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Women and Poverty in Mission Context

by Glory E. Dharmaraj

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Poverty means working for more than 18 hours a day, but still not earning enough to feed myself, my husband, and my two children.— Working poor woman in Cambodia1

Christian mission calls for active engagement in the realization of fullness of life. Jesus says, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). Fullness of life embraces spiritual, physical, social, and communal well-being. Jesus' focus on the management of human and material resources in the realization of the kingdom of God
is intrinsically linked to his call for reshaping our priorities. He put the emphasis on the alleviation of poverty, hunger, and disease among the "least of these"-the ones Jesus calls "members of my family" (Matthew 25:40). An ageless call of mission is to "cooperate with God in making the oikoumene and oikos, a home, a family of men and women, of young and old of varied gifts, cultures, possibilities where openness, trust, love and justice reign.2

But how inclusive in practical terms is the human family we seek to serve in mission? Was Virginia Woolf, an English writer of the last century, correct in asserting that as a woman she had no country?

To look through the eyes of women is often to look through the eyes of the outsiders. What do we see when we look at the place of women in the global family? Too often it is a realm of marginalization, to which the plight of children is linked in a symbiotic relationship. The global mission context as it applies to women reeks of poverty, fear, uncertainty, and the quest for hope.

Measuring Human Poverty

If the whole world was composed of 100 people, 20 people would earn 89 percent of the world’s wealth, 13 persons would be chronically hungry, 20 would eat too much, 17 would not have clean water, 17 would have substandard housing, and the richest 20 would consume 100 times more energy than the poorest 20.3

The UN measures human poverty by means of an index covering three factors of lack—longevity, knowledge, and a decent standard of living. For developing countries, a lack of longevity means survival to age 40. For developed countries, it is the percentage not expected to survive to age 60. For developing countries, lack of knowledge is measured by the number of illiterate adults, while for developed countries, the measurement is of those who are functionally illiterate.

In developing countries, poor living standards are represented by three key components—the percentageof people without access to safe water or health services, and moderately and severely underweight children under five. In developed countries, poor standards of living are represented by the number of people living below the income poverty line, set at 50 percent of all disposable household income. A fourth lack is added only to developed countries. That is nonparticipation in the labor force for twelve months or more. (See the UN’s Human Development Reports 1998, 2000.)

Female Face of Poverty

About 1 billion (one in six) people in the world live in extreme poverty, defined as living on less than$1 per day. Seventy percent of these are women. More than 800 million go hungry each day, andtwo-thirds are women. Almost 80 percent of the world’s children who drop out of school live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Sociologist Diana Pearce coined the term “feminization of poverty” to describe the gendered nature of poverty. A female economist looking into the phenomenon of widespread poverty among women and children, with particular reference to the US, created the term “pauperization of motherhood.4

Poverty and Oppression

In her 2002 spiritual growth mission study for United Methodist Women, Elsa Tamez notes that in the Hebrew Bible various words that denote oppression and words that describe poverty often appear together, showing the close relationship between the two.5

A gender gap, or a lack of opportunity, is one of the oppressive forces working against women and girls, persisting at all levels of education. For every 100 male children who drop out of primary school, thereare 115 girls in the same precarious plight. Oneout of every five girl children drops out of primary school yet we know that educated women are less likely to end up in poverty and higher education is still an “elusive goal” for girls in many countries.6

Globalization also has a negative impact on women who do not possess the skills to compete in the high-tech, knowledge-based economy. Policies driving the global marketplace are often socially and crassly blind to the needs of the least of these.

Lack of political participation by women also contributes to a global gender inequality. Worldwide, women currently represent only 17 percent of singlehouse and lower houses of national legislation.Thirteen women were heads of state or government in 2006.7

Women and Migration

Women are on the move, seeking bread and economic security. Today the number of people living outside the country of their birth is larger than at any time in history. Women comprise almost half of the global migrants. In 2005, 191 million people (three percent of the world’s population) were estimated to be international migrants. Nearly 40 percent of those are moving from one less developed country to another, as reported in United Methodist Women’s Action Alert on Migrants in a Globalized World (December 2007). About 95 million women worldwide currently give up roots and homes in search of economic security. Poorwomen with low skills take jobs unwanted by residents of the host countries. These women send hundreds of millions of dollars back home, and by doing so help to alleviate hunger, educate their children, provide health care, and generally enhance the standard of living of their families. Violations of the rights and the selfhood of migrant women are rampant. The UN has reacted to such violations by passage of the “International Convention of the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families” on December 18, 1990. As of 2007, only 52 member countries are parties to the convention. The US, a country with a huge migrant population, is among the non-signers.

