Women's economic empowerment in the changing world

Monday, March 13, 2017 - 14:20

It has been a tough year for women’s rights, with the election of politicians across the world who are quite distant from what we might regard as feminist.  But the Commission on the Status of Women has survived many misogynist heads of state since it was founded in 1946, and women’s rights have advanced – leaving much to celebrate, but still with much to do.

This year’s theme is ‘Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work’ and ActionAid International is launching our new report - ‘Double Jeopardy: Violence Against Women and Economic Inequality’ - at a panel event on 15th March. This latest report draws on research from Uganda, Cambodia, India and Brazil and highlights the way in which women and girls are oppressed and exploited – including for economic gain – through the patriarchal structures and systems that permeate the modern global economy.

Patriarchal norms do not stop when people enter their workplace and they influence individual’s actions in their roles as factory owners, construction workers, teachers and politicians. This is turn influences the output of their work. In the case of politicians, we have seen the impact of the replication of those patriarchal norms in recent months with legislation being passed all around the world which will be detrimental to women’s rights.

The 13th Month

With these norms playing out in every sphere of life – the economy does not escape patriarchal influence. It replicates gender discrimination and exploits it at both the macro and micro levels. The unpaid care that women provide for children, the elderly, the sick – the gendered roles of cooking, cleaning and purchasing food – mean that women, on average work an extra 1 month per year than men. Men and boys are then able to access and thrive in education. They gain advantages which are simply not there for women and girls, because they are busy doing those unpaid tasks. But even when opportunities arise, and women and girls carve out time to be able to engage, they are thwarted by a lack of gender responsive public services, or by thoughtless economic policy which places them in danger and limits their movement.

Limited movement, limited government foresight

Take Scarlett for example. In her home town of Cabo, Brazil, there have been large infrastructure projects set up which have attracted a sharp increase in male migrant workers. There has subsequently been an increase in crime and drug use. Scarlett was offered an internship as a part of her educational course when she would have had to come home after dark. But she is afraid of walking at night now when violent attacks are more likely to take place. So she had to turn down her internship. There should have been a gender analysis of the impact of the infrastructure projects on the area, there should have been gender responsive public services put in place to ensure that women and girls are able to move freely whether in the day or night. This oversight of the impact of the projects on women’s and girls’ lives is an example of patriarchal norms playing out on the macro level. Potentially this oversight was not deliberate, but rather born from a lack of comprehension that the gendered needs of women and girls are very different from men and boys. But in 2017, is ignorance an excuse?

Knowingly denying women their rights for economic gain

In Cambodia, for example, 90% of garment workers are women and in 2015, the garment industry accounted for 85% of the country’s exports valued at US$6.4million. The Cambodian Government suppresses the pay and the conditions in garment factories. Women are reported to be suffering from malnourishment as wages are so small, and the conditions in the factories are so poor that there are often mass faintings. Women – usually young, poorly educated migrants are sent to the city to help support their families. There are targeted by garment factories specifically as they are seen as more submissive, less informed and less vocal about their rights. They are also willing to work for lower wages. This exploitation is not the end of the abuse that women and girls working in this industry receive. They experience violence at the hands of supervisors, they are sexually abused and harassed. An ILO report recently found that one in five women garment workers said they had been sexually harassed or humiliated. When they choose to organise and make complaints, they are suppressed. They lose their job like Savan, who become a union representative and was subsequently fired.

And that’s not all. When women come and go from their workplace, they travel in dangerous public transport where they are sexually harassed or abused. They have to walk streets which are not lit after their long shifts, threatened or attacked by strangers. The economic gains made by Cambodia have been born on the backs of women and girls in the garment industry and yet, the Government actually supresses the improvement of their working conditions to maximise their competitive edge in attracting foreign corporations. They can’t even light the street so that women can go home safely.

The heart of the matter

The UN found that 35% of Cambodian men reported using physical or sexual violence against an intimate partner. 25% of men admitted to having committed rape and 5% reported that they participated in gang rape in 2013. Shocking figures indeed. But this violent expression of gender inequality is not nebulous, it is not isolated in a vacuum. It is not a problem that can be fixed in isolation. The violence and discrimination women are facing in the workplace, is inextricably linked to the violence and discrimination they are facing in the home and in wider society. Legislation may be passed to protect women’s rights, but until we address the fact that that legislation is supposed to be implemented by a man who may not believe that women’s rights are important, or by a woman who wants to be seen as ‘one of the boys’ in order to get ahead, then that legislation will remain on paper whilst women continue to be abused.

At CSW this year, I hope that the issue of the way in which patriarchal social norms play out in the global economy is explored in depth. For too long the issues of VAWG and WEI have been discussed in a silo. It’s time to get to the heart of the matter. Projects that address the interlinkages like ActionAid’s POWER project in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Rwanda and Ghana is just one example of how we can do this.