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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Filippouli

Why is it so difficult for lower-income and homeless women to break out of poverty?

Research shows that women can play a critical role in social and economic development when given the opportunity. Putting a stop to the barriers that prevent women from earning the income they rightfully deserve is the first step toward equity and equality for women around the world. Forcing women to choose between their families and their careers puts them at a disadvantage and prevents them from developing the career skills needed to help support them and their families. Providing women with economic stability breaks the cycle of poverty and vulnerability not only for them, but also for their dependents and future generations.

Women have been fighting for equality for a long time, and in recent years the feminist movement has succeeded in earning more seats at the table, helping women overcome significant barriers and gain well-deserved rights toward equality. Yet, despite the notable progress made, economic inequality remains a major concern for women, who around the world continue to earn less for the same type or amount of work as men, and are more likely to live in poverty than their male counterparts. So why has it been, and continues to be, so difficult for women to overcome poverty?

One of the main reasons is that this is a systemic issue, one that makes it difficult for women to access work and make ends meet. Socio-economic constraints, lack of access to education, and pressure to conform to traditional gender roles leave these burdens disproportionately falling on women. They face more obstacles with access to fewer resources, leaving them with less opportunities. This situation is even more challenging for racialized women, women with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ women. It is also challenging for those who are responsible for dependents, such as a family member or friend.

When it comes to building, caring for and raising a family, women are most often looked at to take charge. This responsibility often comes at the cost of quashing education opportunities and career growth. Statistics have proven that women are often forced to divide their time between caring for their family, taking on most domestic chores, and bringing in enough income to support themselves and their dependents. For women who face homelessness or poverty, it can be almost impossible to provide adequate care for their families.

Grazia Giuliani is an author and cultural and social curator, who has spent her career speaking out against economic abuse and misjustice against women. In her letter included in my book ‘From Women to the World’, she writes to a homeless woman she encountered at Green Park Station in London: “Thousands of homeless people out there in the streets, who – unlike me – do not have generous and caring friends who have offered shelter in these distressing and uncertain times”. In this letter, Grazia refers also to the difficult choices many women are faced with, that is, to leave their abusive homes and risk a life on the streets, or to choose shelter over their own wellbeing: “Is it worse being without a home, in the streets, exposed to the invisible virus, or to be invisible within your home plagued with abuse?”

Domestic violence is another barrier that can keep women from escaping poverty and achieving financial independence. If a woman is being physically, emotionally, or sexually abused, she may feel that she has no option for escape and must stay in the abusive environment to protect her family. Some women in these precarious situations may stay due to an inability to bring in enough money to support their families on their own, leaving them with no choice but to stay with their abuser.

Another barrier and systemic issue is the gender pay gap. Around the world, women on average earn lower incomes than men. This is due to a variety of reasons, however one main reason is that employers often assume women will contribute less to the company as they are also responsible for raising a family - a phenomenon referred to as the Motherhood Penalty. It is assumed that women will require more time off to care for their families, and thus are paid less as a result. This assumption, however, hinders women from excelling in their careers, and in some cases, may prevent some from being able to pull their families out of poverty. In contrast, men are often encouraged to concentrate solely on building their careers, even when they become fathers - a phenomenon referred to as the Fatherhood Bonus.

Income is a key determinant of well-being and personal stability and has a huge impact on quality of life and self-confidence. A steady income provides people with access to basic human rights, such as food, housing, healthcare, education, and the ability to take care of dependents. Denying women the ability to secure a job in fair conditions further perpetuates the cycle of poverty, leaving women more vulnerable to homelessness, abuse and violence.

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