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Ending feminised poverty

Kate Galloway |  10 September 2014

Old woman walking

I was heartened to hear news this week of the launch of the second action plan in the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children. It is important that opposition to violence against women becomes part of daily discourse. It is clear though that this strategy needs to take its place alongside a vast array of other reforms to achieve its potential for transformative change and justice for women.

Despite historical gains for women in terms of formal equality – the right to vote, to own property and to be educated – the lack of progress towards women's substantive equality is bound tightly to deeply ingrained assumptions about gender. This is so even in an apparently broadly liberal society like Australia – although I personally find Australian attitudes to gender are largely very conservative. Social constructs play out daily in our personal relationships and our public personae. The effect of these assumptions is profound for our society: they underlie violence against women and are implicated in the feminisation of poverty.

I know women approaching retirement age facing subsistence living in the midst of our affluent society. Foregoing education in the 1960s because of cost and the expectation to marry, they devoted themselves to raising children, doing voluntary work and supporting their husbands' career advancement. Through widowhood or divorce, they have ended up living alone. The paid work they have since undertaken has been largely unskilled in retail or service industries. Employers had offered only casual work, varying greatly in hours from week to week and affecting their financial independence.

Some have had new relationships, but have suffered financially as a result. This is often described as 'sexually transmitted debt'. These women now rely on pensions and supported housing. They remain active in their communities, but are excluded from the labour market. These women represent an example of the feminisation of poverty.

Overall, Australian women earn an average of 18.2 per cent less than men. Consequently, women also have lower retirement savings. In 2009, the Australian Human Rights Commission reported on women's accumulation of poverty: 'Instead of accumulating wealth through the retirement income system as intended, due to experiences of inequality over the lifecycle, women are more likely to be accumulating poverty.'

Women's unpaid caring responsibilities compound this problem as women frequently interrupt their working lives to care for children, the sick and the elderly. Even where a couple strives for equality, women receive a smaller share of available household finances than their male partners and they tend to spend it on household and children's needs. Additionally, over two million women are financially abused by their spouse. Women have less purchasing power per dollar than men – simply because they are women.

Some may suggest that it is 'natural' or inevitable that this occurs and this is at the heart of the intractable problem of injustice. I do not see why my older women friends should be burdened with accumulated poverty simply because they are women. They carry a material burden because their unpaid work was considered to be performed 'for love', undeserving of financial security. They did not have opportunities for education or career advancement because they were women. Some have lost their financial security because of the domination of men carrying out their own construction of gender.

Importantly however, these structural issues – wage gap, superannuation gap, childcare, unpaid caring, inequitable income distribution – have not gone away. These older women are not the last or the only generation to experience feminised poverty. Experiencing life this way renders women second-class citizens, denying them their right to self-determination.

To give substance to women's right to self-determination, we must afford all women real opportunities to engage fully in economic and civic life free from the expectations imposed on their gender but free also to express themselves as women.

This means re-thinking our key institutions to provide equitably for diverse life paths, and to value women. The former has an economic flavor and the latter a social one. The two intersect at the level of policy. Progressive institutional reform requires setting a clear direction confirming the value of women in all social and institutional contexts: the workplace, the home, the parliament, courts and executive, in education, sport, media and culture.

Our society pays a price for feminised poverty. Proposals by government or industry that affect welfare, tax, wages and entitlements or childcare therefore need to be tested against the policy outcome of justice for women in both economic and social terms. Only then will the spectrum of issues start to converge to support strategies addressing the other disastrous problem of violence against women.

Justice for women requires ambitious and comprehensive reform with broad buy-in from all quarters. How are you going to contribute to change?

Kate Galloway

Kate Galloway lectures in law at James Cook University. She researches and writes about property law, feminist legal theory and legal education. Kate blogs and tweets.

Stock image of old woman via Shutterstock.



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Submitted comments

Our society's attitude to family is a big part of the problem. It was my expectation years ago when things began to change, that by now that most couples would be earning between them the equivalent of one wage. And that they would also be sharing more or less equally the caring for children and the family home. Instead both parents are in full time paid jobs. Employers still see mothers as the prime carers for children when an emergency occurs. Parents constantly struggle with this and the minor role in earning usually automatically falls to the woman. The workforce needs to change its thinking.

Margaret McDonald 11 September 2014

I agree with u, Kate. But as a 70yr old woman, I have to support another woman, i.e. my daughter, because childcare fees are high. Our generation of women are being worn to the ground as we support our children and their children. Childcare needs to be free to older women have a chance to wake up refreshed rather than exhausted. Women need free childcare and free university (that's when I went) are essential. All else is mere good intention and words. All these expensive fees are chaining women to the home, whether young or old. Change will not come until women are fully supported. I'd love to do postgraduate work but can't afford it and can't afford the time because I am looking after grandchildren, sharing myself around, helping my children and their children. My friends are all in a similar situation. One of my good friends last week was in tears. She has 3 daughters. One was sick and was ringing her mother to come and help look after the children while her husband worked but she was busy looking after another daughter's child because too much childcare is too expensive. That's where is starts for us oldies.

anne butt 11 September 2014

Thanks. An excellent article, which further demonstrates that women as a group can never benefit from neoliberal economic and socially retrograde policies.

