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Economic Justice and Women's Human Rights

Posted on: Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Keywords: Economic Justice, Environmental Justice

A MADRE Position Paper

At the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, governments committed to remedy some of the ways in which macro-economic policies impact women negatively and disproportionately. But 10 years later, violations of women's economic rights have only worsened: policymakers have expanded deregulation of manufacturing and investment, boosting profits at the expense of poor women and their families; the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, a calamity for working people and the environment, has become the model for trade agreements worldwide; and privatization has shifted more of the burden for meeting people's basic needs from governments to women in the household. Nevertheless, women's economic justice advocates continue to formulate and demand alternative policies that are key to guaranteeing women's economic rights as outlined in the Beijing Platform for Action.

Deregulation

Around the world, lifting restrictions on international investment and marketing has allowed corporations to manufacture goods in poor countries where costs are low, and maintain access to profitable Northern markets. One result has been the proliferation of a sweatshop model of manufacturing, which employs millions of young women around the world in poorly paid jobs under deplorable conditions. For many of these women, the only thing worse than their exploitative jobs is the prospect of no work at all. For this reason, women like those of MADRE's Guatemalan sister organization, the Barcenas Maquila (sweatshop) Workers Committee, say that the best way for them to win labor rights is by challenging corporate control of international trade and investment policies. If governments were less pressured by the threat of corporate flight, workers would be in a stronger position to demand higher wages, benefits, and enforcement of health and safety standards.

Influencing international trade and investment policy whether through street protests or advocacy in the international arena requires engaging with the regulatory bodies of the global economy, such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Since the Beijing Conference, these institutions have become increasingly sophisticated in co-opting popular demands for economic justice. The IMF, for example, has tried to deflect opposition to its discredited Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) by echoing the concerns and language of economic justice advocates. SAPs have undergone a series of cosmetic changes and been infused with more inclusive, humane language. They are now called "Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers" (PRSPs) and are being used to assess and implement development strategies for many poor countries. But PRSPs merely reassert the goals of the original SAPs: to ensure that poor countries make debt payments to Northern creditors, orient their economies towards a global market, and create favorable conditions for foreign investors. In this framework, the rights of poor working women remain impediments to "economic growth" and "development."

"Free Trade"

Free trade agreements championed by the US and other wealthy governments ostensibly require countries to open their markets to imports. But the reality is one-sided protectionism, in which wealthy governments tax imports to buffer their industries from foreign competition and subsidize their strongest industries to keep them internationally competitive. Meanwhile, in a flagrant double standard, developing economies are barred under the threat of trade sanctions from protecting their own industry against competition from Northern manufacturers.

The impact of these policies can be seen clearly in Haiti, where US-imposed trade rules have been in effect for more than a decade. Until the 1990s, 70 percent of Haitians were peasant farmers (many of them women). Most of the country's food came from women's small family plots. But the US demanded that Haiti cut tariffs on US-grown rice from 30 percent to three percent. Imports of cheap US rice increased 27-fold, bankrupting peasant farmers and causing an alarming rise in hunger and malnutrition throughout the countryside. Today, Haiti is forced to import half of all its food—the highest percentage in the hemisphere. Haitian women report price increases upwards of 100 percent on the imported food they are forced to buy. These imports have almost wiped out local agriculture and Haitian women are now struggling to feed their families. Similar trends confront women in much of the global South, where 70 percent of the population is dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods and women are overwhelmingly responsible for feeding families and communities: women account for 80 percent of the local food production workforce in Africa; 55 percent in Asia; and 40 percent in Latin America.

Privatization

When government utilities, hospitals, schools, or transportation systems are sold to private investors, the new owners often increase rates or introduce "user fees" that put services out of reach of the poor majority. While all poor people are hurt by privatization and cuts in services, gender discrimination means that when resources are made scarce, the needs of girls and women are sacrificed first. In fact, women in poor countries have shown drastic drops in school enrollment, food intake, hospital admittance, and life expectancy since SAPs have taken hold. Moreover, when services become unaffordable, people's basic needs do not disappear; instead, the job of providing necessities shifts to women, who must intensify their work in social reproduction—hauling water, collecting wood, processing food, building community support networks, and providing their families with health care, day care, and the basic nutrition once guaranteed by public funding.

Human Rights in Action

As macro-economic policies have pushed governments to abdicate responsibility for people's basic welfare, women's organizations around the world have stepped in to provide a range of services, including health clinics, domestic violence shelters, AIDS education and literacy programs, income-generating initiatives, nutrition classes, and girls' leadership training. These are remarkable achievements that should be supported, but they must also be understood as the result of a serious failure of government, for community-based organizations, no matter how competent, are no substitute for responsible government.

To move beyond a band-aid approach to service provision, women's community organizing must also work to hold governments accountable to meeting people's needs. And because national policies are so heavily impacted by global economic trends, women's organizing must reach all the way to the international arena. MADRE's programs reflect this reality and work to equip women from our sister organizations to meet urgent needs in their communities, demand accountability from their governments, and work to impact macro-economic policies.


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