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Taking on Tesco: women and economy in a globalised world

Grace Davies
12 February 2008

Internationally lauded microcredit schemes, avid consumption of "throwaway" cheap fashions, $2 shampoos, and a minority of 'high-powered' women business executives. These all formed part of an energetic discussion on women's economic empowerment chaired by the IDS pathways of women's empowerment RPC yesterday, a theme also due to be addressed as part of the UN Commission on the Status of Women kicking off at the end of this month.

Amongst the group of women experts gathered by IDS, the clearest tensions came between an individualistic need (for control over own income and expenditure) and the goal of a collective, structural framework of empowerment. As Takyiwaa Manuh explained, in Ghana the microcredit model is attractive and indeed vital for poverty-stricken women in asserting control over their lives, yet there is an accompanying danger that the institution itself fosters a belief that such a scheme is "all you need". Effectively, "problem solved".

This is of course not the case, as Santi Rozario has written elsewhere on openDemocracy, and discussion of cultural, political, emotional, social and bodily empowerment peppered the talks. Gender equality and justice can never be achieved in just one sphere of life. However, a focus on economic issues does allow room for exploring the complexities of working for gender equality in a globalised world.

Tensions between the formal and growing informal economies, international corporates and State powers, and a rapidly changing economic context along these lines highlight the global challenge.

The extent of private sector interest and investment in gender-specific issues worldwide is part of this transformation. We learned of innovations such as Unilever's recruitment of networks of women traders in Africa and Asia. (They also established the frankly hideous iVillage network in 2000). Wal-Mart too faced a sex-discrimination lawsuit in America back in 2004, and has since learnt its lesson. Bluntly, women are big money as both producers and consumers, and they are no longer ignored.

As a consequence of this interweaving, the current global credit crunch will have a huge effect over the coming years on the millions of women employed - directly or indirectly - by corporate powers. The global operations of these corporations are simultaneously dis/empowering for women. The challenge is to find the "points of leverage" to enact change - such as ActionAid's support of a South African woman farm-worker in 2006 to buy a single share in Tesco in order to attend the AGM and present her case on unfair pay and conditions.

Sarojini Thakur reminded us of the need not to write off State responsibility completely - the transient nature of markets, and the capitalist objectives of the corporates leaves no room for the kind of social protections essential for the emancipation of women worldwide. Furthermore, the support of fragile states to engage with both corporate powers and more dominant states, is key. Other neglected issues included the role of migrant workers - over 50% of whom are now women - and the importance of land and property rights and the care economy.

The targeting of women as both consumers and producers - demonstrated most strikingly in the "cheap fashion" industry - by corporate powers underlines the need for women's rights activists and campaigners to act now or risk being left behind.

Such a transformation must offer windows of opportunity for campaigners to advance women's rights and opportunities, the challenge, listening to the ideas yesterday, is in realising those opportunities and acting now.

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