By Shalmali Guttal
Presentation at the Conference: “Liberalisation and Deregulation:Women Say NO to Speculation!”

October 12, 2001

Before all else, I would like to thank the Commission on Women and Development in Belgium for inviting me to this meeting. It is both a pleasure and a privilege to be here with you today. I hope that this meeting will enable us to impress upon policy makers in Belgium and elsewhere about the importance of rethinking economic policies through the many and varied eyes of women.
To begin, I would like establish that no policy or action is neutral in its impacts. Whether natural calamities, human-led acts of aggression, or economic policies, their effects are felt differently by people from different class, cultural, religious and racial backgrounds. Gender as a category of difference traverses all these distinctions and adds a more complex dimension to our understanding of how humanity negotiates its way in a changing world. Sound gender analysis compels us to go beyond easy distinctions between men and women, and to ask “which men” and “which women” in our attempts to understand the impacts of policies, trends and events. In this presentation, I will limit my observations to women in economically constrained and vulnerable situations.
A second ground that I would like to establish is that globalisation, especially economic globalisation, has resulted in a particular set of dynamics in which women are playing a critical role, not always as actors of choice, but often as shock absorbers in events that they have little control over. Economic crises are manifestations of the worst excesses of policies that define economic globalisation. And they are not undifferentiated or ahistorical phenomena; on the contrary, economic crises are outcomes of a larger process of macro policy making which was never gender neutral to begin with, and which has impacted the specific situations of women, as well as gender relations at family, community and societal levels.

Economic Globalisation and Crises

The reconfiguration of state controls on trade and investment, and the new technologies that are shaping today’s knowledge economy have accelerated the speed and scope of capital mobility over the last twenty odd years. Today, large businesses can treat the entire world as an expanded field of operations, moving sites of production and exchange at will, and merging with the private sectors of distantly located economies to create a global private sector. Societies all over the world are experiencing the commercialisation of more and more aspects of life, accompanied by the ugly contradictions of growing inequality within and between countries. Certainly, economic globalisation has led to increased wealth for many in some countries. But it has also led to shattering economic crises, collapse in standards of living, widespread societal and ethnic conflict, social disintegration and greatly increased insecurity for a disproportionately large part of the world’s population.
The net worth of the world’s wealthiest 200 people increased from US $ 440 billion in 1994 to US $ 1,402 billion in 1998, and their assets today are more than the combined income of 41 percent of the world’s people. By and large, those who are already wealthy, socially and politically privileged, or have access to capital, higher education, productive assets (such as land) and other resources (such as technical know-how and hardware) are usually able to benefit from the economic changes brought about by globalisation. But those who are already in lower income brackets, and socially and politically disadvantaged often find themselves much worse off than before since they are compelled to operate in a more aggressive competitive economic environment but without the government and societal supports that they once relied on.
The ground for the 1997 economic crisis in East and Southeast Asia was laid through years of trade, financial and capital account liberalisation in varying degrees in countries affected by the crisis. What started as a private sector crisis of illiquidity in the financial sector, quickly developed into a full blown, structural crisis of the financial and real economies, and of the private and public sectors, thanks to the crisis management strategies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). According to the World Bank’s estimates, by the end of 1998, about 20 million people were added to the 30 million already estimated to be below the poverty line across South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. The crisis lead to mass unemployment, a sudden rise in poverty levels, severe shortages of food and medicines, drastic cutbacks in all social services, migration from urban to rural areas, soaring crime rates, riots, and social and political chaos. The already ill prepared public sector was rendered structurally incapable by faulty crisis management to cushion the blows, especially on the most vulnerable populations. It is now widely accepted that women and children absorbed most of the shocks.
The standard response by the World Bank and IMF to financial and economic crises is to prescribe more structural adjustments and austerity measures, and this is what they did in Asian crisis as well. Interest rates were increased; publicly provided services and goods were drastically reduced (and sometimes eliminated altogether); subsidies and protections for vulnerable sections of the population were dismantled; public enterprises were privatised; labour markets were deregulated, trade and investment were further liberalised; and domestic commercial entitities in trouble (including banks) were fragmented and auctioned, usually to foreign buyers. At a more immediate level, the cost of living rose so quickly and steeply that for people with low incomes or already in poverty, everyday life became a struggle for survival. At a broader level, by dismantling the services and structures on which majority of the population depend to be able to contribute to the national economy, countries handicapped their abilities to pull themselves out of the crisis. And if a struggling, crisis-ridden country loses its economic sovereignty, it effectively loses its ability to re-build a strong domestic economy and avoid futures crises.

