Asia-Pacific women grapple with financial crisis and globalisation

It is the economically disadvantaged women of the Asia-Pacific region who are bearing the brunt of the financial crisis that is ravaging the region. This fact was confirmed by two recent women's conferences which concluded that the crisis has reinforced the existing gender and class inequalities, with women being the main casualties of the growing unemployment, underemployment and physical dislocation resulting from the crisis. Reporting on these conferences, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz avers that their experience has made it clear to women that it is imperative to unite with other peoples' movements to collectively challenge the forces of globalisation, both at the international and national levels.

THE poor women in whatever part of Asia are the ones who suffer the most from globalisation. The further liberalisation of trade and investments (particularly financial investments) which has led to the present crisis has exacerbated unemployment, underemployment, dislocation from traditional sources of livelihood, increased outmigration to urban areas and overseas, and worsening food insecurity. While jobs have been created for women because of the influx of labour-intensive industries to take advantage of cheap labour, these jobs are also highly insecure. The recent financial crisis has shown how fragile these jobs are.

Testimonies on how globalisation and the crisis have affected women from various Asian countries were presented in two conferences held recently. One was the 'Roundtable Discussion on the Economic, Social, and Political Impacts of the Southeast Asian Financial Crisis' held in Manila from 12-14 April l998. Around 30 women from various Asia-Pacific countries shared their views on the recent financial crisis and the effects on women. This was co-sponsored by The Asia-Pacific Development Centre- Gender and Development Unit (APDC-GAD) and DAWN (Development Alternatives for Women in the New Era).

Another event, the "Rural and Indigenous Women Speak Out on the Impact of Globalisation", was held from 22-25 May l998 in Chiangmai, Thailand. The Asia-Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) and IMPECT (Inter-Mountain Peoples Education and Culture in Thailand Association) co-sponsored this and it was attended by 54 women from the region. This writer took part in both these events.

Unemployment and underemployment of women workers

The crisis has forced many companies to shut down as they can no longer pay back their loans or acquire new loans to buy imported raw materials and machinery. While both men and women workers got laid off, usually, the women are the first ones to go.

In Indonesia, since the financial crisis began, the number of unemployed ( March l998 government data) has risen to 8.7 million, which is 10% of the 90-million-strong workforce. 18.4 million are underemployed, meaning they work less than 35 hours a week.

According to the Thai daily, The Nation (21 May 1998), Thailand has a total workforce of 32 million. At the end of February, there was a total number of 2.8 million unemployed, which was 4.7 % of the workforce. Around 1.3 million are seasonally unemployed. According to this report, the acceptable standard of unemployment set by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is 3%.

The Philippine Overseas Employment Association (POEA) reported in February that the regional crisis threatened 33,096 overseas Filipino workers. At that time, 3,000 Filipinos lost their jobs in South Korea and 2,000 were retrenched and sent home from Malaysia. The number of Filipino migrant workers in Korea is 27,046 and the POEA foresees all these workers being eventually sent home.

The estimated total number of Filipino overseas migrant workers is 7.2 million, of which 55% to 65% are women. More than half of those sent back home are women. In Indonesia, similar stories are told. Thousands of migrant workers from Malaysia have lost their jobs but many of them choose to stay on illegally.

Women workers from Korea informed the Manila Conference that as of end March l998, the number of unemployed workers went up to 1.5 million, raising the unemployment rate to as high as 8%. It is projected that with the advent of new legislation which has relaxed the labour laws to allow employers to lay off workers more easily, the number of unemployed will go up to 3 million. While both women and men are laid off, the women are encouraged to resign first since they have husbands, brothers or fathers to rely on.

Women as buffers

Aside from being fired first, the women are also the ones pressured to help keep the family intact in these times of crisis.The Korean government came up with a national slogan, 'Get Your Husband Energised', calling on women to absorb and buffer the impact of the financial crisis on the men. Newspapers, television shows and soap operas constantly portray the plight of unemployed male workers and male business owners who go bankrupt are desperate and suicidal. The fact that the women are also fired from their jobs is not highlighted and their plight is completely ignored.

Soung Ai-Choi, the Korean participant in the Roundtable, said, 'Women are clinically analysed for their "shopping mania" and are mobilised into national thrift campaigns; wives are instructed on how to catch signs of their devastated husbands' suicidal impulses; and mothers are instructed on how to encourage their children to still do well at school despite the shrinking family economy...' At the same time, women are also urged to look for jobs to meet their family needs. According to a recent government survey, which was validated by the Korea Women Workers Associations United, the rate of women job-seekers is twice as high as that of men.

In South Korea and Thailand, women were called upon to donate or sell their jewelry to help ease the financial crisis. Newspapers showed pictures of women coming out in big numbers donating or selling their jewelry at cheaper prices to the government. Indonesian women with Dharma Wanita (Organisation of Wives of Government Civil Servants) took their cue from their Thai and South Korean counterparts and also came out to contribute their gold and jewelry.

