The poverty trap
Poverty is a world of darkness, where every day is a struggle to survive. The poor are the majority in nearly one of every five nations in the world. In rich countries, they are increasingly concentrated in minority communities. They endure lives of hunger, malnutrition and illness and are denied their right to education, to receive good health care, to have access to safe water and sanitation and to be protected from harm.
The number of people living in poverty continues to grow as globalization - one of the 20th century's most powerful economic phenomena - proceeds along its inherently asymmetrical course: expanding markets across national boundaries and increasing the incomes of a relative few while further strangling the lives of those without the resources to be investors or the capabilities to benefit from the global culture. The majority are women and children, poor before, but even more so now, as the two-tiered world economy widens the gaps between rich and poor countries and between rich and poor people.
To be a girl born into poverty is to endure discrimination many times over in pervasive and insidious patterns. From the moment of girls' conception, their rights are in peril. There may be as many as 60 million 'missing women' in the world who, except for the gender discrimination that starts before they are born and continues throughout their lives, would be alive today.1
Although discrimination against girls and women is found on every continent of the world, for the sheer scale of its population and the cultural strictures against gender and class, few regions compare with South Asia, where every year millions of girls are born into poverty, debt servitude and dehumanizing birth castes. Poor pregnant women, worried about the future dowry costs of a daughter, increasingly seek the services of travelling 'sonogram doctors', and female foeticide has been reported in 27 of India's 32 states. In some communities of Bihar and Rajasthan, birth ratios, naturally expected to be 100 females for every 103 males, are dramatically lower at 60 females for every 100 males.2
Caste poverty persists throughout the vast region, defying the laws that prohibit its practice and stripping well over 160 million people in India alone of their rights4. A particularly cruel burden falls on the children, as parents take out meagre loans in exchange for consigning or selling a child to a factory or plantation owner. An estimated 20 million, and perhaps as many as 40 million, girls and boys in South Asia toil in this debt servitude,5 hunched over looms, making bricks, or rolling cigarettes by hand. Countless others spend their childhood and adolescence in domestic servitude, sweeping floors and scrubbing pots and pans.
It is disturbing to imagine what awaits a child of six when his parents place him in debt bondage in exchange for a loan for seed or shelter. It is almost unfathomable to think of a girl from the Nepalese mountains who, sold by her impoverished parents to an agent offering employment in a carpet factory, instead finds herself in a windowless room in Calcutta or Mumbai with other girls, forced to have sex with as many as two dozen adult clients a day. Like the debt-trapped countries in which they live, the children rarely succeed in paying off their parents' debts, even after 10 or 12 years, and they perpetuate their families' servitude by handing it down to a younger sibling or to their own offspring.6