation, structural reforms) through comprehensive and culturally sensitive interventions development actors can help poor women achieve gender equality and, at the same time, break the intergenerational poverty trap.


1. Introduction

To understand the plight of women one needs only to consider the story of Avheani Musandiwa. Avheani is 69 years old with 4 daughters and 12 grandchildren. She has not been blessed with a son. Her livelihood depends on her 3 ha plot which she tills by hand-hoe. She has planted maize. This is her third week and she is half way to finishing. She will return to plant, and again for the third time to weed, before she can do her 4th trip around the field, this time to harvest. She is dependent on the grace of rain to nourish her maize, and she uses no fertilizers or water sprinklers. The past 2 years was very dry and Avheani had lost all of her crop twice in a row. Avheani is illiterate.

Her late husband was a migrant worker in Johannesburg for 43 years. Avheani had to build the family house by herself. She made bricks and burnt them for an estimated period of a month. Now that her husband has died she still hasn’t obtained the papers of the home in her name because she does not have a boy-child who can take over and she has to wait until she has been cleansed to approach the Musanda (Chief) to plead her case.

Avheani is caring for her late husband’s 86-year-old sick mother, and 3 grandchildren from her two single daughters. Ndileka, Avheani’s last born daughter, lost her job because she did not have the benefit of maternity leave and had to take some time off to care for her baby who was born with acute asthma. Ndileka, worked in the nearby orange juice processing farm. The plant discards the shells of the oranges by burning them; creating the worst smells and smoke pollution. The community had held various pickets and had also written complaints due to the escalation of the number of babies born asthmatic, but to no avail. Ndileka has passed her matric but couldn’t continue with tertiary education immediately, due to lack of funding. She had decided that she would work at the plant and save for her tertiary education, but then she found herself with an unplanned pregnancy. The conflict between her and the father of the baby is delaying her obtaining a birth certificate for the baby and further hampering her from registering for a child grant.

The third-born daughter works at a clothing-manufacturing factory in Johannesburg. She only affords to come back home bi-monthly. She has worked there for ten years and there has been some recent restructuring and grading when the new owner took over. This shift in the employment structure has been accompanied by changes in skill requirements and by greater emphasis on formal education qualifications, which she doesn’t have.

The two oldest daughters are married and even though the first-born is enjoying a peaceful relationship, the second-born is suffering at the hands of a physically abusive husband. She has lost her job, and is suffering from various health problems, including high blood pressure and ulcers due to stress. She is scared to leave her husband because she will be homeless and will not be able to take care of their six children.

Avheani started a small business 5 years ago, and employs 2 women to sew Minwenda (a venda culture attire) and distribute them. Her business is not registered and she struggles to purchase sewing material and an extra machine. The business is operated from her dining room table. She sells to people in cash and credit (through monthly installments) and struggles very much when her customers cannot honour their payments.


2. Empowerment – a multi-pronged approach

According to Narayan D.; Chambers R.; Shah M.K.; Petesch P. (2000) the common theme underlying poor women’s experiences is one of pervasive powerlessness. This includes disempowering and excluding institutions; lack of security in the sense of both protection and peace of mind; inadequate, seasonal and precarious livelihoods and assets; living in isolated, risky, un-serviced and stigmatized areas; troubled and unequal gender relations; discriminating and isolating social relations; weak and disconnected organisations; and weak capabilities because of the lack of information, education, skills and confidence.

To be able to address the powerlessness there is a need for changing power relations to empower those currently doing without; thus the strategy of empowerment. There have been many definitions of empowerment. The World Bank defines “empowerment” as 'the expansion of assets and capabilities of poor people to participate in, negotiate with, influence, control and hold accountable institutions that affect their lives'. (Narayan-Parker D., 2002).


3. Creating a conducive environment to achieve empowerment

3.1 Institutional and Cultural Reforms

Women’s property rights in many countries, across the world, are still limited by social norms, customs and at times legislation denying them the right to own the land they cultivate and on which they are dependent for their livelihood (UN Women n.d). Their property and the family plot titles are traditionally held in their husband’s names and can only be transferred to a boy child or a male relative. Their contributions from the small plots are unaccounted for and they are therefore not able to get recourse for the damage caused by drought when other ‘formal’ farmers are able to put forward claims for compensation to the government.

