It's time to put gender justice at the heart of our economies

A new ourEconomy series on gender just economies, with ActionAid, FEMNET, Womankind Worldwide and Fight Inequality Alliance.

Wangari Kinoti
26 September 2019, 1.09pm
Jair Cabrera Torres/Zuma Press/PA Images

This article is part of the 'Advancing gender just economies' series, presented by ourEconomy, ActionAid, FEMNET, Womankind Worldwide and Fight Inequality Alliance.

At a recent roundtable during the conference of the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) held in Glasgow, a group of renowned academics and activists offered varied incisive feminist critiques of a global system characterized by vastly unequal distribution of wealth and power.

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The speakers were unanimous in the view that the dominant neoliberal capitalist global economic model – that promotes free markets, free trade, strong private property rights, deregulated and insecure labour (particularly women’s low paid labour in global supply chains) and sustains structural and systemic violence – not only contributes to, but in fact benefits massively from gender inequalities and the suppression of women’s rights.

Yet, as Inna Michaeli of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development reminded us, people and movements have been resisting this model for decades. It is possible to build strong and ambitious agendas rooted in a collective understanding of what an economy that works for the people and for the environment will look like. As an example, I would say that one of the most valuable additions to current global economic development discourse is the increasing attention to the care economy and women’s unpaid care and domestic work. This is a direct result of decades of hard work by feminist economists, scholars and activists who have pointed out how care work provides huge subsidies to the global economy. They have long decried the unequal and unjust distribution of responsibility between the State and communities on one hand, and men and women on the other.

It is also widely documented how women’s disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work combined with the sexual division of labour and lack of accessible, affordable public services push them into low paid, precarious paid work. As a result of these hard-fought efforts, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by United Nations member states in 2015 call for the recognition and valuing of unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family.

But major concerns remain around States delivering on their global commitments – not least the failure to allocate adequate resources and the tendency to make superficial pledges on paper without any real change. The IMF and World Bank continue to impose austerity measures that have led to the defunding and privitisation of public services. In his most recent report, United Nations Independent Expert on Foreign Debt and Human Rights, Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, focuses on the socio-economic impacts of various austerity measures such as wage bill conditionality, regressive tax reforms, spending cuts, targeting of social protection, privatization of state-owned enterprises and subsidy reduction. Crucially, it reiterates what women’s rights activists have been saying for decades: labour market flexibilization, reductions in the coverage of social protection benefits and services, cuts to public-sector jobs and the privatization of services impact women the hardest.

There are also serious concerns around the instrumentalization of ‘women’s economic empowerment’, which sees gender inequality addressed in economic policy as a means to ‘untap business potential’, increase productivity or drive up profits. This comes at a time of widespread unease over attacks on multilateralism and creeping influence of unaccountable corporations and other elites on global governance through ‘multistakeholderism’.

A large part of the Glasgow conversation focused on the issue of co-optation and reductionism in relation to ‘women’s economic empowerment’. Social economist Naila Kabeer of the London School of Economics and Political Science reiterated that getting more women into paid employment doesn’t help if that employment is underpaid and insecure – gender parity in the workforce may not be a good thing given the nature of that workforce. Radhika Balakrishnan of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University warned that the increasing attention being paid to gender and women’s economic empowerment by International Finance Institutions, other multilateral institutions and transnational corporations may serve to undermine efforts to advance transformative feminist economic alternatives.

Underpinning discussions on economic alternatives that promote rights and equality was the need to centre movement and constituency-building. Development Economist Jayati Ghosh from the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University stressed the need to build political and social momentum – around a set of specific demands – that is unstoppable, so that whoever is in power has to respond and deliver. Dzodzi Tsikata, Professor of African Studies at the University of Ghana, argued against the tendency of economic empowerment initiatives to patronise grassroots women who often do know their rights but also know the real constraints of asserting them.

African Women’s Development and Communication Network’s Crystal Simeoni spoke about the need to link conversations across movements – particularly in linking economic justice for women with efforts to address illicit financial flows and reform global tax systems. Highlighting several upcoming key moments, including the 75th year since the creation of the Bretton Woods Institutions this year, and the Global Women’s Strike set for 2020, Roosje Saalbrink, of Womankind Worldwide, urged for similar cross-movement solidarity as expressed in pushing for the recent adoption of the ILO Convention on Violence and Harassment in the world of work.

The year 2020 also marks the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, which gave us the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This is a key juncture for reflection on what progress has been made, and what remains to be done. Importantly it provides an opportunity to expose the real, structural barriers to economic, political and social equality.

Over the coming weeks, the conversation that took place in Glasgow will continue through this series of blogs here on OpenDemocracy, written by feminist academics and activists bringing different global perspectives aimed at disrupting and challenging narratives and exposing false or inadequate solutions put forward by the mainstream in economic policy making. These blogs will provide in-depth detail on and analysis of the issues raised in Glasgow. At a time when there is growing momentum for economic alternatives, we see this series as contributing to the global effort while fostering solidarity across and among feminist academics, civil society organizations, women’s rights and feminist networks.

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