Too often, women living in extreme poverty are relegated to the category of “victim,” because their capacity to revolt and resist is not recognized. It is apparent that these women are victims of both gender inequality and of extreme poverty, but when we fail to recognize the active role they play, we continue to perpetuate the myth that submission and inferiority are somehow innate in the lowest-income communities. Certain social welfare institutions in Europe and North America, as well as certain development programs in Africa or Latin America tend to see women in extreme poverty as passive, indifferent and even unaware of their oppression, tolerating a situation that no better-off woman would tolerate. This attitude is based on the idea that women living in extreme poverty are only victims, incapable of acting on their own behalf.
Women living in extreme poverty are more often than not considered as bad mothers or bad workers, yet they constantly make sacrifices to fulfil both roles. They are often obliged to choose between working to earn a livelihood or staying with their children to protect them from the violence of extreme poverty.
“I’m not going to hire a child minder who does not stay with their own children.” What Mrs. Vicky W. from Luxembourg is told at a job interview expresses the extent to which the work of very poor women is discredited by women of other social backgrounds. She was not hired as a child minder because she does not live with her children; her own children were taken into foster care because she and her partner did not have secure housing or income. Now that she has found housing and hopes to be reunited with her children, she is criticized for not having an adequate income to look after them.
Women living in extreme poverty carry out undervalued and sometimes shameful work, in employment fields where they are considered interchangeable, or in self-employment where they are unprotected. They work in informal or unregulated sectors, without health insurance, a fixed salary or paid leave. The differences in work and income between men and women are less important than for people in other social backgrounds, and most women work outside the home, often alongside their partners. Others are often the sole income earners in the household and it is often the young girls who become household heads. As well as their work outside and inside the home, women living in extreme poverty have to travel long distances or wait for hours in offices to access support from institutions or charitable organizations.
Social welfare policies often end up in increased control over low-income women, over their bodies and their relationships with their children and their partners. Because these policies, often intended to protect women, were not thought out in partnership with those living in extreme poverty, their results can be paternalistic, or can turn into sanctions against women.
Access to contraception and abortion are rights which are demanded by women in the Fourth World People’s Universities and sterilization is practiced in a freely consensual manner by many women living in poverty but both, sterilization and abortion, have also been imposed on low-income women at different times throughout history until now, by force or economic constraints, within the framework of family planning policies, looking not to give them access to their rights but to control a population judged as undesirable by controlling poor woman’s bodies.
Taking children into foster care, putting them up for adoption and putting children and young people into group homes, although intended as a means to relieve the burdens weighing on women living in extreme poverty, are too often instead tools used to control and punish a whole social class.
Mrs. Alicia from Peru recounts, “to leave I had to pay for my hospital stay. The nurse told me, ‘If you don’t pay; we’ll keep the baby, why would you take her if you’re not able to look after her? If you don’t have enough money to leave hospital, you won’t have enough to feed her.’”
In France, social services call Mrs. Céline Lenand to explain to her that her baby will be taken into care. She flees the hospital to look for her partner, but when she returns her baby is no longer there. He will be placed in a foster home. The reasons, given to her, are her previous stays in a psychiatric hospital and her partner’s recent homelessness.
In Africa, there is a whole context: the responsibility of many sectors creates conditions where the children of very poor people can be considered orphans and adopted internationally. Their parents are considered invisible, because of their lack of means to provide for their children. In Burkina, Awa, a young single mother was offered a training program, if she agreed to give up her daughter for the four years of training. Her older sister Mariam, also living in the streets, told us later that she convinced Awa not to go, telling her “you will never see your daughter again”.
For women living in extreme poverty, as opposed to women from other social backgrounds, family ties and children are a resource against extreme poverty. Many of them struggle to make the home a place of resistance to the violence of extreme poverty that they and their partners have undergone at work and in the street, violence that goes as far as killing their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters.
Their status as mothers and as workers, even if invisible and undervalued, turns them into actors of change for themselves, their family and their community. The lowest-income women, as activists in their own right, have to be at the heart of places where decisions are taken on questions of gender.
Magdalena Brand is a PhD candidate who teaches sociology at the Université Paris 8-Vincennes/Saint-Denis. Her research concerns experiences of oppression and resistance of women from Central Africa who earn a livelihood from providing sexual and domestic services for expatriate French citizens in Bangui. She is an active member of ATD Fourth World and is an activist in feminist groups in Paris, France.