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Engaging and empowering women in poverty

A project to empower women in poverty to take part in the policy-making process.

Written by:
Women's Budget Group
Date published:

While the Government has developed strategies to combat poverty, especially for children and pensioners, there is no strategy to challenge women’s poverty specifically. This project set out to support women living in poverty so that they could go beyond being ‘witnesses’ to poverty to become actively involved in policy development. It allowed them to develop ideas to improve their lives and better understand how policy is made. The project’s aims were:

  • To encourage participation in and understanding of the policy-making process by women living in poverty, using participatory methods.
  • To help women living in poverty to understand policy debates, explore policy solutions and engage with policy-makers directly.
  • To improve the evidence base that informs policy-makers by enabling direct dialogue with women living in poverty.
  • Ultimately, to develop more effective policies as a result.


This report examines participatory research conducted with women in poverty living in Birmingham, Cardiff and London. The project aimed to build their political capacity so that they could take their collective knowledge and experience, present it as policy proposals to policy-makers and actively help to produce policy change.

Key points:

  • Women with experience of living in poverty are well-placed to articulate the policy changes which can most effectively improve their situations.
  • The project participants defined ‘poverty’ in complex and interlocking ways that went beyond a lack of money and financial security. They defined poverty as a human rights issue that:
    • impacts upon their children and their physical and mental health;
    • causes feelings of social isolation; and
    • limits their prospects for advancement in employment or education.
  • The participants engaged in capacity-building exercises where they determined which priorities to present to policy-makers. The three priorities were:
    • increasing benefits
    • ensuring the provision of free, high-quality childcare
    • the development of a Women’s Act to ensure the protection of equality rights.
  • Recommendations from the project include:
    • Government should increase the opportunities for women living in poverty to engage directly with policy-makers, to design and deliver more efficient policies which truly address their needs.
    • Government consultations should routinely include active engagement with women and other groups experiencing poverty and fund the capacity-building on both sides that is necessary to make this successful.
    • Participatory projects should incorporate capacity-building, peer-to-peer learning opportunities, and gender and diversity analyses.


The Voices of Experience project consisted of a series of workshops where women living in poverty came together to express their experiences of poverty and learn more about the policy-making process. It also enabled them to develop policy proposals to improve their situations and present these to policy-makers.

Voices of experience

The project participants were encouraged to define and share their experiences of poverty. Their responses to the statement “Poverty means to me …” showed that poverty was an undermining and destabilising factor in their lives. They told how poverty compromised their ability to be good parents, forced them to choose between basic necessities, led to feelings of low self-worth and self-confidence and closed off opportunities for self-improvement.

Poverty means to me... "Being hungry, only having enough food to give the children, hoping they would leave some leftovers on the plate, so I wouldn't be so hungry." (Participant, Birmingham)

Building policy

In order to transform their direct experience into policy proposals, the participants were asked for recommendations on how to improve their situations. They came up with 28 recommendations that focused on three central themes:

  • greater engagement between women living in poverty and policy-makers;
  • enhancement of service provisions; and
  • increasing financial support to women living in poverty.

From these recommendations, the participants decided which priorities they would develop more fully for their presentation to policy-makers. The proposals the participants chose to take forward were:

  • to increase benefits, including income support, pensions, and child benefit;
  • to provide free, high-quality childcare; and
  • to create a Women’s Act to ensure the protection of equality rights.

Dialogue with policy-makers

The participants delivered their three policy recommendations in a meeting with policy-makers at various levels of government, who then engaged with and responded to the proposals. This dialogue gave the project participants and policy-makers a rare opportunity to share their experiences and insights into the realities of poverty and government policy-making. Policy-makers felt the dialogue gave them a unique opportunity to see the disconnection between women’s lives and government policies which impact upon them. The participants appreciated the policy-makers’ approachability and candidness.

Empowerment and capacity-building

The Voices of Experience project succeeded in creating a space where women living in poverty could share their experiences, build confidence and expand their knowledge of government policy-making process. The workshops created a strong forum for discussion and participation. Many women identified that “even the quietest people spoke”, and expressed the importance of the fact that “everybody felt safe to speak out and voice opinions” and “know that we would be listened to and not be judged.” In a telling example, a participant who had never spoken in public before made a speech before a group of civil servants.

About the project

The Voices of Experience project was carried out by the Women’s Budget Group in partnership with regional voluntary organisations that work with women living in poverty in Birmingham, Cardiff and London. The workshops were held from May 2006 to January 2007.


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