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What does transforming economic power mean?

Today's targeting of women in processes of realigning economic controls is perhaps quite unique. In order to unpack and understand economic power, we must revisit the different realms in which power operates, and the various forms that it takes - visible, hidden and invisible.

On the eve of the 12th AWID Forum, focusing on the theme of Transforming Economic Power to Advance Women’s Rights and Justice, we need to step back and ask ourselves what the concepts underlying this theme really mean.  These are large, very abstract and sometimes intimidating ideas that fall into one of two traps – that of assuming that their meaning is obvious and universally understood, or that they are too complex and context-specific to be defined accessibly for everyone.  I am trying to overcome this impasse with some trepidation, since I am neither an economist nor an expert on the intricacies of the world’s economic and financial systems and architecture, and the crises that have beset these in recent times. I am trying to unpack the theme of economic power, and what we mean by its transformation - women’s rights and justice have been well defined over the years by many others. 

It is useful to begin by making explicit what we mean by the term “economy”.  It was surprisingly difficult to find clear definitions of this term, though there is a plethora of definitions of “economic”.  The simplest dictionary definition of economy is “The wealth and resources of a country or region, especially in terms of the production and consumption of goods and services.”  Going deeper, wikipedia says: “An economy consists of the economic system of a country or other geo-political area, the land, labor, capital and other resources, and the economic agents that participate in the production, exchange, distribution and consumption of goods and services.  A given economy is the end result of a process that involves its technological evolution, history and social organization, as well as its geography, natural resources endowment, and ecology as main factors. These factors give context, content, and set the conditions and parameters in which an economy functions.” 

What this definition does not say is that an economy is also the result of social power structures, including gender power structures, which determine, for instance,  the division of labor and resources, as well as who can influence decision making on economic development pathways and choices.  From a feminist perspective, it is ironic that the English word economy is derived from the Greek οἰκονόμος, which meant “to manage the household” – and yet the invisibility of the gendered division of labor, and the lack of value for women’s productive and reproductive work in households, is a persistent feature of economic measurement. 

In order to unpack and understand economic power, we must revisit the different realms in which power operates, and the various forms that it takes.  For this, we can do no better than to turn to Veneklasen and Miller’s compelling framework. They tell us that there are three basic realms in which power operates: the public, where it is visible, such as the power of the government, military, police, judiciary, companies and corporations; the private, within institutions like the family /household, clan and ethnic group; and the intimate, such as the sense of power – or powerlessness – that we feel within ourselves, usually expressed in terms of self-confidence, self-esteem, control over our bodies.

They also describe three key forms or “faces” of power that are critical to understand, since they are all present – often simultaneously – in the structure of economic power in a given household, nation, region, or globally.  They are visible power, hidden power and invisible power.

Visible power

Visible power determines who has – and who is excluded from – the control over productive resources (land, labor, capital), and decision making over these in the private and public realm. Visible power is held, in the public realm, by political leaders (elected or not), the police, military, and the judiciary as well as by the leaders of multinational corporations and local or national businesses andcompanies.  In the private realm, visible power is held and exercised by the heads of households, of clans and tribes, or by the leaders of mafias and criminal networks, all of whom are predominantly men. 

Visible economic power is evident in who publicly makes decisions about what a country’s development priorities should be, or how the village council’s budget will be spent, or what crops will be planted in the family’s lands.  In the private realm, we see direct power in the division of household labor, in the ownership of household assets like land, house, and other privately-owned resources, in the way food, access to health care and education is distributed.

It is visible power that dictates that women will perform certain household and production tasks that are critical for household survival, but they will not have the right to equal wages, control over their income, inheritance rights, or even control over their bodies in terms of their mobility, relationships, sexual expression, or reproduction.  Visible or direct power also explains how the interests of powerful economic and social groups, by virtue of their assets, wealth, position, gender, race, class, ethnicity, or caste, for instance, are able to dominate national and local economic policies, at the cost of poorer people.

