Clothing as a dimension of poverty

Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognises the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to adequate clothing. Green (2001: 1069) notes that while Article 11 is generally discussed in terms of the rights to adequate food and adequate shelter, the right to adequate clothing has not been meaningfully discussed by international human rights bodies. Similarly, while much has been written about food and housing, the right to clothing has received relatively little attention among policymakers or scholars.

What the research reveals about clothing

Clothing is essential to social engagement, often defining how individuals are positioned within their societies. James (2008) argues that living without adequate clothing results in physical discomfort and social stigma, whereby individuals are condemned or blamed for their inappropriate attire and often treated with disgust. Here, James identifies the two dimensions of clothing that are particularly important: provision of protection and avoidance of stigma. Walker (2014: 49) has described socially inappropriate clothing as a ‘sign marking a person as being different, typically inferior’. Clothing is arguably one of the most visible and powerful markers of status. Those who are unable to dress to the minimum standards of their society are likely to face ostracism, which may perpetuate and deepen other forms of deprivation.

Clothing has important gender dimensions, given the specific standards of dress considered appropriate for women and men. In terms of shame and stigma, not only the lack of clothing but also the lack of sanitary products during menstruation is a major issue for women. A study undertaken by a team at the University of Oxford concluded that sanitary care plays a major role in retaining girls in education beyond primary school (Scott et al., 2013). That study – based on work in Ghana and Uganda – argued that not having access to sanitary products was primarily due not to low income, but to power imbalances within the home and resulting restrictions on the expenditure of women and girls.

What the IMMP reveals about clothing

While clothing has received little attention among researchers or among advocates of human rights, it is an issue of considerable importance to people who are living in poverty. Qualitative research associated with the ANU-IMMP Program, and undertaken in South Sulawesi by Naimah Talib (2018), indicated that appropriate clothing is important to fulfil both social and religious roles and obligations, particularly for women. Participants in Talib’s research indicated that those with adequate clothing are more likely to be able to take advantage of opportunities, including those designed to reduce poverty such as accessing social assistance programs and applying for micro-credit. Participants also noted that routine activities such as going to the bank or to public offices are made difficult due to the stigma of not having appropriate clothing, and people perceived to be dressed in the clothes associated with the poor are often ignored or treated with disdain.

The participatory phase of the IMMP development indicated that adequate clothing is a priority for many people living in poverty; lack of adequate clothing was repeatedly identified as a marker of poverty.

What the IMMP Clothing dimension measures

The clothing dimension of the IMMP is constructed with three themes: basic clothing and footwear, clothing and footwear quality and sanitary product use.

Theme 1: Basic clothing and footwear

The basic clothing and footwear theme is derived from one indicator, made up of three variables. The first two variables consider ownership (or not) of: at least two complete sets of clothing; and two pairs of footwear. The third variable asks about the appropriateness of this clothing for a person’s needs.

Theme 2: Clothing and footwear quality

The second theme of one indicator, clothing and footwear quality, has three indicators.

The first indicator has one variable and is derived from a question about the extent to which ‘everyday’ clothes and footwear protect the respondent from weather and hazards in the environment.

The second indicator also has one variable and measures how frequently the respondent’s everyday clothing and footwear is acceptable by the standards of the community.

The third indicator has one variable and assesses how frequently the respondent’s clothing for formal occasions is acceptable by the standards of the community.

Theme 3: Sanitary product use

The third theme of the clothing dimension, sanitary product use, is relevant only for women who have had a menstrual period within the past 6 months. It has one indicator and two variables. The first variable asks whether the respondent experienced recent menstruation, and if they did the second variable asks about their use of any sanitary products/material such as sanitary pads, tampons or cloths.

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