Poorest of the poor

June 18, 2011


THE federal budget 2011-2012 brings little relief to the majority of Pakistanis. To the 40 per cent that live below the poverty line, it comes as a veritable death threat. Of those who barely have one or two meals a day, the most affected will be the poorest of the poor: households headed by women.

Men and women are affected by and respond differently to socio-economic conditions. Most policies, even those that claim to be women-oriented, fail to benefit women. Through a recent nationwide study conducted on over 800 households headed by women and an equal number by men, the Social Policy and Development Centre developed comparative findings.

The study analyses the conditions under which women in Pakistan become the heads of their homes and gathers information on various aspects of household characteristics in comparison with households headed by men and women who are not poor:

income and expenditure patterns, employment, social service delivery, education and health status, land entitlement and poverty.

The most worrying set of findings relate to the standard of living and general wellbeing of households headed by women. The average total income for these households was found to be almost 100 per cent less than that in households headed by men.

Only 24.2 per cent of women who head their households are employed, as compared to 84.2 per cent of similarly placed men.

Employed males who head their households earn almost 149 per cent more than their female counterparts. Rural women run their homes at or below subsistence level, with a monthly expenditure level of Rs10,491, while the comparative figure is Rs14,254 for households headed by men.

Poverty was estimated through a snapshot based on income-consumption patterns. A higher incidence of poverty was witnessed in households headed by women. Of 804 such households surveyed, 44.15 per cent were found to be living below the poverty line of Rs1,286.92 per capita per month compared to 34.95 per cent households headed by men. Rural poverty is more intense for both types of households.

A larger number of households headed by women exhibited a significant incidence of food poverty. In all income categories, a higher percentage of such households went without a single meal as compared to households headed by men. In rural areas, the situation is more alarming. Food composition is also an indicator of food poverty and the level of nutrition. Over 94 per cent of households headed by women in the lowest-income category in urban, and 87 per cent in rural, areas did not consume meat throughout the week. These figures are similar for households headed by men. The percentages are higher in terms of fruit consumption.

In determining the standard of living, affordability of user charges for social services is a major factor. Close to 80 per cent of the households headed by women in the lowest income group cannot afford education compared to 62.4 per cent of those headed by men. Over 40 per cent female-headed households cannot afford health-related expenses compared with 18 per cent of those headed by men. With more women unable to spend on food, education and health, there is a continuous and never-ending cycle of poverty, illiteracy and poor health. Such households are far more vulnerable to unforeseen circumstances.

The high vulnerability of households headed by women is also evidenced by women’s lack of ownership of assets. Despite the recognition of inheritance rights by Islam and under the Pakistan constitution, women remain deprived of these rights. Asset distribution is considered an intra-family decision and women are either unwilling or unable to seek judicial redress.

Another key aspect of the study revolved around empowerment and decision-making power. Findings show that women do not exercise their will even if they head their homes, largely because of the ingrained societal patriarchal system. Almost half are not permitted to purchase items of daily use, 30 per cent in urban and 40 per cent in rural areas are not empowered to decide on the sale and purchase of assets, and 17.5 per cent in urban and 24 per cent in rural areas cannot take decisions related to seeking health services.

The study concludes that households headed by women are poorer and more vulnerable in the four key variables that determine human wellbeing at the basic level: income, food expenditure, ownership of assets and empowerment.

Generally, development policies should be pro-poor and long-term steps need to be taken to ensure the poor are targeted for social benefits. It is important to ensure the safe transfer of resources to households headed by women that are at higher level of risk and vulnerability through a public-private partnership model. The extremely poor quality of social services, particularly in rural areas, and the apathy of the officials concerned is disproportionately affecting households headed by women. Health and education services need to be taken to the more disadvantaged groups on an emergency basis.

Since entitlement and ownership rights restrict women’s empowerment and their ability to improve their overall wellbeing, a scheme of ‘agricultural land entitlement’ to female heads of households, particularly in rural areas, should be introduced along with training in managing land profitably.

Unless women believe that they can claim their rights without fear of repercussions or waste of time and resources, they will continue to hesitate to claim what is theirs by law. Easier and quicker access to justice is essential through the formulation of special centres, awareness-raising on inheritance rights and proper training of the judiciary in handling cases registered by or on behalf of women.

The writers are technical advisor and principal economist at the Social Policy and Development Centre respectively.