Economic Reform and Poverty: A Gender Analysis

Published on 1 January 2001

Economic reform in many developing countries has been associated with stabilisation and structural adjustment programmes supported by international financial institutions (IFIs). As these have become more widespread and long term, concern has grown about the impact of economic reform policies on poverty. Evidence is not encouraging, with many countries experiencing increases in poverty under programmes of economic reform in the 1980s, or a worsening of income distribution, with a few exceptions. These concerns have led to changes in the thinking about economic reform and poverty, including by IFIs, and in the design of stabilisation and adjustment packages, particularly the introduction of conditionalities on social sector spending and the funding of social programmes. There has also been considerable research into poverty in adjusting countries. It is unclear, however, whether these changes have yet had a significant impact or whether concerns with poverty outcomes have much influence over macroeconomic policies. Greater integration is required between strategies to reduce poverty and economic reform policies.

Early writings on structural adjustment and women highlighted the potentially negative affects, particularly on poor women, but were not based on rigorous studies. In spite of mounting evidence, the mainstream literature on poverty and adjustment still pays little attention to gender aspects of poverty and vulnerability. Where the poor are disaggregated, it is not usually in terms of gender difference, although female-headed households are often singled out as a vulnerable group. Some empirical research has been done which compares poverty trends between male and female household heads, but this does not address the questions of intrahousehold resource allocation and poverty, relevant to the majority of women. Although tools exist for integrating a gender analysis into many aspects of economic reform, these are rarely applied in practice.

Gender affects vulnerability to poverty in periods of insecurity, and women are likely to find it more difficult to escape poverty. Poor women may be particularly vulnerable to deepening poverty under adjustment. Any poverty reducing effects which adjustment may bring, e.g. through renewed stimulus to small scale agriculture, may not reach women directly, due to their lack of command over productive resources and control over output, as well as, particularly for poor women, lack of time. Poor supply response, observed in some adjusting economies may be linked to constraints to women?s ability or willingness to increase production, or market increased production, including gender biases in financial markets, and marketing systems. The costs of economic restructuring are often disproportionately borne by women, through increased labour, or reduced intake of food, with severe human development consequences for women themselves and, potentially, for children, especially girls, who may be drawn into household or income earning labour. Finally, existing safety net programmes have tended to target men, explicitly or implicitly, and wider social security and welfare provisions have not taken account of changes in social relations (including gender relations) which are occurring as a result of economic restructuring, as well as political and social conflict.

Policy responses required are further steps to incorporate gender concerns into the design of economic reform programmes, both through gender-aware economic planning and through increasing the accountability of policy-making to (poor) women. Monitoring the gender differentiated impacts of economic policies is also important, using women?s budgets and gender-disaggregated expenditure incidence analysis. Measures to remove the constraints to economic opportunities for poor women include reform of marketing systems and infrastructure and of financial markets and institutions. Reform of social security provisions is needed to take

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Baden, S
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