Hidden power

Sometimes called agenda-setting power, hidden power is about who influences or sets the agenda behind the scenes, and the barriers and biases that determine what are important issues of public policy, whose voices are heard or who is consulted on a particular issue.  Hidden or agenda-setting power operates in both the private and public realms, and is again largely exercised by male elites within socially and economically dominant groups and classes.  It can, however, also be acquired and deployed by women who have gained indirect power in dominant systems.

In the public realm, we see hidden power operate when private corporations lobby governments to support the patenting of certain drugs that makes them unaffordable for poor patients, or limits the access of developing countries to these drugs, in order to protect their profits. Hidden power is also evident in the nexus, even in democratic contexts, between political leaders and fundamentalist religious lobbies with whom they have covert links, so women’s right to contraceptives or abortion is restricted, even if the majority of women citizens have expressed a demand for these services.

Think tanks and “policy” centers – usually funded and even set up by private interests also exercise hidden power by generating carefully-designed and biased data that support certain kinds of economic and social policies over others, in order to advance those private interests.  These influences are hard for citizens to challenge since the links between these privately-funded studies and public policy making are hard to establish.

Criminal networks are similarly exercising hidden power by influencing decisions and policies about, for instance, cultivation of narcotic plants by farmers, or giving safe passage and refuge to narco-traffickers, or failing to protect populations terrorized by such groups.

And in the private realm, we see how within families, “good women” – those dutifully carrying out the patriarchal agenda and protecting male privilege – often enjoy behind-the-scenes power to influence male decision-makers, and access to family assets and resources.

Invisible power

Invisible power, or indirect power, is in many ways the most insidious and problematic of all to challenge and confront.  Invisible power is the capacity to shape social norms and beliefs, as well as people’s needs and desires, their self-image, self-esteem, social attitudes and biases, without any means of being held to account.  Ideology - the complex web of theory, belief, and principles - is a huge source of invisible power in today’s world, particularly in the economic sphere.  And there are several actors engaged in constructing the ideologies that form and mediate our norms and beliefs, as well as the justifications for those norms and beliefs.  The media and marketing and advertising industries are classic purveyors of such invisible power.  And in many parts of today’s world, fundamentalist formations of various kinds, religious organizations, and criminal networks are also exercising invisible power.  Women, who have been co-opted into their own subjugation and in the policing and control of other women (and their male children or family members) through the assertion of dominant ideological norms, wield invisible power, especially in the enforcement of norms and beliefs that ultimately undermine their gender interests.

The media exercises invisible power by constantly making choices about what issues to highlight and what to ignore, and by constructing images and shaping meaning in lasting ways.  Every day’s television news is instilling in us a sense of what are the most important issues of the day – but what they ignore and don’t cover in the news is also important.  By making some issues invisible, they are shaping our sense of social, economic and political priorities in profound ways that we are barely aware of.  They convert, for instance, people fighting for their economic rights into “insurgents”, “separatists” and “extremists”; they decide that the kidnapping or rape of a women’s human rights defender is not news, but the wedding in a royal family in Europe is.

Similarly, private corporations use advertising to exercise invisible power to create new social norms about what is good, desirable, positive, or bad, regressive, negative – the almost universal desire for fairer skin and thin bodies among Southern women, for instance, which in turn affects their sense of self-worth, is testimony to the invisible power of these forces.

Fundamentalists of all types are also using mass media like television to finance soap operas and special channels that spread their messages about the role of women in society, leading to many women “voluntary” rejecting equal rights and reverting to traditional “feminine” roles and behavior in their families.

Technology has also become a source of invisible power.  Control and governance of the internet and its content, is a key means used by many repressive regimes to control their citizens.  And people, in turn, use the internet to organize, resist, share information, and build their power – as we saw in the context of the 'Arab Spring' most recently - in ways that are often invisible until it finds expression.

