Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Poverty, Gender and Development

In a paper presented to the Progressive Governance Conference, Jody Heymann and Magda Barrera, give an example of what it is like to be young, poor and a mother in the developing world.

Gabriela Saavedra’s home in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, had been crudely built with scrapwood and was now old and falling apart. While in elementary school, Gabriela, along with her three siblings, had inherited the house when her mother died of uterine cancer that had gone undiagnosed and untreated for too long. Now 19 years-old, Gabriela was renting out the eight-foot-wide downstairs of the shack, although “renting out” was more a figure of speech: the woman downstairs was dying of uterine cancer herself and had not been able to pay rent for months, but kicking her out or demanding rent was the last thing Gabriela could do after having witnessed her own mother’s painful demise.

To get to Gabriela’s own room in the shack, you had to climb an outside wooden ladder, of which the top two rungs were broken—a ladder she had to climb holding her 19-month-old toddler, Ana Daniel.

Sitting in a chair in a weathered Nike sweatshirt, Gabriela described the sweatshop where she was working. She made clothes for export from7.00amuntil at least 6.00pm, seven days a week. But many nights, with no advance warning, the Korean owners would require everyone to stay until 9.00 or 11.00pm. There had been several shifts when they had been required to stay until 5.00am the next morning, leaving no time for sleep after getting home before the morning commute back to the factory. Gabriela and the other workers had been told that if they refused to work the mandatory overtime shifts, they would lose their jobs.

The dangers of her job increased with the sleep deprivation. “I was sewing at 3.00am, and I couldn’t do it anymore because I was so tired. I almost cut off a finger.”She told us of others who had worked at the factory longer and suffered serious injuries because of extreme fatigue. Overtime pay was even lower than her normal wages. Gabriela noted, “I’ve heard that overtime at night should be paid at 200% of normal wages, but they pay only 75% [of normal wages].”

Despite working seven days a week from 11 to 22 hours a day and making 100 shirts an hour, Gabriela earned only 400 lempiras, or US$26 a week. Food was expensive at the factory—$1 to $1.50 a meal—but the 15 minutes allotted for a lunch break left no time for alternatives. Even though she ate the factory food once during an 11- to 22-hour day, Gabriela spent $7–10 of her weekly salary on her own meals. The next $10 paid for formula and diapers for her daughter. That left $6–9 a week for any other necessities. Gabriela could not afford to lose any of the limited wages she earned, so she worked when she was sick. She also worked when Ana Daniel was sick.

On the eve of a children’s holiday, Gabriela’s husband, Daniel, had been coming home with a gift for their daughter. With a full two weeks’ wages in his pocket, Daniel was attacked and murdered. Not long before our interview, Gabriela’s 10-year-old stepsister had started caring for the toddler, but she was to return to school within weeks of our departure.

Gabriela had no idea what she would do then. Gabriela’s face lit up as she displayed the clothes she had made for her daughter out of thrown away scraps she had taken from the factory. When asked what she would change in her life if she could change one thing, she answered without hesitation. She spoke immediately, not of the condition of her house or of her wages, but of caring for Ana Daniel: “I would like to work fewer hours. I would like to have someone who could take care of my daughter over here. And I would like to leave work earlier to be able to spend more time with her.”

Despite her mother’s adoration, Ana Daniel did not have a chance at a healthy childhood if her mother remained in the sweatshop where she worked. The pay was too low for them both to eat adequately. There was no money to repair the burned-out holes in the side of their shack, or to fix the missing rungs on the ladder that one day could trip Ana Daniel and cause her to fall more than a dozen feet to the ground. There was not enough money to pay for water cleaned of the diarrhea-inducing pathogens that are one of the leading causes of malnutrition and death for children younger than five. Moreover, the punishing work schedule necessary for subsistence left Gabriela no time to be a parent, and Ana Daniel was at risk of being locked alone at home, with no one to care for her.

Read the whole paper [PDF] and mull over the authors' ideas on ways to solve these problems.

And here is the rest of it.

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