Women and men experience economic trends differently in both nature and impact. The impacts of economic globalisation and crises on women need to be assessed in light of women’s multiple roles as productive and reproductive labour within the family, their contributions towards overall community cohesion and welfare, and in maintaining the social fabric. Ideology-in the form of social, cultural and political expectations–and economic pragmatism-in the actual range of tasks that women are expected to perform-interact in complex ways to determine gender relations and roles, which in turn determine the ways in which women are affected by economic policies, trends and crises.
For women with access to higher education, professional skills and capital, globalisation has opened up new economic opportunities. But for unskilled women, economic globalisation has often resulted in loss of livelihoods (since their labour and productive capacity is easily replaceable by cheaper labour and manufacturing technology), displacement from traditional occupations, increased migration, and a general erosion of labour and human rights because of new work conditions. These trends are seen more acutely during periods of economic crises. More and more women are migrating on their own, both domestically and internationally, as the primary wage earners in their households and as temporary workers in low-paid jobs. Following the economic crises in parts of Asia and the former Soviet Union, the trafficking of women and female children has also recorded increases.

Research in the 1990s showed that the structural adjustment programmes and austerity measures imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has affected women more negatively and deeply than men, particularly in lower economic brackets. In most societies, female family members are responsible for providing the crucial care functions that ensure the welfare of their families and communities. In times of economic crises, women’s dual roles as care givers and wage earners acquire heightened importance in ensuring the economic and physical survival of their families.
The elimination of public subsidies for health, education and other essential services has resulted in a transference of the “welfare” function of the state onto families, and by extension onto girls and women. This trend has become entrenched as many Southern governments, strapped by debt repayment schedules, have continued to cut back on social spending, thus increasing the burden of caring for vulnerable community members (such as children, the aging, disabled persons or those with illness) on families. Because of women’s traditional roles in most societies as care-givers, this burden has been disproportionately borne by women than men.

When public hospitals are privatised or the cost of professional health care goes up, middle to low income families rely more on informal or traditional forms of care. This is usually provided by the female members of households and communities because of their traditional roles as service providers within the home. As health services are reorganised to increase efficiency and reduce the financial costs of publicly provided medical care, it is the female members of households who pick up the bill through increased costs to their labour, time and resources.

When basic education is privatised, or if families cannot afford the rising costs of education and user fees, it is more often girls who drop out of school than boys because of beliefs that boys need formal education more than girls to prepare them for their future roles of social leadership. This in turn has further implications for the type of employment that women are able to find when they move into the wage labour market. With lower levels of education, women will tend to be concentrated in the lower rungs of the labour market and in jobs that require less formal training or education, and jobs that are easily replaceable. The replacement of manual labour with machines and new technology usually displaces more women than men since women have a larger education gap to cross compared with men (in the same class) in order to learn how to use new technologies.
Similarly, increases in the prices of food, fuel and essential services such as water and electricity place extra burdens on females in low income households since women are usually responsible for managing domestic food and water consumption, as well as ensuring the overall health of their families. Female children are generally expected to perform more housework than male children in most families in any class. In poor families, the labour of girls in cooking, cleaning, child care, and caring for the elderly and sick family members is essential for household maintenance, and also to free up the time of older women who need to find wage labour.

