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RIGHTS: This Eerie Economic Calm

Sanjay Suri and Marguerite A. Suozzi

NEW YORK, Mar 8 2010 (IPS) - The problem now, almost, is to find a way to relive the peak of that economic crisis of September 2008. The current move back to business of old – on the face of it anyhow – could well turn out to be a longer-running difficulty than the crisis it supposedly left behind. A difficulty far greater for women than for men.

“I was hoping this crisis would be used more effectively to challenge those in power, and I’m really disappointed that the opportunities we thought would be there in September 2008 somehow don’t seem to have been used effectively to challenge the power of the powerful,” Prof. Diane Elson from the University of Essex in Britain said at a meeting on gender equality in the economic crisis. “That’s what we need to work on now.”

The “we” are women. But in this, as with just about everything else, women’s rights are no other than human rights, and no other than what is right for everyone.

The more immediate question is, what’s next? “Women’s organisation is a good way to do that,” Prof. Elson tells IPS. “Women in think tanks doing analysis, women elected representatives, women ministers, placing emphasis on realisation of women’s rights.

“And then if you do develop your economic strategies to realise women’s rights, you do also get a payoff. By way of less of a food crisis because women farmers are producing more, and more productivity because you are educating women more.”

Governments instead have introduced fiscal stimulus measures whose beneficiaries are primarily men, such as spending to support cars, and roads to run them on. “But these are largely jobs for men,” says Prof. Elson. “Women may just sell lunches to men at the car factory.”

As unemployment hits – and it will hit harder now than it did in 2008, according to projections by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) – it is common to believe that men have been hit first, and hardest.

But in countries engaged in export-led development – where women are the majority of workers in such industries, as in Guangdon, China – demand for their exports is becoming scarce. And with this falling demand, jobs for women are disappearing as well.

What is clear is that women are affected too by the economic crisis – even more, when men are affected. “There is a secondary impact of the crisis on women when a lot of men lose their jobs in terms of how women take up those responsibilities,” Yassine Fall, senior economic advisor at UNIFEM, tells IPS. “How are women going to get double jobs, or more employment, again to respond to the needs of families, but also to respond to the increased care need because costs recoveries go up, because women are not able to pay for what they used to pay for?” “Access to water, they’re not able to pay for, for example, access to healthcare, they’re not able to pay for, all of these things that now are more and more privatised. When income goes down, unemployment is increased – one of the members of the family loses their job, there is a shift of responsibility on the backs of women, both in terms of paid and unpaid work,” she says. Women have long had the worst of unpaid work, and the economic crisis will make that no better. But it might still be an opportunity to bring about long- awaited change.

“It’s those three ‘R’s’,” says Prof. Elson. “Recognise, Reduce, Redistribute.” Recognise for a start the unpaid work done by women, not just in statistics, but in economic policies that are implemented. Reduce such work, and when it must be done because it has intrinsic value, such as looking after the family, redistribute it among men and women alike.

In Bolivia, for example, efforts have been made to engage civil society and economists together for more gender responsive budgeting. “To allow the two to work together, and agree on areas that make sense to both,” says Letty Chiwara, global programmes manager at UNIFEM. “In developing countries, that means usually the informal sector. That is a dialogue we are just beginning to have now.”

“We need to go back to look at the alternatives women have been providing,” says Fall. “These are economic actors in their own rights, that have been developing their own ways of dealing with crisis, their own ways of really dealing with social systems, that can sustain human capital, that can sustain economies.”

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