The first objective with this report was to find out what factors affects a poor urban woman’s vicious circle of poverty. We know that the original vicious circle of poverty is not applicable on our target group, poor women working in the informal sector in urban areas. For example, the assumption that poor health leads to low productivity is not the whole truth. There are other things affecting low productivity than poor health and inadequate diet. The factors we believe are the causes of poverty are not as simple as the model implies. The factors behind the situation of poverty the individual is in, are on a higher level then what the model suggests. To find the causes of poverty one must study poverty in a much broader perspective. We have changed the model of the vicious circle of poverty because the situation of poverty is much more complex than the model state. When changing this model, we gave it a gender-aware approach. Instead of an anonymous poor person we placed a poor, working woman living in an urban slum, in the circle.

Figure 3: The Vicious Circle of Poverty - A gender-aware approach.

As a result of our field work and literature studies we present a changed circle of poverty with many different factors which affect the womans´ life. To make the circle more surveyable and to see how they are connected with each-other and interact with each-other we have structured the factors into three groups, Social Structure, Economic Factors and Environmental Factors. First we will explain how the factors affect poor women’s life (11.1. - 11.3.) and then we will show how these factors are connected with each other and how they interact with each other (11.4.).

11.1. Social Structures

Religion and traditions form the basis of the social structure in Indian society. The Caste system puts people in different strata of society where the high castes often enjoy a privileged life and the lower castes face a lot of restrictions in life because of their subordinate position in society. Laws are a third factor forming the social structures of India but religion and tradition put the laws in the background and make it hard for them to work. Education is a fourth factor affecting the social structures in such a way that it diminishes women’s access to education.

Religion and tradition puts a woman subordinate to men in society, she should always obey her husband, father or son. Women have a low status in society. She is not often allowed to decide on matters concerning her own life. Her role in society is to be a daughter, mother and wife. In the poorer parts of the society she is supposed to do work outside her home as well as inside her home and contribute to the family’s income. The fact that women are considered to be less worth than men makes their opportunities in life much more limited than for men. This is also shown in society as a whole, more males than females are literate and at the market the women get the worst selling spot.

The Caste system is also a barrier for poor women. For example, a poor woman from a low caste family often has a more insecure economic situation in life than a high caste woman, who is often in a better financial position. The poor woman’s economic situation forces her to work hard to contribute to her family’s income. The Caste system also limits a woman’s chances to marry someone outside her caste. Intercaste marriage does happen but the most common thing is marriage between men and women from the same caste.

The laws in India constitute equal rights between men and women as citizens of the country. But because religion and traditions are so strong it is very hard for women to exercise their rights. Another problem is that the laws do not reach every part of society. The women working in the informal sector are in a very vulnerable position because of this.

Lack of education also has an important effect on the woman’s life. In India there are more illiterate females than males. A girl is much more often taken out of school than a boy. This can lessen her chances to find work later in life and it diminishes her chances in life altogether. If she does not know how to read and write she can not fully exercise her right as a citizen of the democracy India is supposed to be. Participating in elections is difficult or at least knowing what she votes for and why. Because of lack of education she is also excluded from common knowledge about issues like nutritious food and information about health and how to treat diseases. Superstitious beliefs are hard to overcome if you do not have any education or knowledge.

11.2. Economic Factors

As a consequence of NEP in India, the gap between the poor and the rich has become wider. The already poor groups have been further marginalised. These groups in society are the most affected when Governmental public expenditure is cut down such as the social welfare sector. There are also some socially constructed factors which put restraints on the poor woman’s economy. Special occasions and corruption are incitements of Indian society and are something these women have to pay with their already scarce resources.

The opportunities these women have to earn money are very much dependent on themselves. Many of the women in the slums are self-employed and earn their money either from selling goods they have bought or goods which they have made themselves. To start a business they need credit, and this is a major problem for them to get access to. As these women are poor and often illiterate they are not considered creditworthy. Most banks will not borrow money to these women, which the interviews we did also confirmed. A money lender is often the only source to get a loan from for poor women. A money lender lends money at a very high interest rate and the woman borrowing is nearly never able to repay the loan. Lack of credit, or actually the lack of credit at a reasonable interest rate, is the number one obstacle for these women when it comes to increasing the profit they make from their business.

We have shown earlier in this report how the women have been affected by NEP. NEP have meant a rise of prices on for example rice and fuel. The price rise is a macroeconomic factor that the individual woman can do nothing about. It is an obstacle preventing her in her work and making it more difficult for her to manage her every day life. Some women seems to have a worse situation today than 5 years ago before the introduction of NEP. Even when she works 7 days a week with her business she often does not get enough money for her family’s needs.