However, because the public and private sectors are monetised and care work provided by family members is not, the transfer of costs from the state and the market onto families usually remains hidden and unacknowledged. Conventional accounts of how economies work and how crises are managed do not pay attention to the centrality of care work in ensuring family welfare and well being, or in how this work subsidises both the state, and the market. Consequently, official processes of crisis management have been more or less blind to the specific needs of women, thus wearing away their capacities, and rights to more balanced and improved lives.

Trade Liberalisation and Economic Crises

Trade liberalisation has also shown to have differential impacts on women and men, which are heightened in times of economic crises. The Asian economic crisis showed that trade liberalisation, when twinned with financial liberalisation can severely exacerbate absolute poverty and inequality. An essential aspect of trade liberalisation is export competitiveness, and much of this competitiveness in Asian and Latin American countries has come from the labour of women. The development of export processing zones in the 1980s and 1990s in developing countries eager to industrialise was premised on the availability of cheap, docile, unskilled labour willing to work at low wages for long hours. Given a longer history of men’s involvement in industrialised production, union organising and political negotiations in the labour market, export processing zones targeted women as the primary work-force, relying on local cultural and social values as domesticating forces.
Research shows that no country in Asia has been able to expand its manufacturing capacity without pulling an increasing proportion of women into industrial waged employment. In the early 1990s, women accounted for more than 43 percent of the manufacturing work force in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. The manufacturing sector in itself accounted for more than 20 percent of GDP in these countries. In the Thai export sector, women accounted for 90 per cent of the workforce in the canned seafood industry and 85 percent in the garment and accessory industry. Because of the relatively low level of skills required in such employment, women workers are often laid off, or asked to work for lesser wages and reduced benefits during periods of economic crisis.

In the Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam, women’s labour is considered a significant element of the “comparative advantage” of these countries in export oriented manufacturing. Governments aggressively invite investors to establish manufacturing bases in their countries in efforts to integrate with regional and global economies. The World Bank’s emphasis on promoting small and medium enterprises in these countries is premised largely on using these enterprises as stepping stones to hasten the process of economic integration. While export industries certainly offer women opportunities for employment and income, the unregulated and competitive nature of these regimes also means that women’s labour is usually unprotected and dispensable. Few governments have, or are willing to enforce legislation that ensures women workers in this sector with fair living wages, benefits, occupational safety and opportunities for upgrading skills. In times of crisis, it is argued, economic growth must come before labour rights, human dignity and the development of future human potential.

An area where the impacts of neo-liberal economic policies and economic crises on women can be clearly seen is the informal sector. A significant portion of economic activity in Asian countries is not fully counted and does not show up in national census or survey figures, since it is conducted by women in their homes or in small community level production units. These activities include the sale of fruit and vegetables, locally processed food and other goods (artificial flowers, accessories, etc.), subcontracted piece work for factories, and the provision of services such as cleaning, cooking, caring for the elderly, childcare, etc. It is important to note that in many Asian countries, a large portion of informal sector activities are commercialised or “marketised” versions of women’s traditional skills of maintaining and reproducing the family and community spheres.
While some of these activities are self-owned or self-regulated (i.e., women have reasonable control over production conditions), many are under subcontract arrangements in which women are at the mercy of agents or brokers who determine production and compensation rules. This is particularly the case in production for the manufacturing sector, which is generally organised around contracting agents who receive production contracts from larger agents and then subcontract the work to the women workers.
While the informal sector has always been in existence, the Asian economic crisis precipitated its expansion. It is “guesstimated” that many women workers in the formal sector who lost their jobs moved to the informal sector. And an equally large number of women newly entered the labour market through the informal sector to augment dwindling family incomes.

A distinguishing feature of such work is that for both cultural and economic reasons, workers do not organise themselves in unions or associations to protect their rights as workers. This is particularly the case in times of crises and economic hardship. Principle contractors are often people known and respected in the community, and take on the persona of “patrons” who bestow favours on community members through economic opportunities. Or, contractors may be from outside the neighborhood or community, and will simply go elsewhere if workers decide to organise and negotiate as a group.

