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Powerlessness, Domestic Violence Mar Lives of Poor People, New Bank Study Says:'Voices of the Poor' Volume II

Press Release No:2000/430/S

Contact Person:
In Geneva: Phil Hay, global phone +44 - 77 75 534 785
In Washington: Nicole Kekeh (202) 473-1782

GENEVA, June 26, 2000--A deep sense of powerlessness and a high rate of domestic violence mar the lives of poor people in developing countries, says a new World Bank study issued today at the start of the World Summit for Social Development in Geneva.

Voices of the Poor: Crying out for Change marks the second in a three-volume study that details personal accounts from more than 20,000 poor men and women about the reality of living with poverty, and what the poor need to improve their lives. It draws on fieldwork done in 1999 across 23 countries. The first volume, Can Anyone Hear Us? was launched in Washington in March and reviews recent studies engaging about 40,000 people. The third volume, From Many Lands, provides country case studies and is slated to be published in December.

Voices lead author Deepa Narayan says the new study offers key insights from the poor that need to be part of any strategy to tackle global poverty.

"Ill-being or bad quality of life is much more than just material poverty," says Narayan. "The many dimensions of poverty combine to create and sustain powerlessness, and a lack of freedom of choice and action."

The new study, which is based on small group discussions with poor men and women in local communities, finds that poor people's livelihoods form a key dimension of their powerlessness. With work opportunities so often precarious and unpredictable, poor women and men frequently must combine several activities that are low-paying, temporary, seasonal, backbreaking, dangerous and sometimes outside the law. Despite many obstacles – including lack of information, contacts and credit, and harassment by the police – some people do manage to escape poverty. In interviews with people who moved out of poverty, entrepreneurship emerges as the main path to a better life – a key conclusion given, that employment was one of the key issues of the 1995 Copenhagen summit.

"Poor people want opportunity, not handouts," she notes. "We must ensure that poor women and men's voices are heard and inform our thinking now and in the future."

Crying Out for Change portrays the major dimensions of poverty as voiced by the poor, including:

· Powerlessness – Poor people talk about their powerlessness vis-à-vis the state, traders and NGOs.

Poverty is like living in jail, living under bondage, waiting to be free. — A poor young woman, Jamaica

It's the mayor who makes decisions. If he doesn't like somebody, there's no social assistance for them. – A poor woman, Razgrad, Bulgaria

We cannot change the situation, the trader controls everything because he has money and I do not. – A poor kilim weaver, Egypt.

· Domestic Violence – Within households, many poor women feel powerless despite being income earners. This is tragically evident from domestic violence reported in 90 percent of the communities where the topic was discussed. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, one third of communities visited reported an increase in physical violence against women.

Women must take care of everything and, to top it all off, get beaten up every night if he comes home drunk.—A woman from Dimitrovgrad, Bulgaria

Women are beaten at the house for any reason that may include failure to prepare lunch or dinner for the husband. They are also beaten if the husband comes home drunk or if he simply feels like doing it. — From a discussion group of poor women, Ethiopia

· Physical Health – The "body" is often poor people's only "asset" and hunger, illness, death can turn this asset into a liability, plunging entire families into destitution overnight.

We face a calamity when my husband gets ill. Our life comes to a halt until he recovers and goes back to work. — A poor woman, Zawyet Sultan, Egypt

· The Character of Institutions – Reform of institutions is important but what matters to poor people is not only effectiveness but the character of institutions. Poor people want public, private and civic institutions that are trustworthy, honest, fair, kind, polite, not corrupt and not corrupting. Instead, they frequently describe abuse, arrogance, and lack of caring in their encounters with institutions.

An institution should not discriminate against people because they are not well dressed or because they are black. If you wear a suit you are treated as sir; if you are wearing sandals they send you away.—A woman, Vila Junqueira, Brazil

Note: To learn more about Voices of the Poor: Crying Out For Change or the other volumes of Voices, visit the World Bank's website at

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