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Transforming Economic Power to Advance Women’s Rights and Justice

FRIDAY FILE: The 2012 AWID Forum aims to explore how economic power is impacting on women and planet, and to facilitate connections among diverse groups working on these issues from human rights and justice approaches so that together we contribute to stronger, more effective strategies to advance women’s rights and justice.

On the road to the Forum, AWID is producing a series of Friday Files that explore some of the issues and debates related to the Forum theme and draw the connections between women’s rights issues and economic power. This week’s Friday File, the first in this series, highlights some of the core dimensions and manifestations of economic power.

By Susan Tolmay[1]

Broad-based mobilizations starting in the Middle East and Northern Africa and spreading around the world are inspiring women and men to seek new opportunities for challenging unequal power structures that put wealth in the hands of the few while ordinary people and the planet suffer.

The financial crisis and economic recession that began in 2008, which is part of a broader systemic crisis of food, energy and the environment, have underscored the failures of the current dominant economic model.

As women’s rights and justice activists we have a responsibility in this historic moment to seek alternatives which do not exploit people and the planet but rather promote human rights, ensure equality, and protect our natural resources and the environment.

Unequal economic power

Legacies of colonization, tumultuous transitions from communism and decades of neoliberal policy prescriptions have put public resources in the hands of the private sector, irrevocably damaged the environment, fostered rampant militarization, eroded human rights and, with few exceptions, allowed capitalist markets, rather than lived human experience, to determine what has value.

The current dominant economic model, which promotes cutting social spending and privatization of social services, sees women taking on unpaid work and providing services that should be the remit of the state—namely the care economy—where women become responsible for caring for, maintaining and developing children, caring for the sick and elderly, families and communities, with little recognition of the costs of this work. And while women continue to perform the majority of the work they continue to be denied their rights to own property and they lack of access to land and resources—yet another manifestation of their unequal economic power.

Most recently, the financial crisis and economic recession have deeply affected women in many different ways as they struggle to meet rising costs of food, fuel, education, housing, transport, health services and are forced to take on more and precarious work in challenging and often exploitative conditions.

At the same time, women have long been negotiating fractures in the system and filling the gaps left by cuts in social spending. And there are many important experiences from which to learn. Indigenous, peasant and rural women building food sovereignty. Grassroots women developing strategies of resilience and empowerment in the face of both environmental and economic disasters. Young women and girls using new information and communication technologies in diverse and creative ways to mobilize and bring about social change. Sex workers, migrant workers and domestic workers redefining what it means to work and why care work should count. Women with disabilities, trans activists and women living with HIV/AIDS continuing to question unbridled emphasis on growth and productivity at the expense of human dignity. And feminist economists naming and analyzing the forces shaping and assigning value to social production and reproduction.

Making the links

Economic power cuts across every dimension of our lives from negotiating household expenditures to allocating national budgets. Economic power also intersects with and impacts on all women’s rights issues and agendas from sexual and reproductive rights to education and health.

Recent years, for example, have witnessed important changes in the nature of work in many contexts. At the same time there is a growing recognition of the diverse ways in which women engage in economic relations and their means of livelihood. New technologies are facilitating greater flexibility of labour relations, at times contributing to growing precariousness in women’s working situations. Lack of time and resources and the demands of ‘productive’ work life have contributed to a ‘crisis of care’ in many contexts. Shifting trends in women’s migration are also having a significant impact on work patterns.

At the same time, in all countries of the world there are cultural practices that hinder and in some cases prevent women’s and entire communities’ full enjoyment of their human rights. Different forms of gender-based violence are commonly justified in the name of culture, tradition or religion. Increased militarism and conflict also have a number of gender-specific impacts. In militarized contexts, with paramilitary groups and organized crime—and their scope of control and power—on the rise, feminicides and attacks on women’s human rights defenders have become commonplace and increasingly normalized.

The role of the state is also constantly changing. Despite the attention that some governments have given to women’s demands for equality, the lack of comprehensive policies (including appropriate fiscal policy to support social spending or proper recognition of women’s contributions to national revenue) has prevented many countries from achieving women’s full and equal participation and economic and social autonomy.

The current dominant economic system also has profound impacts on women’s sexual and reproductive rights and LGBTQI rights. Times of economic crisis often lead to even greater attempts to control sexuality and further limit access to sexual and reproductive health services and rights, especially for women living in poverty and other marginalized groups.

We are also currently witnessing the impact of economic policies that promote unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, which have resulted in the massive exploitation of our planet’s natural resources, increasing conflict and exacerbating inequalities amongst the poorest and most vulnerable communities. At the same time, due to gendered divisions of labour, patriarchal cultural norms and laws and economic inequalities, women continue to be denied access to and control of resources, including land, education, health services, credit and technologies.

Financial flows (monetary policies, financial regulation, aid, development cooperation, foreign direct investment etc.) also have a direct impact on women and women’s rights. Corporations and private sector actors too are often influential players in defining global and national economic agendas. The rising importance of transnational corporations on the global stage, and in a broad range of critical sectors in national economies, raises many challenges around the world.

And all of these debates take place in the context of a changing global governance and geopolitics, triggered in part by systemic crises. Alongside the ever-present power of private sector actors, new powers are emerging accompanied by the weakening of the United Nations as key multilateral body, undermining its capacity to uphold human rights and influence global economic and development policies.

In light of this changing and complex global context and with so many different experiences from diverse movements to learn from, AWID hopes the 2012 AWID Forum will be a key space for deepening our understanding of economic injustice, equipping ourselves to engage in economic debates, and devising strategies and building alliances across boundaries so that together we can transform economic power.

More information on the 2012 AWID Forum is available on the Forum website.

We hope you find this series of Friday Files useful and welcome your feedback and comments.

[1]This article is based on information from AWID’s Call for Proposals for the 2012 AWID Forum