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Women Hung Out to Dry in Global Labour Market

Kanya D'Almeida

WASHINGTON, Sep 20 2011 (IPS) - Amid policy battles over food production, energy resources and economic decline, one untapped natural resource that is guaranteed to boost production on a global scale has been stubbornly overlooked – the power of women in the labour force.

According to the World Bank’s 2012 World Development Report (WDR) “Gender Equality and Development”, ensuring equal access for women farmers would increase maize yields by 11 to 16 percent in Malawi and 17 percent in Ghana; eliminating barriers that block women’s access from certain occupations or sectors could reduce the gender productivity gap by one-third to one-half and boost output per worker by as much as 25 percent in a range of developing countries; and granting women farmers equal to land and resources could increase agricultural output in developing countries by as much as four percent.

As the annual fall convergence of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) kicks off Tuesday in Washington DC, with participants from international financial institutions (IFIs), civil society, grassroots movements and private sector enterprises flooding the city, all eyes are on the Gender WDR, the blueprint for the course of 2012 development.

“Over the past five years, the World Bank Group has provided 65 billion dollars to support girls’ education, women’s health, and women’s access to credit, land, agricultural services, jobs, and infrastructure,” the Bank’s president Robert Zoellick said Monday.

“This has been important work, but it has not been enough or central enough to what we do,” he added. “Going forward, the World Bank Group will mainstream our gender work and find other ways to move the agenda forward to capture the full potential of half the world’s population.”

Though the report presents some positive trends, much of the data paints a bleak picture. Excess female mortality after birth and “missing” girls at birth account for an estimated 3.9 million deaths of women annually.

Two-fifths of the world’s women are never born because of sex- selective abortions. A sixth of the world’s women die in early childhood, and over a third perish in their early reproductive years, losses that hit particularly hard in Sub-Saharan Africa where the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is stunningly high.

While the 2012 WDR calls for more work in the areas of human capital, closing earning and productivity gaps between women and men, improving women’s voices in their households and society and limiting the perpetuation of gender inequality across generations, hundreds of voices from civil society are arguing that unless the Bank undertakes major structural changes in its approach to women, very little will change.

“The real issue here is that the World Bank has never had a human rights policy, and this year’s WDR follows that trend of ignoring women’s rights as human rights,” Elaine Zuckerman, president of the Washington-based Gender Action, told IPS.

“Rather, the report makes the business case for women’s development – positing institutional support for women’s struggles as ‘smart business’,” she said.

The report has also been criticised for zeroing in on shallow solutions to complex issues, looking at symptoms rather than structural causes of the greatest problems plaguing women’s lives.

“The massive integration of women in the labour market over the last 30 years is not only characterised by significant gender pay gaps but also by the type of jobs occupied by women, (which tend to be) insecure, informal, temporary, home-based, precarious jobs with limited rights and access to social protection,” said Claire Courteille, director of the Equality Department at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

“Unless policies directly address the quality of the jobs held by women, nothing will change,” she added.

“The WDR may well recognise that economic growth alone will not change patterns of gender segregation in economic activity, but again they missed the train, as now the international consensus goes further, and calls for a coherent approach that takes account of the invisible care economy in the formulation of macroeconomic policies,” she concluded.

In fact, civil society activists say this year’s WDR exposes the glaring contradictions between the rhetoric of international development policy, and its impact on women’s lives.

“The [worst contradiction] is that the IFIs have begun to use the individual development of women as a substitute for economic development of a country as a whole,” Hester Eisenstein, professor of sociology at Queens College and author of the recent book “Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labour and Ideas to Exploit the World”, told IPS.

“It’s an extremely uncritical approach that does not address the Bank’s own development policies that have totally impoverished much of the third world – affecting primarily, and often exclusively, women and children,” she said.

“Though the goals of ending violence against women, or achieving universal primary education for girls, are admirable, they are mired in a refusal to step back from the macroeconomic policies that make those goals impossible to achieve,” Eisenstein told IPS.

“Above all I find this approach to be extremely cynical,” she said.

“When the IFIs use feminist rhetoric and language, it is misleading and superficial because they are essentially saying, “we see women as key to development, we want them to have equal education opportunities, experience economic advancement and generally be empowered but we won’t change our macro policies that led to this unequal distribution of wealth, power and resources in the first place” – so this kind of endorsement of women is doomed to failure,” she concluded.

According to Zuckerman, “Though the WDR is beautifully written by a team of experts at the top of their respective fields who are recruited to research, write and edit what the Bank calls its ‘flagship development report’, there is very little evidence to show that the WDR has an impact on lending policy.”

“In fact, in the WDRs 33-year circulation life, not a single one has changed policy,” she told IPS.

“What we need to keep in mind is that the Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) introduced and implemented by the IFIs actually hinder women’s rights,” Zuckerman added.

“Because of this, the IFIs need to start taking a rights-based approach to development, they need to genuinely, not just rhetorically, consult with local men and women before they launch pipelines or build dams or invest in transnational sponsored projects.”

“They should also, eventually, stop and ask themselves whether they should be investing in these projects at all. The IFIs and especially the Bank should be promoting rights and holding genuine consultations with so-called beneficiaries. After all, it is not the Bank’s research that eventually affects women’s lives – it is their investments,” she said.

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