Violence Against Women and Girls Living in Poverty

UN Human Rights Council on violence against women and girls

Above: United Nations Human Rights Council meeting room in the Palace of Nations Geneva

Since 2010, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva has mandated a group of five experts from all regions of the world to form a Working Group to explore the issue of violence against women and girls. Every June, they present a report on an aspect of this topic to the Council, and to the UN General Assembly in October. For its 2023 report, the Working Group chose the topic of women’s and girls’ human security in the context of poverty and inequality.

Input from ATD Fourth World

In addition to calling for written inputs into their report, the Working Group held an interactive dialogue on January 16th with a small group of key actors working on this topic. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which supports the Working Group, reached out to ATD Fourth World to participate in the dialogue. Of particular interest to the experts were forms of structural discrimination against women and girls, their implications in terms of human rights abuses, and good practices. ATD proposed two people to contribute:

  • Dr. Gill Main, a Professor based in the UK, who is a close friend of ATD and grew up in poverty. Much of her research is on child poverty and social exclusion.
  • Silvia Pérez, an ATD activist in Spain committed to helping those around her address the double discrimination faced by women and girls living in poverty.

During the interactive dialogue, Dr. Main emphasized the fact that “structural discrimination against women, girls, and people living in poverty is embedded into history, culture, policy and practice

  • There is no one simple solution because it’s ingrained into our ways of thinking and being. As a result, change needs to come from both top-down initiatives and local, grass-roots action…

For example, free and high-quality legal support should be provided to anyone needing to resort to the courts to assert their rights, and legal professionals should all receive in-depth training in structural discrimination as a mandatory part of their basic qualifications and ongoing professional development.”

She also went on to emphasize the importance of avoiding interventions which “pit one group against another”, noting how

“sharing stories – as told by people who have lived experience of discrimination … in the settings and words they choose – can be powerful, [helping] men and boys who absolutely face their own challenges relating to gender … to understand the normalized reality that is discrimination against women and girls in poverty.

Increasing the empathic capabilities of those who have more structural power can be a powerful tool for change, and can also help to demonstrate that patriarchal systems (while definitely more harmful to women and girls) are also harmful to men and boys.”

Dr. Main pointed out that in order to truly understand the implications of poverty, “we need to measure what matters the most to the people who are most affected by the issues we are interested in – or we have to admit that we are not really interested in social justice. Survey questions have largely been developed, tested, and selected by people with little to no experience of the issues they are researching. If we genuinely want to know more about the human rights abuses faced by women and girls living in poverty, we need to ask them what we should be measuring, and [involve] them in how we interpret what we find out.”

Care must also be taken to ensure that policies are not rooted in patriarchal norms. While family policy regimes have helped to prevent mothers from being unjustly separated from their children by emphasizing the importance of mother-child relationships, “they also have the dual effect of creating impossible burdens for women in poverty… while excluding fathers from responsibility…” These patriarchal norms not only place women in poverty in impossibly overwhelming positions, they also affect the lives of men. Ultimately, “policies and practices intended to support women’s needs must reflect the complexity of real life.”

Silvia Pérez emphasized women’s fatigue from carrying a double burden: the struggle to survive while also caring for others.

When you live in poverty [as a girl child], from the time you are little you are in constant struggle. Physically and mentally you feel exhausted…[from] the fatigue of care.

A girl is given the burden of housework, cleaning, shopping… and the burden of supporting all the people in the family when they are not well, either because of ill health or poverty in general. This double burden is a form of violence; this condemnation, this fate imposed on you because you are a woman, marks you.”

She described the impact that this double burden has on a girl’s access to education. “For many children living in poverty, going to school is a challenge. You get very tired because of lack of food, problems… you can’t concentrate, you miss school, you feel less intelligent and you are singled out because of that exhaustion.Being a woman, the issue of studies becomes even more complicated. When you are a young girl living in poverty and you have to stop studying to take care of the house, it’s normalized [because] it’s seen as a good thing to take care of others.”

This burden of care leads to impossible choices.“To be able to work outside the home, you have to have a lot of support [and] securities. If you are working too much you are not being a good mother because you are not giving [your children] the time they need, but if you stay at home and you can give them the time, not working outside the home is judged as well.”