The combined effects of years of financial and trade liberalisation, structural adjustment programmes, and increased poverty, unemployment and under-employment of male wage earners because of the economic crisis, have intensified the “distress sale” of women’s labour in subcontracted work. Rising costs of utilities and basic services, and rising household expenditures coupled with a decrease in government subsidies and public provision of essential goods have led low-income families to seek extra income by relying on the labour of female family members. The ability to work in their homes and thus balance the responsibilities of care work with wage earning is a key factor in the increase of women entering the labour force through subcontracted work.

Many researchers argue that there is a growing “informalisation” of labour in the export manufacturing sector through the subcontracting of production to unorganised women workers under exploitative working conditions. Such outsourcing of production serve the primary contractors well since they can keep production costs down, and taps into poor women’s needs to balance their productive and reproductive responsibilities. Economic opportunism and profits are served by local culture and tradition, which serve as domesticating forces and ensure a supply of cheap and manageable labour.
The expansion of sub-contracted production has increased with the globalisation of production, trade and financial liberalisation, and deregulation of labour markets. On one hand, the informal sector has provided women with much needed income, which in some instances also enhances their status in their families and communities. But at the same time, the inability to organise as a group in such employment makes it extremely difficult for women to negotiate better compensation, working conditions and labour protection for themselves.

Agriculture and Natural Resources

Liberalisation in the agriculture sector has affected women in quite particular ways, from losing access to local markets for their products, to dislocation from traditional forms of livelihood, outward migration and geographic displacement. Again, these effects are heightened during economic crises since the squeeze on already limited resources intensifies.
Under trade liberalisation agreements (such as in AFTA and the WTO), developing countries are bound to open their markets and import a percentage of agriculture and food products for domestic consumption. The Asian landscape is dominated by rural economies where at least 50 percent of agricultural and food production is done by women, much of it through small-scale family farms. Local and national food security is dependent on domestic production, which in turn ensures livelihood security for rural families. Obligatory imports of agricultural (especially food) products, accompanied by reduction in tariffs on imported goods and the removal of price controls creates pressure on making local goods “competitive” with imported goods–which are often subsidised in their countries of origin. This negatively affects the food and livelihood security of small-scale domestic producers, leading to increased economic hardship for rural families and a gradual weakening of rural, self-reliant economic structures.

During the Asian economic crisis, countries with a high degree of trade liberalisation were particularly hard hit by the sudden and sharp increases in the prices of basic survival necessities brought about by the devaluation of domestic currencies. In Indonesia, already existing dependence on food and pharmaceutical imports precipitated serious food and health crises, which in turn led to political and social upheaval, and a change in government. In both Malaysia and Indonesia, ethnic tensions reached flash points in the aftermath of the crisis as the anger of desperate mobs was directed at specific business communities. Women again absorbed these shocks by taking on additional wage work, managing domestic consumption and often, by simply “doing without” so that others in the family could survive.
Another crucial sector that is negatively affected by liberalisation and privatisation regimes is natural resources. A huge proportion of rural communities in Asia are subsistence producers who live off common lands and resources, and rely on traditional knowledge of local forests, plants, animals and fish for food and income. Women are usually responsible for meeting the family’s daily food and livelihood needs, and are veritable storehouses of knowledge about local bio-diversity and traditional extraction practices. But with commercial harvesting of natural resources for value added production, increase in plantation and mono-cropping for export markets, and transference of land, water and resource rights to private corporations, bio-diversity, environmental quality and food security are seriously threatened, and local communities are alienated from the very resource base that their survival depends on.

In the aftermath of the Asian economic crisis, many governments have prioritised natural resource based exports as a primary source of revenues. Whether the export of raw timber or the granting of mining concessions, aggressive exploitation of natural resources without concurrent support for resource replenishment and environmental protection will have long term, negative impacts on food security, health and well being of rural families. The Asian crisis already showed us the complex dynamics of migration by vulnerable groups between rural and urban areas in a bid to survive. With increased migration into rural areas, rural communities faced a squeeze on local natural resources and a general decline in the quality of their livelihoods. To make ends meet, more and more rural people sought wage employment through off-farm work, which often resulted in increased outward migration and family disintegration. And once again, it is largely female household members who have picked up the costs of these trends through increased pressure on their labour, time and capacities.

