As defined by Madeiros and Costa (2008), “the feminization of poverty is a change in poverty levels that is biased against women or female-headed households”. In other words, it is a current phenomenon in which the gap between women and men in poverty is constantly widening. Madeiros and Costa go on to say that the feminization of poverty is a relative concept based on the differences between women and men living below the poverty line at any given moment. In this sense, “it does not imply an absolute worsening in poverty among women or female headed-households. If poverty is reduced sharply among men and only slightly among women, there would still be a feminization of poverty”.
Madeiros and Costa say that measuring this issue in terms of “poverty among female-headed households” or “poverty among women” does not accurately represent the feminization of poverty. They go on to say that while these indicators do give poverty a gender component, their approach is different from that of feminization. In fact, all three approaches are different. Firstly, when taking into consideration female-headed households, the unit of analysis is the household. This unit is comprised of the female head and other women, men and children who live under the same roof, disregarding the presence of women and men in other family formations. In the second case, the indicator completely separates women from men and thus, the results gathered on the feminization of poverty from these studies cannot be considered conclusive. Finally, the authors say that measuring the feminization of poverty as an increasing share of female-headed households and women among the poor is a faulty approach, because if at any given time, the demographic composition varies and the density of these groups decline, it could lead to believe that the feminization of poverty in the studied population is zero.
Chant says that indices of poverty could be improved to better represent the “gender gaps in poverty as identified and experienced by poor women” and the “contemporary trends in gender deprivation”. In this sense, Chant says that representing poverty in women as a mere lack of income is detrimental to the understanding of this phenomenon and that it would be beneficial to consider a more holistic approach.
The reason behind this is that income-wise, female headed households and women are not that worse off than men. This is not meant to negate that in current day, women still earn less than men, mainly because of lack of job opportunities –rather, that the disadvantages of women in comparison to men are starker in other fields, such as land ownership.
This inequality is also evident in gender dynamics in households headed by men, where the allocation of resources is often skewed. This means that the male leader of the household usually reserves part of the income for personal expenses, despite it being detrimental to the overall wellness of the family, which is them immersed in secondary poverty.
It is also seen in the growing unevenness of the responsibilities in poor households, or, as Chant calls it, the “feminization of responsibility and/or obligation”. In studies conducted in Gambia, the Philippines and Costa Rica, Chant found three tendencies:
While there is no denying that many women and female-headed households live in critical situations in patriarchal societies, the feminization of poverty cannot be treated as the consequence of income inequality alone. It is a complex issue that should be addressed as such, with gendered poverty-alleviation policies targeted towards eradicating the disparaging disadvantages women suffer even now, when men still hold the power and the rights.