The truth about the feminization of poverty
My mother is a beautiful woman. As a teenager, while grappling with my self-esteem and identity, I would look at pictures of her in her 20s and wonder how I got so many things from her — including a temperament that had created a chasm between us — but not her beauty.
There’s one picture in particular that I found particularly enraging. She’s in the Maasai Mara, an area of preserved savannah in Kenya, wearing jungle-green pants that, though baggy, still somehow accentuate her curves. That picture has been a symbolic marker of the many stages of our relationship: Where I once looked at that picture and just saw my mother, a woman I idealized, I look at it now and see a woman separate from me, one whom I have treated as my own experimental lab rat on womanhood. To my shock, I have come to realize that you can’t always be beautiful in an environment determined to strip you bare.
My mother has always commented that of all her children, I, the firstborn, gave her the most hell. On the surface, that doesn’t really make sense; as a teenager, I generally let people walk all over me in return for just a few crumbs of love. But I guess having spent the first five years of my life in abject poverty, just my mother, me, and a sister too young at the time to understand or remember it, had a long-term effect on me. I guess an unwillingness to give up any sense of independence was both instilled in and then later stifled in me by the one woman who knew the consequences of giving up your independence.
See, when my parents got married, my father decided my mother didn’t need to work anymore. That was ridiculous because he worked and lived in a different town and didn’t even earn enough to support himself. But it was still important that he played the part of patriarchal provider and head of family, even if it came at the expense of the well-being of that very family. Moreover, it made it easier for him to control my mother if she was isolated and poor.
After I was born, however, my mother and I truly struggled to survive in our one-room house that lacked running water and furniture. I was often left with our neighbors while my mother looked for food and water. As young as 5 years old, I saw what happens when a woman is robbed of her independence, and knew I wouldn’t let anyone take mine away from me.
As a young woman trying to navigate and find my place in the world, I often felt the need to ask my mother for advice. I know she regrets quitting her job when she got married, and I know she wants us to have flourishing careers. But I also believed her regret came from a place of resignation and self-pity. I wanted more from and for her. I wanted her to stand up to the man who still abused her in more ways than one. I wanted her to think of abuse as a deal-breaker in marriage, not a rough patch. I just wanted her to choose herself, and in doing that, choose her daughters. And so I didn’t ask her anything.
The beauty of growing up, however, is that you eventually begin to see things from your parents’ perspective. I now realize that my mother’s decisions, the decisions I am trying so hard to avoid, were not made in a vacuum; the power dynamics of our very society were never in her favor. She, like every other woman, is a victim of a system that was created to disenfranchise her, to simultaneously deny her the means to wealth and make sure that she and her daughters bore the brunt of the resulting poverty.
The feminization of poverty is the phenomenon in which women experience poverty at rates that are disproportionately high in comparison to men. According to UN Women, as of 2015, a majority of the 1.5 billion people who live on $1 a day or less are women. Of all the people in the world living in poverty, 70 percent are women.
In my country, Kenya, this feminization of poverty can be traced back to colonialism and, with it, western patriarchy. Women in African communities historically worked; they had their own means to put food on the table and a roof over their heads, no matter if men were present or not. It’s western patriarchy that dictates women should not participate in their countries’ economies. With the advent of colonialism, however, African men were either sent abroad to fight in the world wars or exiled for trying to overthrow their colonial governments. This left women and children on their own, plunged into poverty.
The feminization of poverty isn’t just about a lack of money, though, but also about how women in general are denied fundamental human rights and access to services like health and education as a result of this poverty. Kenya is a capitalist nation; health care and education aren’t free. Moreover, poor people are deemed disposable. Recently, thousands of people were evicted from their homes in Nairobi’s largest slum, with no concrete plan for their resettlement, in order to build a road. The gag is, there’s a luxurious golf course in the same area but the authorities won’t demolish that.
This trauma related to poverty is then passed down to the daughters of the women who have for generations been conditioned to survive within this oppressive socioeconomic system. Effectively upholding these oppressive structures is all they’ve ever known.
But African women are resilient. My mother often tells me about my grandmother, who had to take care of seven children alone after my grandfather died. Growing up, my mother didn’t didn’t know how her school fees would be paid or if she’d have enough school supplies. She described a childhood similar to those of many other women in Kenya and beyond.
At first, I was confused as to how she grew up this way, since my grandfather was a rather influential man in his community. How could he have left his family so badly off? Hell, my step-aunt was a member of parliament at the time.
The answer is essentially that my grandfather was polygamous and his families didn’t often see eye to eye. There’s no way my step-aunt and her siblings, despite their relatively good fortune, would care for my grandmother’s family.
But far worse than familial contempt, my step-aunt is a representative of the kind of woman that succeeds it in a patriarchal society. If anything, patriarchy needs women like her — women who survive and succeed despite these odds. This woman has the power to advocate for our government to establish structures that provide opportunities for the economic empowerment of women. Instead, she is known to gaslight other women: She tells them that the system is not geared to disadvantage poor women, but that they’re just lazy and not nearly as resilient as wealthier woman — that their economic oppression is an illusion and a direct consequence of their unwillingness to rise above it. This woman continues to bankrupt women even though her success is built and dances on the very backs of these women. The worst part is that to date, my step-aunt is still championed as a symbol for women’s empowerment, even though at the peak of her legislative career, her sisters couldn’t afford to go to school.
In the seven months since my graduation from university, my family has struggled to understand, let alone accept, my decision not to pursue a career in actuarial science, which they wanted me to, and instead pursue the uncertain career path of writing. I do understand where they are coming from. For the adults in my family, education was a privilege that accorded them upward economic and social mobility, and should be used to obtain a lucrative career. Recently, my father and uncle staged an intervention to make me promise to look for a job related to actuarial science. Eventually, as I continued to be stubbornly unresponsive, the two men inquired if we were in agreement. I remember thinking, “I live in your house. The power dynamics are not in my favor. I can’t possibly disagree with you.”
Later, I realized just how much power male influence has in my life. Even though these men’s hearts were in the right place, I knew that as a woman, and a millennial, my male relatives inherently had power (not to mention a preconceived bias) over me.
But to them, not wanting to pursue a career that I absolutely cannot stand and from which I wouldn’t derive any fulfilment must have seemed like some radical, entitled millennial ideology. I didn’t know how to explain to them that, in reality, what I really want is to have the privilege of access to opportunity. I understand that this privilege determines how far you go in life, and I want to be part of building a society of women that will have something to pass down to their daughters other than poverty.
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