Women and the global economy

Patricia Daniel
17 July 2008

In her second report from Women's Worlds 2008, Patricia Daniel explores women and the global economy: New Zealander Marilyn Waring argues feminists must develop a new economic paradigm, and Sonía Parella Rubio examines a global care crisis.

Another wonderful speaker, New Zealander Marilyn Waring renowned academic, formerly the youngest member of the NZ parliament, anti-nuclear campaigner and currently gender advisor to the Solomon Islands, updated for us her seminal work from 1988: Counting for nothing - what men value and what women are worth.

We benefited from a quick lesson on the United Nations System of National Accounts (UNSNA) the set of rules introduced in 1953 to provide a comprehensive framework for economic analysis and which govern the annual assessment of a country's gross domestic product (GDP). Marilyn's research uncovered the fact that no country seems to have a full set of these rules. Indeed she seems to be the only person who has actually read them. The UNSNA defines "the boundary of production" which makes the crucial distinction between two types of activities and thereby renders "economic analysis" meaningless:

a) goods and services for sale or barter outside the home - which is productive work and so included as part of the national accounts

b) work that is carried out for the benefit of one's own family: fetching water, cooking, childcare, care of the elderly, cleaning and so on - in other words, "women's work" - which is defined as non-productive (or reproductive) and so doesn't count

Marilyn used the example of a 24/7 carer - who, in developing countries, may be a 5- year old daughter looking after a family member with HIV/AIDS - to highlight a form of 19th century servitude in the new millennium, where a carer is still not classed as a worker with labour rights such as health and safety; continuing education; the capacity for engagement in political and community life.

Last year Patricia Daniel led the collaborative 50.50 project "Women speak to the G8" which analysed the main issues of concern from women about the world - violence, macro-economics and climate change - which are still relevant to this month's G8 summit in Japan. The 2007 women's open summit blog is permanently accessible here. Conversely, she informed us, Greece last year was able to put its GDP assessment up by 25% by the simple expedient of including income earned through prostitution and money-laundering, counted under the 1993 UNSNA amendments as productive services - or under what Marilyn calls the "corrupt pathology that the measurement of growth is now taken as a description of a nation's well-being".

Also contributing to this session, Carmen Sarasúa from Spain argued that the impoverishment of women globally was not being addressed with a seriousness that it would be under a feminist agenda. The so-called feminisation of poverty is a result of discrimination and, in a vicious circle, results in further discrimination (for example, childhood abuse, early motherhood, lack of health care and education, limited options and ignorance of basic rights). Carmen's solution was a reintroduction of social expenditure policies - and for the feminist agenda to focus on the economy.

Finally, Lourdes Benería from the US gave evidence of an increase in absolute and relative inequality within and between countries under the global economic system. The market model is not sustainable and particularly impacts on women's work (for example the ‘maquilisation' of production with women counting up to 70% of employees in free trade zones in Kenya, Guatemala, South Korea). Lourdes argued that a redistribution of assets is necessary while encouraging us, in a paraphrase of the World Social Forum's slogan, to believe "another economy is possible".

An alternative paradigm (discussed by women at the World Social Forum in Nairobi 2007) is that of the ‘gift economy'. The Madrid congress saw the launch of a new book on this topic: Women and the Gift Economy. A radically different worldview is possible - available free online here.

Read more by Marilyn Waring

The global care crisis

According to 2005 statistics, 95.2 million migrants worldwide are women. Spain is the main receiving country in Europe with an estimated 10% of its population as immigrants (male and female) - although some researchers argue the percentage is higher because births to migrant women are not always recorded. Women from both Africa and Latin America come to Spain to work because poverty is so severe in their own country "migration is the only solution," according to Sonía Parella Rubio of the University of Barcelona who has been studying the changes brought about in Spain by this growing phenomenon.

Migrant women take up work as domestic servants, carrying out those tasks in the "reproductive" or family domain - that is, cleaning, childcare, care of the elderly, which are not deemed "productive" and traditionally unpaid. In this way, family well-being has been transformed into a labour market with migrant women filling the service gap or the so-called "care crisis" in developed countries (especially the "care sandwich" - looking after young children and elderly parents at the same time) so that middle class women can develop their own economic and professional opportunities.

However, this can barely be said to be an acknowledgement of the importance of "women's activities" at home (see Marilyn Waring). This work is invisible, unregulated, insecure, poorly paid; migrant women domestic workers are isolated, unaware of their rights, exploited, abused and victims of violence. (An article in the Spanish newspaper ABC of 4th July 2008 entitled "Violence without nationality" highlighted the fact that one-third of all reported cases of gender-related abuse in Spain were attacks against migrant women).

More on the global economy: an estimated $232,000 million was sent home by migrants worldwide in 2005. Although female migrants earn less, they tend to send home more money, and in a more systematic way, than male migrants. Thus, as well as taking care of children and families in the host country, women migrants are contributing to the economy of their country of origin, where their money is spent on their own children's education and healthcare as well as new housing. Their perceived role at home has therefore been transformed into that of primary earner.

However, in the process, they "lose" their own children who are brought up at home by grandmother or another family member. At the same time, Sonía argues, as women in developed countries, "we haven't resolved our own family problems either."

This symbiotic relationship between "transnational mothers" and the "care crisis" in the host country exists within the dysfunctional patriarchal structure, negatively affecting the emotional health and quality of life of both women and children. Who can predict what will be the future impact of this escalating global tendency?

Click here for the first report of Women's Worlds by Patricia Daniels

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