By Grace Virtue
My mother, to me, was quintessentially the face of poverty—and the struggle against it. She led our family’s effort to feed, clothe, educate and secure a dignified and productive life for ourselves and future generations. The epic struggle, though, was to acquire land, build a house and secure the ultimate liberation against abuse and indignity.
I know now that our situation was far from unusual. Millions of families throughout the world are engaged in the same struggle, and in the developing world, women, more often than not, are in the forefront. My whole life experience, then and now, has reinforced my belief that the security of home ownership is the key to women’s empowerment and poverty eradication. Uncertainty around housing is dislocating and inhibiting, and one of the most potent conditions reinforcing women’s vulnerability and intergenerational poverty. It is the embodiment of the World Bank’s definition of poverty as a “condition whereby an individual lacks the opportunity to make meaningful choices that will sustainably improve his or her life.”
The following steps are essential to addressing the problem:
1. More direct effort on the part of governments, and international development agencies, to provide access to land and proper housing. Ultimately, there is no real empowerment without a place to be safe, comfortable and private, and to organize one’s life. In the developing world, especially, this means owning one’s property to combat weak or non-existent rental.
2. Greater collaboration among government and development agencies to help needy women and families. If a family has food and access to education, but is homeless or suffers from the threat of homelessness, it is still missing basic ingredients necessary for a productive life. A holistic approach is required to enhance well-being and speed up the process of poverty eradication.
3. A shift in the program dialogue, nationally and internationally, from a stigmatized welfare type paradigm to one of empowerment, human dignity and sustainable development. While bad choices can exacerbate poverty, historical conditions, systemic inequities and weak or corrupt governments, are more often to blame for the lack of progress in poverty eradication, including acquiring the resources to provide for adequate shelter. A fresh start approach is a matter of natural justice for the descendants of slaves in places like Jamaica, for example, or victims of genocide and other forms of violence elsewhere. It is also an effective way to eradicate one of the key markers of poverty and prevent poor families from spiraling further into dysfunction, like living on the streets and engaging in criminal activities.
There are multiple other variables, such as access to tertiary education, employment, and equal pay, that are critical to women empowerment, but the need for shelter is immediate for many, and the stress in securing it all consuming. For women in the developing world, it is also a matter of personal security and a barrier against domestic abuse.
Grace Virtue, Ph.D., is a social justice advocate and author of “How will I know my Children when I get to Heaven? a collection of 30 essays exploring the challenges facing minority/immigrant women and girls in the USA. It can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Will-Know- Children-When-Heaven-ebook/dp/B00VIKZ77M?ie=UTF8&ref_=pe_2427780_160035660