Corruption and paying bribes are a common thing for women working in the informal sector. Women who have a business often have to bribe the police or other persons to be able to get a place to sell their goods at. Bribes are also being paid to doctors and other medical staff at governmental hospitals that are supposed to be free of charge. A woman trying to deal with this problem alone will probably not have any success.

Special occasions is a big burden for poor family’s economy. For example when a daughter gets married dowry has to be paid by her parents. The dowry is often an enormous expense for the poor familie’s and they do not have that kind money to spend. Somehow these families manage to raise this amount of mony but then they are often indebted for life.

11.3. Environmental Factors

The problems from urbanisation in India will probably increase in the future as the process of people moving from the countryside to the metropolitan areas is likely to continue. This will mean more people in the already overcrowded towns like Madras and even more problems in the slum areas.

The physical environment in slum areas is not satisfactory for the people living there. Houses are scattered and the roads are very bad. Sanitation, water supply and sewage are other problems in these areas. Problems in the slum areas affect especially women, it increases their burden more than it increases the burden for men. It is the woman who takes care of the household, fetches water, cook the food, keep the house clean etc. The physical environment in the slum areas increases the risks of diseases and ill health. This can mean a lot of extra expenditure for medical costs and hospital bills. Families living in poorly built houses have severe problems during floods. During the monsoon period the women living in lowland slum areas cannot do their business as usual. Therefore their income is less during period of two to four months. Usually these families do not have any security to compensate them for loss of income.

The social environment in the slum areas is not satisfactory for the people living there either. Crime, violence and prostitution among other things makes the social environment in the slums hard to live in. Another common problem is alcoholism. Many married women have trouble with drinking husbands. Many men abuse their wives both orally and physically. Wife abuse is usually related to the use of alcohol. Drinking husbands spends most of their money on liquor and does not contribute to the families income very much. Too large family’s also affects the social environment as big family lives in small houses in already overcrowded areas, sanitation- and healthproblems arise because of this.

11.4. Conclusion

Social structures, economic factors and environmental factors are connected to each other and they also interact with each other in the woman’s vicious circle of poverty.

The social structures set the norms of behaviour in Indian society. India is a patriarchal society where the social structures give women a low status and thereby influence the accessibility of resources. Because of social structures the resources in India are very unevenly spread among its population. In India women have less access than men to resources such as money, land and education. In Indian society a woman is a daughter, wife and mother and not an economic productive person. The man is a product of the society he is living in and he is brought up to treat women like they are not equal to men. The environment our target group live in can affect their economic chances in life and helps to conserve the social structures in society. People living in the slums are marked as "slumpeople" and therefore they have difficulty in getting a loan from a bank or getting employment in the formal sector. Women living in the urban slums of Madras are there because they do not have any other option. They live in the slum areas depending on their low status in society and because of the economic situation they are in.

Social structures in society are preserved because there is a mutual feeling of strangeness between the "slum people" and those "other" people living in "better" residential areas. People outside the slum areas are often a bit scared and worried about the people living in the slums. Those who are better off, may not have a wish to help the poor in society, because then their own fortune may be less. The New Economic Policy and cuts in governmental spending give the state less resources to deal with the problems in the slum areas. Lack of planning in the slum areas is a big obstacle for these women, both in their everyday life and in their business. If nothing is done about the slum areas soon, the cost to deal with the problems will be enormous for the Indian economy and the situation will be more difficult to handle. Poor economic resources diminishes the chances of changing the social structures in India. For example, the Government needs to put a lot of money into the educational system because, education that reaches every person could be a way to change society in favour of the poor and for women.


In this chapter we will answer our second objective; if a membership in an organisation like the WWF could be a way of breaking out of the vicious circle of poverty for our target group, poor women working and living in the slums of Madras. In the analysis above about the "new" model of the vicious circle of poverty we gave it a gender-aware approach and showed the factors that affects our target group. We have also discussed how these factors complicate women’s lives in many different ways. We will analyse if the WWF is a way to break the vicious circle of poverty and what WWF can do to help these women to overcome the obstacles that the factors are. Each group of factors will be discussed to see what the WWF can do about them.

12.1. Social Structures

The social structures must be changed in India if women shall enjoy a better quality of life. It is important to overcome religious and traditional beliefs about women’s subordinate position in society. Laws have proved insufficient to change these structures. Instead it is the women themselves who have to fight this system from the inside, they must take action for their rights. Women in India have to show their husbands and others that they will not tolerate to be treated badly just because they are women. Empowerment of women is an ongoing process of individual and collective struggle to challenge the unequal power relations between men and women. As women become more aware of the complex web of factors which have deprived and marginalised them, they begin to identify the ability to read and write as a skill which can contribute to the process of empowerment. The concept of education is a process that enables women to come together to seek knowledge and information which can empower them to control and direct their own lives.