Towards Women-Friendly Macro Policies

A lot more can be explored and discussed about the impacts of economic crises, trade and financial liberalisation, and deregulation on women. In summary, however, it can be said with certainty that these trends and events erode the capacities of women to develop as autonomous actors in society. Through the complex nature of pressures they generate on gender roles and relations, they also diminish the potential for women to maintain equal and reciprocal relationships with their families and communities.

Economic crises in particular, affect women from middle to low income households at an immediate experiential level through: increased household burdens, decreased opportunities for earning decent living wages, reduced access to land and resources, less food and nutrition, fewer opportunities for education and improving their life prospects, weakened health, social alienation and often, deteriorating family relationships. These impacts in turn have longer term implications for the overall capacities of women which, while not visible today, are likely to lead to the longer term dis-empowerment of women.
A major challenge for us today is how to formulate, advocate and put into place economic and financial policies that respond to the specific circumstances, priorities and aspirations of women. The knowledge base that informs national and global policy making is blind not only to gender differences, but also to differences arising from class, culture, race and ethnicity. Some ideas that we could consider are:
จ Bring the evidence of the gender-differentiated impacts of financial and economic liberalisation policies to our governments and international bodies, and insist that present and future policies address the root causes of crisis creating circumstances.
จ Severely curtail and limit the power of the IMF and the World Bank in the management of economic crises.
จ Work with our respective national governments to conduct “gender audits” of economic and financial policies. These audits should form the basis of future policy development.
จ Oppose the imposition of World Bank-IMF style structural adjustment reforms, no matter what names they go under.
จ Call for governments to immediately put in place appropriate capital controls and freeze further trade liberalisation until suitable protective measures have been developed and put in place..
จ Advocate for measures that support women’s equitable access to assets, incomes and higher education.
จ Formulate and advocate policies that support production and exchange complexes geared towards strengthening local and national markets, rather than feeding distant export markets.
จ Advocate for ownership, stewardship and governance of essential natural resources such as land, forests and water at the most appropriate local levels.
จ Use the existing international instruments provided by CEDAW, and other appropriate multilateral agreements to advocate for economic and financial policies that are responsive to the diverse needs of diverse social groups.
จ Economic and financial policies must serve social, cultural and environmental priorities and not vice versa. One way to do this would be to insist that national budgets are opened up to public scrutiny and changes made to the budget to reflect this prioritisation.
จ Democratise economic and financial policy development: too many policies are made behind closed doors by “experts,” beyond the oversight of parliamentarians, peoples’ representatives and the general public. These policies affect everyone and must be brought into the public sphere for debate, clarification and adjustments.

Selected References:
Balakrishnan, Radhika (Ed): The Hidden Assembly Line, forthcoming, Kumarian Press, 2001.
Beneria, Lourdes: Gender and the Construction of Global Markets, New York, March 1999.
Chavez, Jenina Joy: The Asian Financial Crisis and Filipino Households: Impact on Women and Children, Focus on the Global South and Save the Children UK, March 2001.
Elson, Diane: Gender Budget Initiative: Background Papers, June, 1999.
Ghosh, Jayathi: Women and Trade in the Asia-Pacific Region, New Delhi, May 1998.
Sassen, Saskia: Women’s Burden: Counter-Geographies of Globalisation and the Feminisation of Survival, Journal of International Affairs, New York, Spring 2000.
Shiva, Vandhana: Food security, women, and rural communities in South and Southeast Asia: implications of the post-Uruguay Round, Bangkok, 1996.
UNDP: Human Development Report 1999.
UNIFEM: Progress of the World’s Women, 2000.
Wee, Vivienne: Trade liberalisation and women: an overview, Singapore, 1998.