Across almost every economy in the world, women earn less than men. According to a 2017 Oxfam report, globally women earn 24 percent less than men. Women are also less likely to be in paid work in the first place.
This gendered poverty is not limited to developing countries. In the UK following prolonged policies of austerity by the government, the Women’s Budget Group together with the Runnymede Trust found that tax and benefit changes have hit the poorest hardest, women harder than men, and black and ethnic minority women hardest of all.
Poverty puts women at risk of sexual exploitation
The intersecting poverty and discrimination disproportionately experienced by women, girls, and gender non-conforming people, people of color, migrants, and LGBTQ+ people leave them at greater risk of sexual exploitation.
Sexual exploitation is rooted in gender and other systematic inequalities, and men’s power to exploit. When men pay for sex, they are directly or indirectly taking advantage of the gender and structural discrimination, and economic inequality faced by women and other vulnerable people, for the sake of their own personal sexual gratification and entitlement.
Women and girls should live safe, fearless, and free
Equality Now believes that all women and girls should be able to live safe, fearless, and free and to enjoy sexual freedom.
Such freedom means the freedom from having to rely on sex for survival, especially sex that puts you at risk of violence or even death. It means the freedom to make welcome choices, free from exploitation, and the coercion of poverty and other vulnerabilities. We also believe that women should be able to freely participate in consensual sexual relations in a way that enhances their pleasure and self-esteem. This includes freedom from repressive and stereotyping norms about female sexuality.
Equality Now believes that laws and policies need to address the intersecting vulnerabilities faced by women and girls, and gender non-conforming people, particularly those that leave them more likely to live in poverty.
Across the world we see poverty driving women into sexual exploitation
In Kenya, although poverty has declined significantly, it remains one of the most unequal societies in the world. An estimated 14.2 million Kenyans are still living in poverty especially in the rural areas, exacerbated by inequality across the regions. Women and children are more likely to be living in poverty in Kenya just like many places in the world. Women have less control of family and financial resources, as well as limited job opportunities as compared to their male counterparts. Lack of economic income leads to women’s and girls’ susceptibility to sexual exploitation.
In Kenya, our partner Life Bloom supports women exiting prostitution. They supported Beatrice who was coerced into prostitution after she was sexually harassed by her boss and forced to leave her job:
“It was not my choice to leave my job, he forced me out. I entered into prostitution because of the challenges of raising my children.
“Challenges can push you to places that you never thought you would go.
“The first day I went, we didn’t have anything in the house to eat. The flower farm hadn’t paid me for 3 days. I had no choice. I thought, “I will go on the streets”. I really hated myself for it. There were times I felt like I was at the end.”
In the UK, there are increasing accounts of “sex for rent” adverts by landlords, and Universal Credit leaving women with scant options for survival.
Frank Field MP, the chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, who launched an investigation into whether benefit reforms in the UK were driving women to ‘survival sex’ said: “We have heard sufficient evidence, and are sufficiently worried, to launch this inquiry to begin to establish what lies behind the shocking reports of people being forced to exchange sex to meet survival needs.”
This is not acceptable. Women should not be relying on sex for survival.
Governments must be held to account for their part in failing to end poverty and therefore facilitating vulnerability to sexual exploitation.
To live up to their international obligations they must ensure budgeting, as well as law and policy-making, is considered through a gendered, anti-poverty lens from the start.