And “women who have addictions suffer even more discrimination and insecurity.” Poverty can make it easy to fall into addictions, but as a woman you are judged “as being a bad carer, a bad mother, a bad woman. You feel guilty because you see you might be hurting those around you, but society – instead of helping you – will make it harder. When living in those situations, the insecurity is a lot greater because you’re easily exposed to difficult environments, especially as a woman.”

In response to the Working Group’s interest in hearing about promising practices that could be replicated by others, Dr. Main offered the following comments:

Every promising practice I have encountered has started from a point of listening. We can of course bring in past expertise and research, but if we don’t start by listening to the specific people we are interested in, we are prioritizing our own convenience over the realities of the women, children, and people in poverty who we claim to be working for. In fact, we should always be working with, not for. People in poverty do not need us to rescue them. They need us to listen to them, take them seriously, and ensure their human rights are upheld. One practice which is too often overlooked, but can be incredibly powerful, is providing people and organizations with the training, support and tools that they need to have conversations about topics which are stigmatized and perceived as ‘difficult’.”

Dr. Main went on to list other promising practices:

Research demonstrates that women regularly go without adequate food and other necessities to provide for others in their family, especially their children, and that they hide this from their families. Providing resources to mothers (or the child’s main carer), rather than to a notional ‘head of household’ who is usually a man, is the best way of ensuring that women and children receive a decent standard of living.

Although the pandemic was overwhelmingly damaging to families, some practices – such as increased provision for children’s meals outside of school term time – represent promising practices which should have been continued.

Children living in poverty hide their needs and pretend not to want things because they are aware that their parents can’t afford them and don’t want to cause additional stress; this can result in grave injustices. ATD, along with the End Child Poverty Coalition and a group of young people who had experienced child poverty, developed a ‘talking about poverty’ toolkit which could be used in environments like school lessons to enable open and safe discussions to reduce stigma and develop practices which meet women’s and girls’ needs.

Period poverty is perhaps the most evident example of the intersection between gender and poverty. Women and girls face financial barriers to accessing what they need and shame associated with asking for tampons or sanitary towels….In work done with a city council in the UK and a group of girls, ATD designed packaging with information on how to get help for free sanitary protection which was made available in schools.

Recommendations for action

Both Dr. Main and Silvia Pérez put forward a number of recommendations.

Ms Pérez’s recommendations:

  • There are many scholarship and aid programmes that aim to support children in poverty without recognising the importance of supporting the rest of their families too. It is necessary to accompany the whole family out of poverty, as children take on the anxiety of their parent’s financial difficulties.
  • Take into account the knowledge of people living in poverty so that public policies are informed by those who understand the issues best.
  • Teach that all work is dignified, but also that not being able to work because you are in a difficult period of your life is not shameful.

Dr. Main re-emphasized the importance of an approach that is both ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’. She specified that “In terms of top-down actions, socio-economic status should be added to the protected characteristics that it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of.”

In addition:

Governments need to learn from the women and girls who have been skilled enough to survive in poverty despite the lack of resources, shame and stigma. Committees drawn from the people for whom schemes are designed to benefit could be formed, and remunerated, to make decisions about which projects to invest in – not as a tokenistic gesture but with genuine power to make those decisions.

Professionals such as teachers, doctors and social workers should receive mandatory initial and ongoing training – delivered by experts by experience – on the intersection of poverty and gender discrimination, and should have to demonstrate how they are addressing and challenging this in the ways they work.

Within schools, education should include open discussions on gender and poverty, and young people should be provided the tools to recognise the harm that patriarchy and economic inequality do. For such interventions to be effective, we need to ensure that they are delivered in ways which acknowledge the harms done to women and girls without promoting a knee-jerk defensive response from men and boys. Men should be taking the lead on how we can do that.

Dr. Main ultimately concluded that the first step is to overtly work to destigmatize poverty – and its gendered dimensions – to ensure that conversations can happen without harming those who are the most vulnerable. She posits that “we need to create spaces within which it is safe for women and girls to speak about their experiences, develop a better understanding of the structural nature of gender and poverty discrimination, and demonstrate through action that their expertise is valued. Only then will we be able to create the appetite needed to work towards genuine change.”

ATD Fourth World hopes that these lived experiences and resultant recommendations will be well reflected in the Working Group’s report. It will be available on the OHCHR’s website in June.

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