Photo: Troels Graugaard
Zimbabwe, with a GDP of $US500 per person and an average yearly income of $US150, is one of the world’s poorest countries. Not coincidentally, it is also one of the most corrupt. In a worldwide report on corruption by Transparency International (TI) 62 percent of Zimbabwean respondents said they had paid a bribe in the past year.
Also not coincidentally, women bear more than their fair share of this poverty and corruption, one of the most shocking of which was a local hospital that was found to be charging women $5 for every scream they emitted during childbirth.
The fee, ostensibly for “raising false alarm” was in reality, as The Washington Post put it, “clearly aimed at separating women from their money.”
It doesn’t end there. This fee, essentially robbing women of their right to holler their heads off in the throes of unimaginable pain, is in addition to Zimbabwe’s mandatory $50 delivery fee.
That’s a $50 fee plus $5 for every hard-earned shriek in a country where the average person makes $150 a year. Unsurprisingly many women simply cannot afford to pay this, leaving them no option but to give birth at home, which, as romantic as it may seem to some western mothers-to-be, actually causes eight Zimbabwean women to die in childbirth every day.
Whilst their plight is often a lonely one, in the scope of their suffering, Zimbabwe’s women are far from alone. Across the world, women and girls are disproportionately affected by poverty. In cultures where young girls are discouraged and often outright prevented from getting an education, they are married off as early as possible, having children of their own not long after.
These girls are lucky to survive the pregnancy since giving birth before the age of 20 leaves a woman five times more likely to die of complications than a woman over 20.
The effects of grinding poverty are far reaching. In India, it has resulted in women succumbing to sterilisation, tempted by the payment of $10, which is roughly a week’s work, with which to feed their families. They are not told, however, that the procedure would be performed with rusty tools in an unsterilised environment.
Not for nothing is India considered one of the worst places to be a woman. A Guardian report that reveals that poor Indian women are being forced into prostitution in the Middle East, after being lured there with the promise of well paid jobs.
But, our world being what it is, there are some who may be more concerned with the economic costs of feminised poverty as opposed to the human. They may be interested to know that, in India, adolescent pregnancy results in $10 billion in lost potential income, whilst in Uganda, 85 percent of girls leave school early, leaving that country with $10 billion in lost potential earnings.
Women in the west aren’t spared either. American women are 29 percent more likely to be poor than American men, while single mothers are 68 percent more likely to live in poverty than their male counterparts.
In Australia, women suffer from an accumulation of a lifetime’s worth of income inequality that sees them retire with roughly half the superannuation of men. In a speech to the Australia Institute in 2009, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, revealed that the gender pay gap combined with the greater role played by women in unpaid and undervalued caring work across the life cycle, means retired women have 1.7 times less the disposable income of retired men. Divorced women have the lowest levels of income, assets and superannuation.
“If we all have a birth right to gender equality” Broderick asks, “Why is poverty the end-point for so many women - is it right that poverty should be the reward for a lifetime spent caring?”
Again, this feminisation of poverty affects the entire community, since it leaves women reliant on the Aged Pension. In 2009, 73 percent of single age pensioners were women, 1 in 3 of whom were living in poverty.
However, there is a silver lining in all this, for if women and girls bear the brunt of the problem then they also hold the key to the solution. Currently, less than 1 US cent out of every international aid dollar is spent on girls, and yet, research shows that women who are giving the opportunity to earn an income invest 90% of that back into their families (compared with 40-60% of men).
According to The Girl Effect, an imitative aimed at empowering girls by investing in women’s health, lobbying for legislative change, supporting female entrepreneurs, and grassroots education, “By delaying child marriage and early birth for one million girls in Bangladesh, the country could potentially add $69 billion to the national income over these girls' lifetimes.”
Not to mention improving the maternal mortality and lives of those women and girls. These benefits filter through to the next generation since educated women are far less likely to approve of traditions that perpetuate the cycle of poverty and discrimination such as child marriage and female genital mutilation.
It’s not only the developing world that will benefit. At the 2011 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation's Women and the Economy Summit, Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State called women “the vital source” of economic growth.
According to Clinton, "Reductions in barriers to female labor force participation would increase America's GDP by 9 percent, the Euro Zone's by 13 percent, and Japan's by 16 percent.”
Not only does investing in women and girls improve their own lives immeasurably, it benefits entire communities and makes good economic sense. And if the social, economic and legal barriers that are proving so destructive to the financial and physical wellbeing of women seem insurmountable, then perhaps we can dismantle them piece-by-piece by starting small. Like, say, not charging women for the privilege of screaming during childbirth.