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Feminist Economics: Looking to the New Global Development Agenda

FRIDAY FILEAWID attended the recent Annual meeting the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE), to find out what feminist economists are thinking and proposing on key economic justice issues, and remaining challenges for gender equality and women’s rights in the Post 2015 Development Agenda negotiations.

By Ana Abelenda

Economic inequality is deeply rooted in gender inequality. Yet, most economic policies put forward by governments and other institutions continue to fail at addressing the particular ways in which their actions negatively affect women and girls; and reproduce poverty and exploitation around the world. The IAFFE space is not only a source of inspiration and exchange of knowledge on the intersections between macroeconomics and feminist issues, it also constitutes an opportunity to bridge the gaps between feminist economics academia and women’s rights advocacy at local, regional and global levels.

The event[1], held from 27-29 June 2014 and hosted, for the first time in an African country, at the University of Ghana in Accra, gathered feminist economists, students, and advocacy organizations and activists under the theme “Women’s Economic Empowerment and the New Global Development Agenda”. The sessions discussed and presented updated research on key economic justice issues such as women’s labour; taxation; unpaid care work; access to social protection; land and other key resources; as well as redistribution of wealth from a feminist perspective.

The limited connections with the post-2015 sustainable development agenda were evidence of the limited engagement most participants have had with the complicated UN process[2], taking place mostly in New York. There was also some cause for scepticism about any real transformation of the global economic system given the proven failures of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the lack of effective responses to the global economic crisis coming from the UN sphere.

Here is a snapshot of the key highlights and insights from a non-academic standpoint:

Economic empowerment as part of women’s movement building

Abena Busia, Ghanaian black feminist scholar, poet, and Chair of the Department of Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, spoke at the opening plenary, saying, “Economic policies continue to be mostly a male preserve”, and that “Women’s labour is widely unrecognized. We are witnessing a rapid growth of the service sector dominated by banking and telecommunications corporations. There is little importance given to the agricultural sector and women continue to work and trade in the informal sector and through illegal borders”.

Busia cited the unprecedented mobilization and organization of women’s movements that led to the Women’s Manifesto for Ghana in 2004 to show how organized women’s movements can make a big difference. Although not all demands have been met and major challenges remain, the Women's Manifesto has become the roadmap for targeted and coordinated efforts by civil society to promote gender equality and inclusive development. But she emphasized that these efforts cannot be sustained on their own, “it becomes incredibly important to support women’s local movements with multi-year funding to build capacity for change”.

Picking up on the importance of women’s movement building for transformation, Sarah Mukasa from the African Women's Development Fund (AWDF) said, “experience has shown us that in fighting violence against women, the single most important factor is the existence of women’s rights movements on the ground, even more critical than government policies and laws”.

Unpaid care and women’s labour: new trends?

Research shows that greater participation of women in the economy, compared to previous decades, has not always translated into better living conditions or wellbeing for the vast majority of women. Feminist researcher Maria Floro[3] argues that we must not only look at incomepoverty, but particularly at timepoverty, to explain the unequal gender distribution of labour. Several countries have advanced in recognizing the gendered dimensions of unpaid care but, according to Floro, an important question still lingers: how best to satisfy the demand for care work? Can care simply be satisfied by paid ‘market’ care?

Initial research presented by Argentinean feminist academic Corina Rodriguez[4] based on studies in three countries in Latin America (Costa Rica, Ecuador and Uruguay), exposes the direct and indirect effects of fiscal policies in the provision of care services. Redistributive taxation policies that improve income in poorer households tend to have a positive effect on the possibilities to access care services whether from public or market provisioning. The increase in elderly care needs that rely mostly on women’s unpaid work in most aging populations in Latin America, continue to pose additional pressure on national care systems that have yet to address this issue in the long-term more effectively.

Speaking to latest women’s labour trends, Stephanie Seguino[5] - Former IAFFE president and feminist researcher at the University of Vermont in the US -highlighted the three most concerning trends: 1) Change is gender conflictive in some cases: In a number of countries where women’s employment increased, men’s has declined. 2) Gaps in political representation remain wide and public policy does not reflect women’s life conditions and perspective in allocation of resources and 3) Employment equality substantially lags educational improvements. Closing educational gaps is not sufficient to achieve gender equality.

