Haven't we said so already?

If the actions recommended by the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action on Equality, Development and Peace were honoured, Roberta Clarke argues that the Millennium Development Goals could be met.
Roberta Clarke
11 March 2010
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"The globalization of the world's economy and the deepening interdependence among nations present challenges and opportunities for sustained economic growth and development, as well as risks and uncertainties for the future of the world economy. The uncertain global economic climate has been accompanied by economic restructuring as well as, in a certain number of countries, persistent, unmanageable levels of external debt and structural adjustment programmes.... transformations in the world economy are profoundly changing the parameters of social development in all countries."

These thoughts originate from the Beijing Platform for Action 1995, a gender roadmap resulting from the UN Fourth World Conference on Women. Reading the Beijing declaration now, I am disconcerted by its far-reaching analysis. I am disconcerted not because I am surprised, but because I am dismayed that the policy insights at Beijing failed to capture the attention of decision-makers. Women are talking, but who is listening?

Looking back at the Beijing declaration, I am struck by two sections addressing economic questions: on women and poverty and women and the economy. The first describes the pervasiveness of women’s poverty, the generalised absence of specific gender-responsive policy, and provides an analysis of women’s vulnerability to poverty. The second calls for a macro-economic framework that strengthens state action and accountability, and which facilitates opportunities for women - as it does for social development programming.

Under the heading women and the economy, the accent on women’s agency is widened and deepened with more language on the need for productive factors to be made accessible to women - information, technology, credit, and resources. There is also the call for the harmonisation of family and work responsibilities between women and men.  In these two sections, and the rest of the Beijing Platform for Action 1995, the strategic advance was the recognition that gender equality and women’s empowerment is a goal which traverses state action in all spheres; that the responsibility of gender equity went well beyond national women’s machineries.

Beijing methodically carves out mutually reinforcing roles and actions of state and non-state actors. Gender “mainstreaming”, for many, is something of a cursed phrase today – denounced as the scourge of women’s empowerment programming. But at the time the rationale was clear and compelling. Women and men, whatever their commonalities, also had very diverse needs, responsibilities and opportunities because of roles, expectations and unequal access to resources determined by gender. These inequalities were, and continue to be, expressed in women’s limited access and control over productive resources - land, credit in particular, and in the differential valuing of women’s and men’s labours. Women’s work in the domestic or reproductive sphere is not monetised, yet fundamental and taken for granted. In the public or productive sectors of the economy, women’s work is under-valued and often compartmentalised in low paying sectors of the economy. Pay inequity is a global phenomenon. Women’s formal labour market participation is lower than that of men’s in most places. This has consequences for many areas, and in particular for access to contributory social protection schemes, especially important for the economic security of the elderly.

Beijing became a rallying call for the incorporation of gender analysis in public sector planning and policy development. This also became a call on those government agencies charged with advancing gender equality – the national women’s machineries – to lead the discussion and commitment for the development and implementation of policy and programmes that addressed inequality between women and men.

Beijing recognized the institutional limitations under which some national women’s machineries function. Many are less optimally funded, staffed and located and may wield little sustained political clout.  And yet, the task of gender mainstreaming is a daunting one. It requires significant technical capacity across a number of areas, as well as the capacity to monitor and influence policy directions. Even the boldest of us gender advocates may need, from time to time, to take a deep breath of courage to step forward and demand accountability and action for our equality agenda. The persistence of patriarchy can be paralysing. The challenge of ‘attention capture’ is particularly acute in the area of macroeconomic policy making. Macro-economics evokes insecurity for those of us who are not economists – even the term is distancing. But it is a challenge which we must not avoid.

The current global economic crisis has further complicated the gender equality agenda. An economic crisis that developed in the wealthiest economies has and will continue to have far-reaching consequences for poorer countries. The trickle down or, more accurately, cascading effects are unavoidable. We are focusing on the current fiscal crisis now, but feminist economists and those who are concerned with other equity agendas have been arguing that neo-liberal economic arrangements are the problem – that chronic crisis for the majority of people the world over is an accompanying experience of market-led growth, particularly where there is little interest in redistribution and equity.

If we think back to the discussions around structural adjustment programmes, the critique of market-led growth was that it was predicated on exploitable inequalities – both within and between countries – and that a strong state presence with a redistributive mandate was an essential re-balancing mechanism to ensure growth alongside equity. The women’s movement and other social justice movements lost that advocacy fight to some extent, with state expenditures on health, education and social services put under pressure, as well as the dismantling of state regulatory frameworks. Many countries in the 1990s were forced into currency devaluations that contributed to chronic indebtedness, in particular in small open economies such as the Caribbean.

The Beijing Declaration speaks to this context:

  “Recent international economic developments have had in many cases a disproportionate impact on women and children, the majority of whom live in developing countries,” it relates. “For those states that have carried a large burden of foreign debt, structural adjustment programmes and measures, though beneficial in the long term, have led to a reduction in social expenditures, thereby adversely affecting women, particularly in Africa and the least developed countries. This is exacerbated when responsibilities for basic social services have shifted from governments to women.”