From the WWF the members learn that women are equal to men and that all people have the same value. Through discussions the group members have learnt a lot about their situation, they come together to discuss the problems they face in their everyday life and in their business. When the members discuss with each other they get more aware about their situation and more aware that they are not alone living in a tough situation. The women get strength from the group to deal with their problems and the members try together to solve their problems. The Forum’s ideology is anticaste, women from, Harijan, low caste and high caste groups are made to sit together, eat together and dancing together. WWF encourages marriages between castes and between different religions, which the members also accept.

As a member of the WWF the woman has become empowered and she gets more self-confidence as well as self-respect. She knows now that she is worth something on her own, she is not just a wife to a man or the mother of her children. A woman who earns more money than before get respect from her husbands and she gets a higher status in her community. Empowerment have given women courage to stand up and talk back to their husbands and also to change her situation of life.

12.2. Economic Factors

To get access to credit at a low interest rate is one way for poor women to overcome some of the obstacles they face in their business and their everyday life. The WWF has given women this chance through its Bank. The WWF provides other kinds of security than credit for their members. Women can save some money at the bank and they can easily get access to it in an emergency situation. Some members can also get access to higher loan-amounts. Women who have been members for a long period and are active in the WWF’s work can qualify for an individual loan. Members can save money in a special fund for their children and secure their lives a bit more.

The members usually have a better economic situation today than before they became members of the organisation as they are not in the hands of the money lenders any more. This is very important now in the hard times of NEP in India and the higher prices on food, fuel and other necessities. With the introduction of NEP the poorer groups of society have a very difficult economic situation. We believe that the members of the WWF have a better chance than non-members to manage this situation because they have a more secure financial position compared to non-members. WWF also supports their members not to spend a lot of money on socially constructed incitement like paying dowry for a daughters marriage. Another economic factor, corruption, is an obstacle which is difficult for women and the WWF to do anything about, both men and women have to pay bribes, it is a common incitement for poor and powerless people in the whole of India. To alter this situation, the whole of society has to be changed.

12.3. Environmental Factors

As members of the WWF women have a more secure economic position, which helps them to improve the physical environment they live in. WWF provide their members with special housing loans so they can improve their house. The may also get other things installed such as electricity, toilet, improved cooking facilities and water facilities in their house. WWF help the women to organise protest marches about, for example, better roads in the slum areas. To have better roads could be a help to manage better during floods. The Forum can also help the members to make a formal complaint to the authorities about problems with sewage, roads, electricity etc. The WWF is also a union for women workers in the informal sector, which is very important as they do not have any protection from the laws in this sector. WWF can help their members to improve the social environment in the slum areas. WWF’s health- and nutrition-programmes give the members information about, nutritious food, health care, sanitation, family planning and vaccination for children. Problems in the familie’s (like alcoholism and wife-abuse) are dealt with, often sucessfully, through the women’s knowledge and empowerment. (See the discussion about social structures).

12.4. Conclusion

We consider the discussion about a circle of poverty as a usable tool when you want to find ways of how a poor woman can break out of poverty. With a circle it is easy to see what areas are the critical ones for poor women and where you should take action and put in the resources. By giving poverty a gender-aware approach we found ways to break the vicious circle of poverty for these women. If we had put a man in the circle the factors would most probably be different. The results from our study show that a membership in an organisation such as the WWF can be a way to break the vicious circle of poverty for poor women living and working in an urban slum. As a member of a NGO like the WWF poor women can overcome obstacles which hold them back in life. To overcome the obstacles we have presented, one has to take actions and put in the resources on several places in the vicious circle of poverty. It is not enough to take action on only one specific place in the circle because of its complex web of factors. For example if only credit is provided, the aim to move the women out of poverty would not be fullfilled. Credit by itself is not enough to break the vicious circle of poverty. Knowledge about family planning and empowerment of the individual woman has proved to be as important as credit. Organising women around socio-political issues and making them discuss their problems and support each other can change women’s quality of life in many ways.

To put in resources and actions in all the three groups of factors we have presented is a start on the way towards women’s equality to men and to get families out of poverty. The services that WWF have provided for their members has proved to have effect, slowly but steadily. All the women we talked to had an improved life-situation, they ate better, they had a better standard of living, they were more aware and had got self- respect. WWF have helped them to get the courage to change their own life and not just "sit around" and suffer. The women organised in the WWF know that they themselves have a chance to change their lives, that knowledge on its own is very important.



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GNP..... Gross National Product
ICPD.... International Conference on Population and Development
IMF...... International Monetary Fund
LDC’s....Less Developed Countries
MFS......Minor Field Study
NEP..... New Economic Policy
NGO..... Non Governmental Organisation
OPEC... Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries
SAP..... Structural Adjustment Programme
Sida..... Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency
UN....... United Nations
WWF.... Working Women’s Forum