What is ignored in all this is the anguish and suffering that women are made to bear. The societal pressure on them is to be strong for the sake of others – the men and the nation. The family becomes the safety net for the negative impacts brought about by the financial crisis. However, it is still the woman who is made to carry the heavier burden of keeping the family together. The fact that she has lost her job and needs support is apparently not important.

Marginalisation of rural women and increasing food insecurity

Although globalisation resulted in some women gaining employment in the manufacturing sector, the majority of Asian women are still found in the informal economy, rural farming communities, and in subsistence economic activities. The shifts in production patterns due to globalisation, however, have led to the dislocation of women from their traditional sources of livelihood. Land and crop conversion schemes are being pushed to create the shift from subsistence to commercial crop production. Even commercial rice- and corn-growing are discouraged in favour of the production of 'high-value' (or globally competitive) crops like asparagus, bananas, eucalyptus, and cutflowers like orchids and anthuriums.

Fertile agricultural lands, forests and rural communities in general have been transformed into enclaves to attract foreign investors to set up industries, real estate and tourism projects, and mining operations. In the Philippines, these enclaves are called regional industrial centres (RICs) and around 120,000 hectares of agricultural lands are included within such enclaves. One example of this is the CALABARZON area (covering the five Southern Tagalog provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon) which is targeted to become an industrial enclave. Many peasant women and their families were displaced from their agricultural activities and became domestic helpers in the town centres, and service workers in restaurants and entertainment establishments like beer houses nightclubs and karaoke bars (often as fronts for prostitution). They also work on the side as caddies for the golf courses.

Participants from South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Nepal, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Cambodia presented similar pictures. Yoon Geum-Soon, the secretary-general of the Korea Women Farmers' Association, painted a grim picture of the situation of farmers after the crisis. She said that the Korean government, after adopting the economic strategy of export-led industrialisation, also shifted its support to large-scale commercial agriculture. Loans were provided to a few rich farmers and dependence on foreign capital developed. Heavy investments were poured in glass green-houses and live-stock facilities which were inappropriate for Korean conditions.

With the concentration of large-scale agriculture in the hands of rich farmers, government support has diminished for small-scale farmers, the majority of whom are women. Many of them have been reduced to the status of farm workers, and even then, they do not enjoy any rights as such. Since what they earn as farm workers is not enough, they work at other jobs in the service sector, like in restaurants, and even in the construction industry.

The crisis has led to the bankruptcy of many small farmers and even some rich ones. The government's austerity policy has meant the cutting down of investments or subsidies and the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation has compelled farmers to pay their debts. The decline in the demand for agricultural products because of recession, the increase in prices of farm equipment and farm inputs, and the inability to repay debts, have resulted in many farming families going into bankruptcy. Even big farming-industrial complexes have closed down, which means the laying off of female farm workers.

Sumika Perera, a peasant woman from Sri Lanka, shared the effects of International Monetary Fund-World Bank (IMF-WB) conditionalities on rural agriculture. She said that all Governments since Independence up to l977 have been supportive of small-farming agriculture. Subsidies, liberal credit, free irrigation and extension services, and the provision of land to the landless peasants were some of the support given. However, when Sri Lanka came under IMF and WB policies, most of these support systems were removed. The rupee was devaluated from Rs.8 in l977 to Rs.60 to US$1 in l998. Rural poverty increased from 13% in l965 to 46% in l988 (IFAD Study on State of Rural Poverty, l992). A 1996 World Bank proposal on Rural Agriculture states that 1.8 million small-farmer families should be moved out of the land they are tilling.

The outmigration of rural women to the urban areas and abroad has increased significantly as a result of the breakdown of rural agriculture and cottage industries such as handloom textile weaving. Several hundred thousands of women went to work in the Free Trade Zones which were set up in l978 and to work as housemaids in the Middle East. The overseas migrant workers now rank as the main foreign-exchange earners.

Sumika says, 'What was attempted since l977 was to attract large-scale foreign investments into Sri Lanka by offering them land, labour, and all other resources and infrastructure at cheap and attractive rates. Thus, in the name of rapid growth and development, whatever remained from an independent economy that people of Sri Lanka built and protected for thousands of years, and a way of life that they have evolved over these centuries, began to be destroyed.'

Thailand's policy of promoting export of agricultural products to the world market has led to massive deforestation. The northeastern region of Isaan has been converted from a self-sufficient economy based on agro-forestry to a plantation economy of eucalyptus, corn, tapioca, cotton and other export crops. Many farmers got heavily indebted and, as a result, resorted to selling their daughters to brothels. The age of girls being sold is becoming younger because of the AIDS epidemic. Men are demanding young girls who are still not infected with HIV.

The net result of these land and crop conversion schemes which are taking place in almost all the Asian countries, is worsening food insecurity. The participants to the two conferences cited how staple food crops are now becoming scarce and how families are forced to buy these in the markets at prohibitive prices. The recent financial crisis has led to inflation and food prices have gone up by 200% to 300%.