The next big macro-economic critique from women’s rights advocates focused on trade liberalization. According to the theory, all trade barriers should be removed to allow free movement of goods and services, except people. The argument for free trade is based on the economic theory of comparative advantage: each region should concentrate on what it can produce most cheaply and efficiently and should exchange its products for those it is less able to produce economically. And so the trade liberalization agenda requires states to eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers to imports even from countries with more advantageous economies of scale. In the Caribbean the negotiation and signing of an Economic Partnership Agreement between the European Union and Caribbean countries was accompanied by much discussion around the bargaining asymmetries between well developed, mature economies and small, open, dependent, vulnerable economies.

For many countries the comparative advantage may seem to be poverty and the existence of high levels of unemployment which guarantee depressed labour costs, keeping the costs of commodities low at the point of export, though not at the point of re-entry, as downstream product imports. Even low wages however are not guarantees of comparative advantage where there are dramatic resource and power asymmetries. And here I think of Haiti which even in the 1980s was self-sufficient in rice. With the removal of rice industry protection mechanisms, cheap imported rice flooded the market driving Haitian farmers out of business. Without competition, it was only a matter of time before retail prices rose above the price of the imperilled Haitian rice industry.

Beijing had little to say about trade liberalization, though there seemed to have been an awareness of the need to secure protection from deleterious effects of trade arrangements. It called on governments to ensure that national policies related to international and regional trade agreements do not adversely impact women's new and traditional economic activities.

But by 2005, in the Beijing+10 review, many governments recognized the negative impacts of major global and regional trends, such as globalization and trade liberalization on the situation for women and gender equality. These included “increased poverty, particularly in rural areas, decreased social protection and basic services, increased violence against women, including in situations of armed conflict, decreased participation of women in political decision-making and a digital divide between women and men.” That review also drew attention to rural women, especially in developing countries, who “continued to be disproportionately affected by trade liberalization, commercialization of agriculture and the increasing privatization of resources and services.

Although some studies are showing that the global financial crisis is having differential gender impacts depending on labour market participation and economic structures of countries, I am not sure that I find it compelling to tally up who is more affected. Is it a he-cession or a she-cession?  I want to take as a given that both men and women are harshly affected, especially those already affected by class, poverty and exclusion. But gender analysis does help us with prescriptions for appropriate action.

And so, I would argue that there is a particularity to women’s poverty in many parts of the world that demands attention. What is this particularity? Whether or not countries have a high coincidence of female headed households, as is the case in the Caribbean and growing in other parts of the world, global studies show that on average more of women’s resources and capital are dedicated to familial well-being, less on recreation, less on discretionary spending.

This attention is needed because of the negative multiplier effects of women’s poverty. Where children are women’s responsibility, then women’s poverty is children’s poverty and in this transmission of intergenerational poverty, societies are impoverished and vulnerable to the host of social challenges associated with poverty. It is because of this negative multiplier of women’s poverty that women’s organisations were dismayed by what they saw as the limitations of Millennium Development Goals framework. In the context of poverty, the MDG has taken a narrow approach, whereas, as Beijing shows, addressing poverty must include very specific support to women in addition to changing the culture of reproductive responsibility between women and men.

More plainly, women’s rights advocates have been consistently arguing that poverty has structural dimensions – that an economic system that prioritises economic growth without redistribution of wealth through decent wages, through social protection programmes for example, ends up reproducing inequalities and economic vulnerability. At an individual level, they argue that women’s poverty and household poverty should be addressed through creating economic and productive opportunities as well as ensuring that men make regular, consistent and predictable contributions to the care of children and other dependents, thereby reducing the demands on women’s income and time resources.

Women’s rights activists and economists are demanding a response to macroeconomic trends that exacerbate inequality within and between countries such as unregulated transnational capital flows, debt service payments, inequitable trade patterns and the shrinkage of public resource expenditures on livelihood needs.

So what can government agencies, the national women’s machineries, do in this context? There are policy and programmatic responses. At the micro or individual levels, facilitating women’s access to productive resources; at the meso level they can monitor and advocate for a better realignment of state resources to meet the needs of women and their families. And at a macro level they can use evidence to influence policies which take into account the need to redress inequalities.

In its essence, gender mainstreaming is political as well as technical work. To secure attention, respect and response, a range of skills is required that include sector knowledge, but more so, advocacy, persistence, strategy, partnerships - and most of all the vision for alternative policy models that are more aligned to development and equity.

Our vision must be for a more inclusive macro-economic framework. We must start answering the challenge of participating in the construction of alternative models of economy: models that promote global inter-dependence but do not undermine state capacity for food security, for the meeting of social and economic rights obligations. Models that promote the idea of comparative advantages, where the definition of such advantages do not include the exploitation of labour.  Models where the state is strongly invested in its redistributive role and where the benefits of national resources are equitably available to all.

In November late last year at the United Nations in New York, nine independent experts from different regions of the world and 15 international observers re-examined the Beijing declaration and its role in the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. They concluded that all the Millennium Development Goals could be met if the actions first recommended under Beijing were honoured. I agree. But haven’t we said so already?


(This article is based on the keynote address to the  2010 meeting of the Commonwealth National Women's Machineries in New York)

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