Who are the impoverished? Who is living in absolute poverty? The truth that most of us would guess that the richest countries are often those with the least people. Compare the United States, which possesses a relatively small slice of the population pie and owns by far the largest slice of the wealth pie, with India. These disparities have the expected consequence. The poorest people in the world are women and those in peripheral and semi-peripheral nations. For women, the rate of poverty is particularly worsened by the pressure on their time. In general, time is one of the few luxuries the very poor have, but study after study has shown that women in poverty, who are responsible for all family comforts as well as any earnings they can make, have less of it. The result is that while men and women may have the same rate of economic poverty, women are suffering more in terms of overall wellbeing (Buvinic 1997). It is harder for females to get credit to expand businesses, to take the time to learn a new skill, or to spend extra hours improving their craft so as to be able to earn at a higher rate.
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Global Feminization of Poverty
In some ways, the phrase "global feminization of poverty" says it all: around the world, women are bearing a disproportionate percentage of the burden of poverty. This means more women live in poor conditions, receive inadequate healthcare, bear the brunt of malnutrition and inadequate drinking water, and so on. Throughout the 1990s, data indicated that while overall poverty rates were rising, especially in peripheral nations, the rates of impoverishment increased for women nearly 20 percent more than for men (Mogadham 2005).
Why is this happening? While myriad variables affect women"s poverty, research specializing in this issue identifies three causes (Mogadham 2005):The expansion in the number of female-headed householdsThe persistence and consequences of intra-household inequalities and biases against womenThe implementation of neoliberal economic policies around the world
While women are living longer and healthier lives today compared to ten years ago, around the world many women are denied basic rights, particularly in the workplace. In peripheral nations, they accumulate fewer assets, farm less land, make less money, and face restricted civil rights and liberties. Women can stimulate the economic growth of peripheral nations, but they are often undereducated and lack access to credit needed to start small businesses.
In 2013, the United Nations assessed its progress toward achieving its Millennium Development Goals. Goal 3 was to promote gender equality and empower women, and there were encouraging advances in this area. While women’s employment outside the agricultural sector remains under 20 percent in Western Asia, Northern Africa, and Southern Asia, worldwide it increased from 35–40 percent over the twenty-year period ending in 2010 (United Nations 2013).
The majority of the poorest countries in the world are in Africa. That is not to say there is not diversity within the countries of that continent; countries like South Africa and Egypt have much lower rates of poverty than Angola and Ethiopia, for instance. Overall, African income levels have been dropping relative to the rest of the world, meaning that Africa as a whole is getting relatively poorer. Making the problem worse, 2014 saw an outbreak of the Ebola virus in western Africa, leading to a public health crisis and an economic downturn due to loss of workers and tourist dollars.
Why is Africa in such dire straits? Much of the continent’s poverty can be traced to the availability of land, especially arable land (land that can be farmed). Centuries of struggle over land ownership have meant that much useable land has been ruined or left unfarmed, while many countries with inadequate rainfall have never set up an infrastructure to irrigate. Many of Africa’s natural resources were long ago taken by colonial forces, leaving little agricultural and mineral wealth on the continent.
Further, African poverty is worsened by civil wars and inadequate governance that are the result of a continent re-imagined with artificial colonial borders and leaders. Consider the example of Rwanda. There, two ethnic groups cohabitated with their own system of hierarchy and management until Belgians took control of the country in 1915 and rigidly confined members of the population into two unequal ethnic groups. While, historically, members of the Tutsi group held positions of power, the involvement of Belgians led to the Hutu’s seizing power during a 1960s revolt. This ultimately led to a repressive government and genocide against Tutsis that left hundreds of thousands of Rwandans dead or living in diaspora (U.S. Department of State 2011c). The painful rebirth of a self-ruled Africa has meant many countries bear ongoing scars as they try to see their way towards the future (World Poverty 2012a).
While the majority of the world’s poorest countries are in Africa, the majority of the world’s poorest people are in Asia. As in Africa, Asia finds itself with disparity in the distribution of poverty, with Japan and South Korea holding much more wealth than India and Cambodia. In fact, most poverty is concentrated in South Asia. One of the most pressing causes of poverty in Asia is simply the pressure that the size of the population puts on its resources. In fact, many believe that China’s success in recent times has much to do with its draconian population control rules. According to the U.S. State department, China’s market-oriented reforms have contributed to its significant reduction of poverty and the speed at which it has experienced an increase in income levels (U.S. Department of State 2011b). However, every part of Asia is feeling the current global recession, from the poorest countries whose aid packages will be hit, to the more industrialized ones whose own industries are slowing down. These factors make the poverty on the ground unlikely to improve any time soon (World Poverty 2012b).
The Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) includes oil-rich countries in the Gulf, such as Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait, but also countries that are relatively resource-poor in relationship to their populations, such as Morocco and Yemen. These countries are predominately Islamic. For the last quarter-century, economic growth was slower in MENA than in other developing economies, and almost a quarter of the 300 million people who make up the population live on less than $2.00 a day (World Bank 2013).
The International Labour Organization tracks the way income inequality influences social unrest. The two regions with the highest risk of social unrest are Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East-North Africa region (International Labour Organization 2012). Increasing unemployment and high socioeconomic inequality in MENA were major factors in the Arab Spring, which—beginning in 2010—toppled dictatorships throughout the Middle East in favor of democratically elected government; unemployment and income inequalities are still being blamed on immigrants, foreign nationals, and ethnic/religious minorities.
Sweatshops and Student Protests: Who’s Making Your Team Spirit?
Most of us don’t pay too much attention to where our favorite products are made. And certainly when you’re shopping for a college sweatshirt or ball cap to wear to a school football game, you probably don’t turn over the label, check who produced the item, and then research whether or not the company has fair labor practices. But for the members of USAS––United Students Against Sweatshops––that’s exactly what they do. The organization, which was founded in 1997, has waged countless battles against both apparel makers and other multinational corporations that do not meet what USAS considers fair working conditions and wages (USAS 2009).
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Sometimes their demonstrations take on a sensationalist tone, as in 2006 when twenty Penn State students protested while naked or nearly naked, in order to draw attention to the issue of sweatshop labor. The school is actually already a member of an independent monitoring organization called Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) that monitors working conditions and works to assist colleges and universities with maintaining compliance with their labor code. But the students were protesting in order to have the same code of conduct applied to the factories that provide materials for the goods, not just where the final product is assembled (Chronicle of Higher Education 2006).
The USAS organization has chapters on over 250 campuses in the United States and Canada and has waged countless campaigns against companies like Nike and Forever 21 apparel, Taco Bell restaurants, and Sodexo food service. In 2000, members of USAS helped to create the WRC. Schools that affiliate with WRC pay annual fees that help offset the organization’s costs. Over 180 schools are affiliated with the organization. Yet, USAS still sees signs of inequality everywhere. And its members feel that, as current and future workers, they are responsible for ensuring that workers of the world are treated fairly. For them, at least, the global inequality we see everywhere should not be ignored for a team spirit sweatshirt.