Sara Dowse 11 September 2014

If you subscribe to the maxim that " it takes a village " to raise a child,,then the role of grandparents can be an important aspect of this and can be a blessing for all . The richness gained from service, even to your own family can be fulfilling. Balanced with a bit of " me" time it can be a splendid way to connect with community and stay young . Feminism is not only about self empowerment of the woman but also of the community to which she belongs. Men as well as women benefit from the caring role When they look after grandchildren or elderly parents another dimension to their humanness is developed. Rather than just seeking monetary rewards for women let's also formulate another model of family with shared male and female responsibilities . Empower each member of families for a better society.

Celia 11 September 2014

Present day policies are failing families. So much of income is spent on financing the family home - high mortgage or high rents. Glen Stevens, Governor of the Reserve bank said recently that we were failing in the provision of family homes to favour investors. The reason that both parents need to be in full time jobs is the high cost of housing. Far too much of the communities resources are being funnelled into servicing high mortgages which makes it far more costly to live whether you are young or old. Because the caring role falls more on women , women are far more affected by inhumane government policies.

Anne Schmid 11 September 2014

Thank you Kate, for explaining these vital issues affecting our social, medical and financial health. Younger women, if they can return to work are financially pressured to leave young babies and small children in some one else's care, costling much of their wage. As a young mum I worked part time as a nurse and my husband shared the nurturing in evenings and on weekends. My mother cared for my 3 children in school holidays as well as sick children and regularly picked children up from buses and had a meal ready at times.She was the mainstay. I am so thankful for my parents and the relationships they created.As I worked, I felt useful, but also felt I was playing catch up-rushing my parenting..giving up on the time needed to really enjoy our children and be aware of underlying issues.Our values are reflected in our actions and we are both TIME POOR and FINANCIALLY POOR. Now at 57,I have little superanuation and we have a mortgage, 3 grown children, one with work related injuries and chronic back pain,so I am supporting him to keep independence, and I care for my parents and an intellectually disabled sister. I am grateful for my health, I am the mainstay. My nursing work is casual, flexible and I am available. I don't know what my retirement will look like- we will no doubt have health issues and hopefully many good memories and valuable relationships. UNPAID work is our means of survival and it's time long overdue that governments viewed all carers as the FABRIC,the reason, the best preventative medicine, and first cultural educators/ PAID Work- (companies etc) only remains viable (essential) with sales, and relies on families and carers to buy and use products.etc..etc..Our ENVIRONMENT needs a slower, more reflective human pace too. Question: Why are governments planning/ spending so much $ building enormous gaols in Victoria, and detention centres to deter refugees when they could be supporting children and families in the home and enriching a most impoverished collective human spirit.

Catherine 11 September 2014

The fallout from gender discrimination against women and its extreme form of misogyny has reached critical proportions in our society, and it is heartening to see some of the issues involved articulated so clearly and unequivocally. Thank you for speaking out for those who have little or no voice, are too preoccupied with survival to complain, or are not heard when they attempt to make their plight known, for precisely the reasons of gender bias that you have outlined in this article. As one who faces the prospect of accumulated poverty for some of the reasons you describe (but essentially for being female), I thank you wholeheartedly for sharing your insights and your views.

Jena Woodhouse 11 September 2014

Two of my daughters work in areas where they are equal to their male counterparts. One heads a department where her income and conditions far surpass those of the males , but she had a very difficult time , battling the gender barriers on the way through. It can be achieved but the path is strewn with obstacles and a certain amount of heartache. My message is stick at it ladies and get the males.on side. Us father have a role to fill in this respect.

David 11 September 2014

Thank you very much for this article. It actually goes with something that I have been thinking about for a while. I am disabled and married. If I was in an abusive relationship (I'm thankfully not) I would not be able to afford to leave as the DSP is means tested and so I am reliant on my husbands income. I wanted to start a campaign to get the DSP cut-off level raised so women who are in abusive relationships are not financially bound to their partners. I would love to hear your opinion on this.

Sonia Marcon 11 September 2014

No way I will do regular childcare for free if I end up as a grandparent. Women should not be so nice! It is a worry to read in the comments how some older women are exploited by their working age children. The elderly have a life that is as valuable as anyone else's.

Penelope 11 September 2014

Excellent article. We need to be more aware of ALL these issues that contribute to the feminization of poverty. Child care is a huge issue! As a young college-educated working women, after my children arrived, child care costs were prohibitive, but when I asked my mother to consider watching them she refused. OK, so I stopped working to care for them. But a few years later, when my brother had children, my mother decided to to became his full-time care care provider so that he and his wife could enjoy a double pay check.. Sexism was at work even in my own family culture that viewed my brother's career as more important than mine.

Meg 12 September 2014

In the aftermath of reading this article, I remembered the term ''genteel poverty", which was particularly applicable to women and purported to legitimise the social phenomenon discussed in this article. But in the light of current awareness it strikes me as an oxymoron, a product of the Dickensian era, for what can be genteel about poverty?

Jena Woodhouse 12 September 2014

Thank you Kate - I can only echo the comments of the other women in this thread. Why is it so many others in in society turn a blind-eye to this seemingly obvious inequity?

Clare 12 September 2014

So true so sad and so victimised. I have an idea financial relational economic negotiation you at gave an interest in. I hold four degrees at distinction / high distinction grade average. Three from two of the top... Australian Universities and equivalent TAFE qualification. Across 4 professional fields none of which I can now use to earn an income. I have a lifetime sentence 24 hours a day 7 days a week 52 weeks of the year. And I try to sustain myself on the $2.70 an hour I am provided by a pension. I have been doing this since I was 52. It is a good idea. I give you permission to contact me via my email account. Regards

Kaarin 12 January 2015

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