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Globalisation's gender side

In Africa, globalisation builds on a history of slavery, colonialism and exploitation - a fact many recognize to have a continuing impact on the continent's experiences of the global economy. But globalisation also interacts with a history of gender inequality, casting a long shadow over the present and the futures of Africa's women. This combination harshly limits the lives and hopes of the female half of the population, while holding back a whole continent's people.

Far from being a disembodied force, globalisation takes place through people, organizations and institutions, who together determine its direction. Equality and fundamental human rights are now enshrined in the basic instruments of today's international community and are central to our vision of a democratic society. But the fine words of these documents stand in sharp contrast to the daily reality of millions of women.

Of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty today, 70 percent are women; the majority of the world's refugees are women; female illiteracy is invariably higher than male illiteracy. Women and girl children are treated as commodities in cross border prostitution rackets and the pornography industry. Millions of girls are still subject to genital mutilation, while women in every country are regular victims of domestic violence.

Roselynn Musa is Advocacy Officer at the African Women's Development and Communications Network (FEMNET) in Nairobi, Kenya. She researched the report on gender equality in preparation for the World Social Forum 2007 and is a regular contributor to Pambazuka News

Though globalisation may offer hopes, its concrete benefits have not been equitably distributed. Each new opportunity for development - such as communications technology, greater ease and speed of transportation, diminishing cultural barriers, and the spread of democratic ideals - has its dark side. Central to globalisation's core features of capital and trade liberalization, cultural integration, changing consumption patterns, and increased flows of labour, information and technology - is increased trade. As long as trade negotiations continue to treat all countries as equals, globalisation remains a vehicle of inequality.

The Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) are just one illustration of this. Free trade agreements between the European Union and African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, the EPAs proclaim the intent of creating new market opportunities for the ACP countries. But the negotiations ignore the fact that farmers in the north are heavily subsidized by their governments and are more technologically advanced. These farmers are able to produce at a cheaper rate than farmers in the ACP countries, yet they are allowed to compete for the same market with farmers in developing countries who are faced with a myriad of challenges. This situation is then exacerbated by debt-servicing burdens, the contraction of adjusting economies, failure to attract private investment, the increasing inaccessibility of social services, and the unremitting hardships resulting from job losses, low wages and high prices of basic necessities. What all this means is that the poor (the majority of whom are women), and especially the poor of Africa, will continue to languish in poverty.

Blind promise

According to its own doctrines of survival of the fittest and capitalist accumulation, liberalisation itself reinforces inequalities - initially at least - despite the belief held by some that it potentially has the ability to close gender gaps, and other forms of inequality, over time.

The major types of gender inequality derived from globalisation are related to economic production. Labour is increasingly feminised, in the absence of gender development or economic empowerment for women. Wage gaps persist between men and women - in fact, women have seen their wages decline and their workload double through trade liberalisation, evidence that women are still seen as secondary wage earners whose income should supplement a household rather than support it. Unequal power relations remain entrenched at the household level - a problem which underlies other forms of inequality right up to the political. One example of this, with major ramifications for women's economic position, is the gendered division of labour, with women being primarily responsible for reproductive and family work and men for productive work. In terms of ownership, women are constrained in their access to and control of resources. This is aggravated by entitlement systems which impose disparities in men's and women's access to common property resources, especially to productive assets.

FEMNET is the pan-African umbrella for women's advocacy organisations and recognised by the African Union as a key civil society lobbying group. FEMNET members were involved in the organisation of the World Social Forum 2007 in Nairobi.


Economies switch production to industrial goods at the expense of women's sweat. This phenomenon has been seen in Export Processing Zones (EPZs, also known as Free Trade Zones) where, although they have been shown to provide great opportunities for women, the gains are only short-term. They ensure women a modest standard of living, but they cannot provide a real path to success.

Meanwhile, it is appalling to observe that trade liberalisation has already taken its toll on the quality of women's lives to the extent of trafficking in women themselves. With the decline in agriculture, a new wave of migration has become a way of life. The destabilizing effects for Africa are profound. High unemployment, economic crisis in industry and agriculture, and the diminution of internal markets in favour of the import of foreign goods have resulted in massive migration to the west. Many households are now headed by children, and Africa is experiencing a brain drain of professionals like nurses and teachers, who are now building the skills bank of the affluent north. And with growing tourism come the sex trade and increased threat of HIV / Aids infection, a particular danger for women.

Balancing accounts

If a wider range of people are to benefit from globalisation, it must become people-centred rather than profit-centred, and it must also become more accountable to women. Gender roles impede women's access to rights, resources and opportunities. Laws, customs, traditional roles, family responsibilities or attitudes and stereotypes all place women at a severe disadvantage, which remedial measures alone cannot eliminate - instead reform is needed, to prevent this recurring problem at root. The process of globalisation so far has adversely affected the lives of millions of women. We have become safety nets and shock absorbers for economic problems.

It is depressing to note that in spite of numerous testimonies about the negative impact of WTO policies on women, our governments are still not listening to our voices and continue to support these policies. The G8 partners have made commitments to provide aid and also, crucially, to respect the autonomy of African governments with regard to public service and economic policies. The G8 has immense commissioning power and could thereby support equitable economic development in Africa. Gender implications must be considered in all regional and multilateral negotiations.

The African continent remains by and large marginalized in the world economy. If Africa is to meet most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015, or ever, then substantive democratization should be factored into policy making at all levels and ensure that the voice of women and the poor are taken into account in trade agreements.

All the available evidence indicates that there can be no peace, security or sustainable economic development in societies that deny human rights, including the human rights of women. I want to believe that this will be understood by governments, especially in light of the fact that societies with the greatest gender equality have grown the fastest. This link shows that gender equality is critical to development, and that women's continuing marginalisation must therefore be reversed.




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