This examination of power readily exposes the gender inequalities inherent in visible, hidden and invisible power.  In most societies, women, by virtue of their gender, and further based on their class, caste, race, ethnicity, location, ability, sexual orientation, religion, etc., have far less power than men.  However, because of these historic disadvantages – particularly in access to direct power - women have often had to learn to use hidden and invisible power in order to resist or influence the decisions that affected them.  A large number of women, however, have also gained influence and power by upholding the dominant power structure and such women are rewarded in explicit and implicit ways for playing this role.  In some contexts, however, women have also risen up and challenged direct, hidden, and invisible power.  The women’s movements of the past half a century, all over the world, can be said to have done just this.

Whether visible, hidden or invisible, power is exercised and demonstrated largely through the control of resources, and that economic power in particular is manifested this way.  In today’s context, the spectrum of economic resources are growing at an exponential rate, given the commodification of virtually everything from people’s bodies to indigenous herbs and medicines and genetic material.  So while it is impossible to list all these, some key economic resources include natural resources that are essential for daily life, such as water, food crops, cooking fuel, heating, grazing and fodder for animals; productive resources for income and livelihood, including land, animals, raw materials, credit; finance and financial markets; employment opportunities; human labor and labour markets; technology; intangible resources like knowledge, information, contacts, influence; markets, access to markets, and the rules of markets; and the body – its deployment not just for labour but for pleasure, as seen with the growth of the pleasure industry.

Women’s access to and control over these and other resources, including resources that they traditionally controlled or managed, is being constrained in new ways.  A new range of powerful fundamentalist forces, criminal networks and mafias that have virtually replaced the state in many regions, and transnational corporations accountable to no one are co-opting state actors and machinery too.  Violence is being used on an unprecedented scale to target women human rights defenders and violence against women deployed to control and discipline resistance.  While none of this is necessarily new, the forms and scale on which it is occurring, and the targeting of women in processes of realigning economic controls is perhaps quite unique.  What is also new is the way more and more state actors are abdicating their responsibility of protecting the rights of citizens whose economic rights are being threatened or infringed. 

Based on this understanding of power, we may define economic power as the visible, hidden and invisible power to access and control material, human, technological and intangible resources, and the production, distribution and exchange of goods and services, both directly and indirectly, that provide the basic conditions for social, physical and psychological wellbeing.

Wealth, by this definition, is constituted not only by the accumulation of material resources, but by the power to control processes and decisions that determine their access and distribution across populations.  Poverty, on the other hand, is the result of the exclusion from access to and control over the economic and social resources that determine physical, social, and psychological wellbeing.

What, then, does the transformation of economic power entail?  In the context of social justice, transformation can be defined as a profound and radical change in the relations of power that determine the status, privileges, opportunities, entitlements, and access to resources of an individual or group.  Transformation of economic power for women’s rights and justice means that women who are currently marginalized in multiple ways, as a result of intersecting oppressions and exclusions, gain equal power to determine the distribution, access to and control of material, human and technological resources, and goods and services that are the basis for social, physical and psychological wellbeing. One of the key goals of such a transformation would be the eradication of gender biases in access and control over economic resources, and in the decision-making processes that shape economic policies.  Marginalized women will move from being subjects and victims to leaders and active agents of such a transformation.  Indeed, it means that marginalized  women’s priorities and visions of a just, sustainable and peaceful world can truly shape and influence the choices we make about the pathways of development, about the relationship of human beings to the planet, and most of all, the structure of human relationships themselves.

This article is one of a series of articles addressing themes for discussion at the 12th AWID International Forum Transforming Economic Power to advance women's rights and justice  

About the author

Srilatha Batliwala is Director Knowledge Building and Feminist Leadership at CREA (Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action).  She is a feminist activist, scholar, and writer with four decades of experience that ranges from grassroots activism and movement building with some of the poorest women in India, to research and building theory from practice in premier international academic institutions and feminist organizations.

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