Land, gender and food security[6]

A series of sessions during the three-day Conference touched upon the gendered effects of the upsurge of land grabs in the global south since 2008.

The cases presented, mostly from East and Southern Africa and Latin America, show distinguishing factors of land grabbing: the upsurge is associated with the search for food security and alternative energy in response of the global crisis of late 2000s. The acquisitions are more rapid and extensive than colonial and economic liberalization eras; industrialized countries, and wealthier emerging economies, are major investors; and agro-fuel incentives in developed countries are playing a big role.

Examining the gender implications of this phenomenon means focusing on how land dispossession or loss of common property resources impact livelihood activities and employment, reproductive work and women’s social status. “A good business model for land deals that include local communities in production and profit sharing are not enough to protect women’s livelihoods, if projects ignore pre-existing gender inequalities in agrarian production systems, and gender biases in project design” concluded Dzodzi Tsikata speaking to the case of land grabs in Northern Ghana.

Connecting land grabbing with Africa’s colonial past, Ritu Verma[7] explained how individual women’s small losses of land unabated over long periods of time since colonial and male elite capture of land, add up to large-scale losses of land by women overall. Land grabs continue occurring in spite of strong laws against them illustrating the critical role of power relationships shaping them.

The post-2015 agenda: an opportunity for feminist economics?

How far is the post-MDGs process offering opportunities to embed feminist principles in the macroeconomic framework? This was the centre of a debate with presentations from IAFFE, CWGL and UN Women that left more questions than answers.

Panellists identified key challenges remaining for gender equality and women’s rights in the Post 2015 Development Agenda negotiations that are underway at the UN. One of the key aspects at stake right now is ensure that human rights are the ethical framework for macroeconomic policies; committing to the principles of non-retrogression, and use of maximum available resources for progressive realization of human rights for all. This requires a shift from the focus on growth and poverty alleviation to a focus on development equality.

In terms of women’s rights and gender equality, Radhika Balakrishnan, Executive Director of CWGL, explained that the language of “women’s empowerment” is taking over that of women’s rights and in particular economic, social and cultural rights. Sexual and reproductive rights are always the ‘sticky point’ on negotiations and the links with unpaid care work and social reproduction risk being sidelined. The prominence given to the private sector and in particular to Public-Private Partnerships remains a strong concern, particularly since there are no attempts to enforce extraterritorial responsibilities and accountability of transnational corporations.

Papa Seck from UN Women mentioned the important challenges ahead regarding Means of Implementation of the post-2015 agenda and the financing for development aspects that could “make or break the whole thing”. The follow-up International Conference on Financing for Development to take place in July 2015 in Addis Ababa will be a key space to ensure there is concrete funding to implement the agreed commitments on paper.

In closing, Sarah Mukasa from AWDF offered a sharp reflection “The new development agenda will not succeed if it does not uphold the principles of women’s agency and power that are part of the human rights framework”. “We must caution against attempts to de-politicize economics and development and prevent this agenda from being completely donor-driven”. Women’s movements have key challenges ahead.

[1] IAFFE was established in 1992 in response to the need for a space for feminist economics to be deconstructed, debated and promoted. While primarily comprised of academics, IAFFE has a wide range of members including students, NGO workers, activists, and policy makers. Bringing together diverse groups of feminists to dialogue, thereby contributing to strengthening the links between feminists occupying different spheres, is a core goal of IAFFE.

[2] To read more about the post-2015 agenda from a feminist perspective, visit:

[3] Browse more of her work at:

[4] Further reading on her work on this subject can be found at: and

[5] See more of here work at:

[6] Many of the research pieces related to these sessions can be found in the journal Feminist Economics, Volume 20.1, January 2014:

[7] Senior researcher at the Centre for Bhutan Studies and Out of the Box Research and Action.