Trafficking of Women

Embedded within the global migration is the practiceof trafficking of women. Each year 600,000 to 800,000 people are taken (trafficked), usually by force or misrepresentation, across international borders for questionable purposes. Seventy percent of these are women; 50 percent are children under 18. It is estimated that between 18,000 to 20,000 are trafficked into the US every year, taken to both urban and rural areas.8

The economic migrants do include those forced to flee their countries by war, other forms of violence, natural disasters, and political chaos. In 2006, such persons numbered 13.9 million, accordingto the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in a 2007 report. Large numbers of these involuntary immigrants are women and children.

Women and Access to Healthcare

Half a million women continue to die each year during pregnancy or childbirth and most of those live insub-Saharan Africa and Asia. An estimated 137 million women need guidance in family planning and 64 million use traditional methods of contraception with high failure rates.9

By the end of 2007, an estimated 33.2 million people were living with HIV, according to a UN figure that lowered the estimate from 39.5 the year before but indicated a rate of growth at 6,800 new infections per day. In areas severely impacted by the disease, more than half of those living with HIV are women; globally some 48 percent are women. Lack of access to antiretroviral therapy is a key challenge. In 2005, only 11 percent of pregnant women in low and middle-income countries who were tested HIV positive received services to prevent the transmission of the disease to their newborn babies.

Mission Theology and Action

Statistics on women and poverty are so overwhelming that they can numb our senses of Christian conscience and compassion. They call us to develop a “theology of mission as encounter”—encounter that begins with interaction with real persons in real communities and societies. In their book, From Complicity to Encounter: The Church and the Culture of Economism, Jane Collier and Rafael Esteban challenge the faith community to“transcend ourselves so as to become the OTHER for others.”10

On a personal level, it is a call to those who are not poor to voluntarily and consciously work against poverty by adopting simpler life styles, advocating more just economic systems, and taking to heart John Wesley’s admonitions for Christians of means to make it their life work to assist those with little.On the organizational level, including that of the church as a collective of organizations, it means partnering with both private and governmental networks to implement international goals and strategies that are already enumerated through the UN and other agencies. The goals include the building of gender-responsive budgets and gender-specific actions to address the basic causes of poverty, while continuing to empower women and children worldwide to achieve their potentials as members of the universal family.

With regard to the least of these, Christians have a clear mandate from Jesus. Little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; Jesus said,“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:13-14).

Portable Document Format Download this paper in print-friendly PDF format (4 pp, 195K)


  1. Progress of the World’s Women 2005: Women, Work, and Poverty (United Nations Development Fund for Women, 2005), 15.

  2. Philip Potter, quoted by Josef Smolik in “One Aspect of Philip Potter’s Ecumenism,” Communio Viatorum, Vol. xxviii, 1985, 67.

  3. Making Poverty History: Hunger Education Activities that Work (Elkhart, Indiana: Church World Service, 2007), 5.

  4. See Randy Pearl Albelda and Chris Tilly’s book, Glass Ceilings and Bottomless Pits: Women’s Work, Women’s Poverty (South End Press: Boston, Massachusetts, 1997), 24.

  5. Elsa Tamez, The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002), 15.

  6. Progress of the World’s Women 2005, 16.

  7. The Millennium Development Goals Report 2007 (The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, June 2007), 13.

  8. DVD called “Lives for Sale” by Larry Rich and Gayla Jamison. (Maryknoll Production: New York, 2006).

  9. The Millennium Development Goals Report 2007, 17.

  10. Jane Collier and Rafael Esteban in From Complicity to Encounter: The Church and the Culture of Economism (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International: 1998), 89.