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For Big Financial Institutions, Profit Trumps Women’s Rights

Kanya D'Almeida*

WASHINGTON, Nov 30 2011 (IPS) - This year, for the first time, the World Bank dedicated its 2012 annual flagship World Development Report to women as indispensable players in the global economy and launched a media campaign to “think equal”.

But while bold statements and glossy reports paint the picture of benevolent financial institutions throwing money behind the gender justice struggle, the paper trail of IFI investments leads elsewhere – down into mines and barren fields, where big business is reaping private profit at the expense of women’s safety, equality and dignity.

IFIs and women farmers

Women in the agricultural sector, comprising the majority of the world's small-scale farmers, are also feeling the crunch of gender-blind investments from the IFIs. Addressing a gathering of advocacy organisations and women's rights groups at the Kenyan Embassy in Washington on Tuesday, Jacqueline Morette, president of the Haitian United Women's Association of Pouille, lamented the devastating impacts of the IFIs' structural adjustment policies on the agricultural sector in Haiti. Broad liberalisation measures from the 1980s onwards allowed the United States and other countries to 'dump' cheap rice on the once self- sufficient economy, forcing scores of Haitian farmers, many of them women, into the manufacturing sector.

"Today, women's work in the informal or small business sector in Haiti is practically invisible," Morette said. "You see 12 and 15 year old girls cleaning cars on the street or moving about with their young children. This needs to be addressed."

She stressed that agriculture is Haiti's only viable economic engine. In order to ameliorate chronic poverty, hunger and the mostly gender based violence arising from economic desperation, huge investments will have to be made in reviving Haiti's rural farm sector.

However, according to Gender Action, "most of the 13 World Bank and 80 Inter American Development Bank (IDB) post- earthquake commitments, totalling over 95 million U.S. dollars as of fall 2011, neither focus on agriculture and rural development, nor on the role of women."

Furthermore, the IDB's 7.6 million dollar investment in Haiti's mango industry plans to shift mango production from worker owned cooperatives - which support women workers by providing day care and other social services – into the private sector, benefitting corporations like Coca Cola and local business elites.

Back in 2008, the World Bank acknowledged that less developed countries’ reliance on “primary commodity exports” was one of the “leading causes of violent, armed conflict”, yet international financial institutions (IFIs) continue to pour money into extraction and other natural resource-based projects, often at a deadly cost to women in the community.

Ever since the World Bank approved 360 million dollars worth of loans for Uganda’s Bujagali Dam project, locals have been protesting against the potentially devastating environmental impacts of the dam’s construction on Lake Victoria, increased debt burden and the exclusionary nature of a hydropower project in a country where 95 percent of the population is off the national grid.

Today, according to International Rivers, the cost of the dam has risen to about 860 million dollars, as well as an additional 74.7 million dollars for transmission lines.

Of the 6,800 people whose lives are directly and negatively impacted by the project, women in the area have shouldered the lion’s share of the burden, which has forced them into an extremely fragile existence.

Breeding violence

Betty Obbo, a Ugandan activist, reported a few months ago that the project’s developers – namely the Ugandan government, with financial firepower provided by the World Bank and the African Development Bank – paid scant heed to women’s concerns over issues of land acquisition and compensation, even though women in the area are the sole guarantors of a family’s food security and the are also the real “managers” of environmental resources.

“Women’s involvement and effective participation in all stages of project development would have ensured a more gender-sensitive development with a much higher chance of meeting the needs of affected communities,” Obbo said.

Aside from placing a massive existential strain on a community that had hitherto sustained itself off the land, the dam’s construction has been “overseen by heavy military gear”, an foreboding sign of the violence to come.

Monti Aguirre, Latin America campaigner at International Rivers told IPS, “Too often the big development projects favoured by the IFIs go in the opposite direction of what is actually needed. Resource extraction development projects supported by IFIs nearly always leave women out of the benefits side of the equation.”

“Women need development that not only benefits the family but also their community. For example, Ruth Buendia Mestoquiari, an Ashaninka leader from the Ene River in Peru, is working to ensure major developments–dams, logging, oil, mining– are done responsibly.”

“People like Ruth should be at the forefront of planning for development in their region, not left out of the process, as is currently the case,” she added.

A recent case study by Gender Action also found that IFI investments in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have fuelled brutal sexual violence against women.

According to Pact, out of two million artisanal and small-scale miners in the DRC, nearly 400,000 are women, fifty percent of them likely under the age of 18.

Gender Action’s report stated, “GBV has reached epidemic proportions in the DRC’s mineral-rich eastern region, where militia groups use rape as a weapon to control the lucrative supply of coltan, tungsten, tin ore, tantalum, diamonds and gold.”

“(In addition), the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) confirmed that GBV is widespread in the DRC’s mining regions in 2010,” it said.

Despite mountains of evidence that female miners earn appallingly low wages, are constantly vulnerable to rape at the hands of migrant male workers and are physically and emotionally threatened by the omnipresence of armed militias who thrive on the blood money surrounding extraction projects, the IFIs keep investing.

Gender-blind funding

The World Bank has poured 50 million dollars into its “Growth with Governance in the Mineral Sector” project, compared to a total of 3.2 million in all its gender-based violence prevention projects for 2010 combined.

Meanwhile, the Bank’s 2003-2012 “Private Sector Development and Competitiveness Project”, amounting to 120 million dollars in credit, plus an additional 60 million dollar grant to the DRC, focuses exclusively on high-risk, conflict-prone sectors such as mining, transport, telecom and energy, while ignoring community-development investments in health and education.

The project also ignores existing gender inequalities and, according to numerous NGOs, will likely widen the gap by continuing to pump money into industries that break up families, encourage substance abuse, push women into sex work and give rise to transport corridors that eventually become breeding grounds for sexual violence and sexually transmitted diseases.

“I’ve always said I’ve found the World Bank behind a Eucalyptus tree,” Vandana Shiva, the renowned Indian environmentalist, told IPS during the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in Washington DC earlier this year.

“I never knew the World Bank forced a certain model of development on the world until, as a researcher at the Institute of Management in Bangalore, I found huge swathes of land being allocated to Eucalyptus plantations.”

“At the time I asked myself, why would farmers grow trees that don’t belong here, that serve no purpose for the land and offer nothing to the farmer herself?”

“That’s when I found World Bank loans behind the project,” Shiva added. “Now, every time a local movement or women’s collective calls me and says ‘help us’, behind the crisis, behind the destruction, there’s always World Bank lending.”

*This story is the second in a two-part series on women and international financial institutions (IFIs).

 
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