Women’s Rights And Free Trade
An Interview with Natividad Yabut-Bernardino, program coordinator of the International South Group Network (ISGN) women and globalization program and works with the ISGN international secretariat based in Manila. October 2003
ISGN is a tri-continental NGO network with centers in Asia, Latin America and Africa, dealing with research, advocacy and networking on development issues involving North-South relations. Ms. Bernardino is also a senior researcher in the Resource Center for People's Development-Philippines.
WHRnet: What are the positive and negative consequences for women of the WTO meeting in Cancun, Mexico?
Natividad Yabut-Bernardino: WTO meeting in Cancun collapsed under its own weight, as an indication that the so-called rule-based multilateral trading system is a myth. The rules simply can’t apply to resolve the inter-imperialist power struggles between the big players like the US and the EU. Moreover, developing countries are simply frustrated since in their experience the WTO in the last nine to ten years had not brought about any benefits that were promised to them. With trade agreements that are already working in favor of the big players, the rule-based system becomes entirely untenable at a certain point because what is dictating practice is really the monopolies and interests of the more powerful nations. Hence, the EU and the US won’t give up their subsidies even if the WTO rules say so. And the EU couldn’t be flexible about delaying negotiations on the Singapore issues because it can’t wait to cut into the monopoly of the US in the area of investments and services.
Of course, civil society organizations, including women’s groups, should be happy about the WTO Cancun collapse. It is more or less a status quo situation as far as the WTO is concerned (although negotiations will continue in Geneva). However, we have to careful that there is no letup in our advocacy and actions because there are regional and bilateral trade agreements, which are equally detrimental, such as the FTAA, APEC, etc.
WHRnet: Do you think there is any space for women’s rights within free trade agreements?
Natividad Yabut-Bernardino: Women’s rights should be advocated for at all times in and in the realm of trade agreements this becomes even more important because women are doubly disadvantaged by virtue of both their gender and class.
However, “free trade” per se by its definition and nature, does not and cannot prioritize human rights, much less women’s rights. Free trade as it is defined and practiced in neo-liberal economics is anti-people and anti-development. It destroys people’s livelihoods and consigns the third world to perpetual underdevelopment. It makes use of women as a pool of cheap and flexible labor. It denies women basic services and welfare through the privatization of public or state services. Women’s role in social reproduction is never recognized and the women’s double burden becomes even more unbearable.
WHRnet: What is your understanding of the gender equalizing down effect and what should be the role of governments to counteract it?
Natividad Yabut-Bernardino: The gender equalizing down effect is described as the phenomenon where the gender gap narrows but at the same time the standard of living of both sexes falls. It is one of the effects of neo-liberal globalization in which more women enter the labor market, in turn increasing the pool of cheap surplus labor. The effect is the general lowering of all wages, both male and female, and the capacity of capital to extract more profits from this condition of excess supply by resorting to further exploitation.
As the neo-liberal crisis leads to more job losses, lower wages, job insecurity and deteriorating social conditions, the working class and toiling masses, both male and female, suffer social exclusion and impoverishment, hence the tendency of gender gaps to narrow down but towards equally worse situations.
Governments can counteract the effects of neo-liberal globalization by adopting economic policies that are in tune with the real development of their local economies and people and not dictated by foreign monopolies. Neo-liberal policies such as unhampered trade liberalization, privatization, deregulation and dependence on foreign debt should be scrapped and replaced with more inward-looking and independent development policies.
WHRnet: What do you think would be the main elements of an alternative economic system? Is the international women’s movement contributing to create them?
Natividad Yabut-Bernardino: An alternative economic system is one that is not based on profit but on people. It is an equitable and just economic system where both women and men enjoy the fruits of their toil and no one exploits one another.
Alternative economic strategies to the dominant neo-liberal model must be pursued, the elements of which include the democratization of control, ownership and management of productive assets and resources. The creation of this system should be directed and driven by democratic people’s institutions.
The international women’s movement is a diverse movement and consists of different political and ideological orientations. On one end of the spectrum, there are groups which lobby and work within state institutions and on the other end there are radical groups that are organizing grassroots actions to alter the whole social system. In order to achieve an alternative economic system, women need to take action to alter the entire system, to attain gender justice while complementing revolutionary struggles with actions for reforms.
Although there is much talk about engendering macro-economics in order to mainstream gender into public economic policy, there still much to be done to improve the economic and social conditions of women. Emphasis should be on protecting the rights and welfare of women workers whose labor conditions have worsened under globalization. The same applies to women farmers whose property rights to land and agricultural resources remain unrecognized. The revival of anti-women legislations that tend to rollback the gains of the women’s movement on reproductive rights should also be paid attention to in terms of advocacy and mass campaigns.