Poor women are neither able to access credit for machinery and material requirements as poor, often illiterate women without any collateral, do not exactly rank high among the traditional list of preferred customers of banks nor are they able to get recourse from the small claims court from their non-paying clients as their businesses suffer from many compliance issues (Buvinic M., 1998). Regulations and extensive business registrations add a burden to the entrepreneurial desires of poor women. They therefore remain excluded or expose themselves to high levels of losses and exploitation. This hinders their economic status and the opportunities to overcome poverty.

Empowerment will require the removal of formal and informal institutional barriers that prevent women from taking action – individually or collectively – to improve their wellbeing and status. Changing unequal institutional relations must be both a top-down and bottom up approach. Citizens especially women must organize and demand proper governance and also public officials and the private sector should change laws, policies and procedures that work against women who are poor.


3.2 Inclusion and Participation

Often women’s work is not counted as labour because statistics exclude both the traditional and informal sectors and also overlook the economic contribution of housework. Women are thus reduced as non-contributors to the economy, their work unrecognized and unvalued. Most women spend most of their time providing unpaid care-giving work. Young women’s unplanned pregnancies bring with them significant economic costs (raising the children alone, doctor’s fees for chronic medication, caring time etc.), and cost them their own further education and opportunities to find solid jobs. Women’s development issues are often ignored, as there is no one to advocate for them, leading to the failure of many anti-poverty programmes. Poor women’s issues are generally excluded from state institutions that make decisions because they do not have representatives.

Poor women must be targeted and given a voice. Programme designs must be underpinned by an analysis of women’s social and economic activities and potential. There is an urgent need to increase women’s capacities to participate in decision making levels, both at the local government and the political spheres. An emphasis on planning at the local level will ensure that all people participate.


3.3. Structural reforms

It has been estimated that 85 -90% of the labour force in the world’s manufacturing industries are unskilled or semi-skilled and comprise of women (Rowley C.; Yukongdi V., 2009:206). In terms of agricultural self-reliance, poor women do not have access to equipment for tilling, weeding or harvesting and even in places where they do have access, the cost of accessing it remains prohibitive. This adds to the burden of work and disease women already suffer due to frequent childbearing and strain. Girls are also often only encouraged to study arts and languages and they end up with low paying, un-fulfilling jobs. In addition, women still earn lower than their male counterparts for the same jobs.

Structural problems need to be addressed according to their urgency and should also focus on long term futures perspectives. Programme planners and government should develop collaborative programmes that will focus on sustainable income generation for marginalized women and moving women up the value-chain through interventions aimed at improving business and marketing skills and ensuring the widening of value addition by women in trade, as well as building on their identified comparative advantages. These include literacy and entrepreneurial skills development in a gender sensitive manner.


4. Conclusion

Many poor women, like Avheani, are true entrepreneurs, dedicated home – makers, community leaders and change agents but their lives continue to function as though they were meaningless. The lives of many African women continue to narrow down even in the midst of growing trade and economic opportunities worldwide.

Appropriate cultural responses and initiatives around power and decision-making need to focus on cultural barriers, existing family law, and local-level power structures and dynamics; and find strategies to address these crucial obstacles to women’s empowerment.

A futures perspective will design programmes based on a desired state of productive self-reliance and work backwards to remove the institutional and structural obstacles that continue to deprive humanity of half its human resource capacity.

Empowerment, if done well, can be easily monitored and measured. A nation that ignores empowering poor women is like a tiller who tills with one hand while his other hand is tied behind his back.


Madumezulu Girlie Silinda

Consultant and Strategic Advisor

Girlie Silinda is a highly visionary and pragmatic development practitioner who has been responsible for the design, strategic direction, supervision and implementation details of the Development Caravan Poverty Eradication Approach since its inception in 2005, nurtured by the voices, perspectives and experiences of African women. She is practical, strategic, far-seeing and able to see and accurately interpret all the elements of a strategy to ensure its effective implementation.



Buvinic M., 1998. Women in Poverty: A New Global Underclass. Washington

Narayan-Parker D., 2002. Empowerment and Poverty Reduction: Sourcebook. The World Bank, Washington DC

Narayan D.; Chambers R.; Shah M.K.; Petesch P. 2000. Voices of the poor crying out for change http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTPOVERTY/Resources/335642-1124115102975/1555199-1124115201387/cry.pdf

Page N.; Czuba C.E. 1999. Empowerment: What is it? Volume 37 Number 5.

UNFPA (2010). Exploring Linkages: Women’s Empowerment, Microfinance and Health Education

UN Women (n.d)

Rowley C. Yukongdi V. 2009. The Changing Face of Women Managers in Asia Routledge, Milpark. Oxon


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