Liquidity, Asset Difference, and the Problem of Economic Opportunity

There are any number of things I have not get gotten around to discussing on this blog, and I realized that somehow, the gender asset gap has made that list.

Why the gender asset gap?  A lot of focus on economic differences between men and women focuses on the gender income gap, or on women’s labor force participation, but these are not the only indicators of women’s economic power or well-being.  The gender asset gap has a significant impact on the gender wealth gap, and can also play in the divide between individual and household welfare, particularly with regards to women’s welfare in developing countries.  One of the reasons there has been so much less work done on the gender asset gap is that there are multiple assets to measure, and there is often little data on said assets.  For example, the censuses in many countries failed to use “sex” or “gender” as a variable when collecting data about who the principle landowner was for their property, which makes it rather difficult to say what kind of gap might exist.

That does not mean that no data exists, only that it is hard to come by sometimes.  A 2003 study of the land ownership gap in Latin America utilized data from throughout the latter half of the twentieth century to highlight some gender wealth differences in several Latin American countries; for example, in 1991, only about 9% of farms were principally owned by women in Peru.  Some more recent data illustrated that by 2001, that number had only climbed to about 12%.  The data utilized by that study revealed that, of the countries included, Mexico had the lowest gender gap in land ownership, with 27% of rural land being owned by women-~-that is still a huge difference in land ownership.  And this is not specific to Latin America: see, for example, this study from South Africa, which reveals that, in the two study sites selected, women owned between 20-30% of the land at all, and only 15-20% of land was owned solely by women.  Other studies indicate that in the early 2000s, women owned approximately 5% of land in Kenya, and 10% of land in Ghana.

What the South Africa study further reveals, however, is a disjoint between reported ownership of land, and legally documented ownership, a problem that actually exists between both men and women, likely due to bureaucratic difficulties.  But of 76% of female-headed households in KwaDube that said the woman owned the land, either jointly or by herself, only 20% actually had the legal documentation to back that claim up.  The same problem persists not just with land ownership, but with home ownership.  This speaks to one of the underlying issues at play, that of land rights: in many countries, it may be difficult for women to own land or to defend their legal claim to their land, meaning that they may not have secure access to this kind of property.  Human Rights Watch has looked into violations of women’s property rights around the world, with some particular information focused on sub-Saharan Africa, noting the ways that marriage laws and property laws interact to deprive women of control over their property, and the ways in which property laws interact with the HIV/AIDS epidemic to further disadvantage women.  Their fact sheet on Kenya highlights that women are often unable to fully inherit property from their husbands, and inherit disproportionately from their parents, meaning they have less access to property in the first place.  These inheritance patterns are also found elsewhere in the world, contributing to the broader gender asset gap.

All of that is certainly problematic, but it’s not the only part of the gender asset gap that should seem troubling.  If women do not own land, or are not the principle owners of land, in most parts of the world, then what do women own?  The answer to that is generally smaller assets: family heirlooms, jewelry, etc.  These assets may play a particularly important role in women’s financial security and social safety, as the income gap and labor force participation differences mean that women are less likely to be able to earn more and develop savings; in addition, because of differential labor force participation, women are less likely to have access to social security benefits, though some countries are beginning to move in the direction of offering protections for women who perform household labor throughout their lives, such that they will not be left stranded in their old age.  But the assets that women own in these more extreme circumstances, where they lack savings and their primary assets are things like jewelry or livestock, means that women’s assets are often worth less, on balance, than those of their male counterparts.  It also means that their assets are more liquid,

On face, liquidity seems like it should be a good thing, as it means that if a woman did need to leave her marriage, for example, she should be able to easily sell these possessions in exchange for cash, and utilize that money to execute her exit plan.  That’s in theory.  In reality, what it means is that these assets are harder to track, because they are not likely to require documentation of ownership, and that women are more likely to be pressured into selling these assets in times of economic trouble.  In fact, women bear the brunt of the economic burden on families during times of economic recession (though where the article we used to discuss this in my econ class went, I do not know. I’ll post it when I find it).  This means that when the family needs to sell something in order to make ends meet, it’s likely to be the woman’s jewelry, not the man’s car.  The woman’s dowry becomes a safety net for the family, instead of for her, meaning if things get progressively worse, her assets no longer constitute an escape route. Instead, they are often long gone, leaving only the assets to which she likely has no legal claim.

That is obviously a relatively simplified, condensed explanation of the gender asset gap-~-a summary of a select portion of the literature, at best.  The gender asset gap is an area which we are still exploring, still trying to understand and make progress on.  While researchers continue to look for data to help us see what, exactly, is happening with regards to asset ownership, it is important to keep in mind that the asset gap does play a role in overall gender inequality, and in turn, in the ways in which social development can happen and is happening in certain parts of the world.  This is a subject on which there is much more to learn, and much more to be done, before equality will be achieved.

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~ by Randi Saunders on December 4, 2014.

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