In some cases, like Indonesia, the supply of food has even dwindled so even if people have the money, they cannot buy anything. According to the Indonesian participant in the Roundtable, there is a temporary scarcity of SEMBAKO (an acronym of 'Sembilan Bahan Pokok' which refers to the nine basic foods needed for living). The picture of people rioting because there is no more food in the supermarkets says it all.

Indigenous and hilltribe women participants from Burma, the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Thailand and Japan talked about how globalisation has changed the lives of women in many of their communities. This writer, who is the convenor of the Asian Indigenous Women's Network (AIWN), presented an overall picture of the impact of globalisation on indigenous women. Much of what has been said was confirmed by the other indigenous women participants. While each country had particularities, in the main, the experiences of indigenous women were very similar.

Rights to ancestral territories and resources undermined

The rights of indigenous women to their ancestral territories and resources have been seriously undermined because of the liberalisation and privatisation thrusts of most governments. Subsistence economies which have been developed and nurtured by indigenous women for centuries have been eroded because globalisation supports the development of economies of scale. This means large-scale mechanised farms which use agri-chemicals intensively to produce crops at less cost and greater profit. This also means large-scale commercial mining operations which exploit the rich mineral lands found in many indigenous peoples' territories.

Although ostensibly designed to protect indigenous peoples' rights, the Indigenous Peoples' Rights Act (IPRA) l997 in the Philippines has rendered meaningless because of the existence of previous laws passed in compliance with WB and World Trade Organisation (WTO) prescriptions. One of this is the Mining Act of l995 which liberalised the entry of foreign mining investments and corporations into the country. Twelve million hectares of land (which is 40% of the total land area of the country) are covered by applications for mining operations. More than half of these lands are found in indigenous peoples' territories. The IPRA provides that ancestral lands can still be exploited for mineral resources if national interests so dictate and with the prior informed consent of the indigenous peoples. Who will define national interests and how prior informed consent will be obtained remain problems.

The Philippine government has come up with a law, Republic Act 7900 (High Value Crops Development Act of l995), which provides incentives to agri-business corporations to shift to export-crop production. Tax holidays, infrastructure support and bank loans are some of the incentives offered. Big corporations like San Miguel Corporation, Nestle-Philippines, Guthrie,Janoub-Malaysia, took advantage of this law and intensified their production of so-called 'export winners' or high-value crops (HVC) such as oil palm, mango pineapple. Other high-value crops which are encouraged are cutflowers, broccoli, asparagus, pears, strawberries, peas and cauliflowers. Vast tracts of land devoted to staple-crop production were converted for export-crop production. Furthermore, land and production capacity got more concentrated in the hands of a few landowners or corporations.

Since the capitalisation involved in this kind of agricultural production is unaffordable to most indigenous peoples and since they cannot avail themselves of big loans from the banks, indigenous farmers often enter into contract-growing arrangements with big corporations. In Mindanao, Dole Philippines, Inc. has entered into contract-growing arrangements with local farmers to grow pineapples. In the Cordillera, McDonald's has also made a similar deal for potato-growing with indigenous farmers. In the first case, the farmers suffered losses because of natural calamities and ended up leasing or selling back their lands to Dole. In the second case, import liberalisation of agricultural products allowed the entry of cheaper machine-sliced fried potatoes from the United States which are half the price of the local potatoes. This led to a loss of livelihood for around 50,000 indigenous farmers.

The Seed Industry Development Act, which prevented the importation of seeds produced locally, was also repealed and licence was given to foreign seed corporations to secure control of the production of seeds. Contract-growing arrangements are not only limited to food crops but extend also to seed production. This enabled Cargill-Ayala and Pioneer-San Miguel to have significant control over rice and corn-seed production.

The indigenous peoples in Malaysia are also undergoing similar experiences. The State Government of Sarawak has amended the Land Code and Forest Ordinance of Sarawak many times over to suit the economic programme of the government. Areas which are already demarcated under the Native Customary Rights (NCR) ancestral domain are being gazetted and reclassified as State Lands. Then these are re-allocated to become development areas for large-scale commercial logging, tree plantations and agricultural plantations.

This has led to many conflicts between the plantation owners and the indigenous peoples. One of the many examples is what happened in Bakong. Late last year, the Iban longhouse villagers in Bakong resisted the attempts of the oil-palm plantation companies to bulldoze their lands. In the process, three villagers and eight policemen were injured. One villager later died at the Miri General Hospital. The attempts of the headman to file a case against the company and the State Government to stop their activities caused him to be arrested instead.

In Thailand, the hilltribe women are going through harrowing experiences because of the development thrusts of the government. We had a chance to visit the village of Pang Daeng to talk with the women whose husbands, sons and brothers, 56 in all, were arrested on 26 March by the police and forestry officers. They were charged with encroaching on government land and national forest reserve, and with burning the forests. They were still detained up to the time of our visit, 25 May l998. The ones arrested belong to the Palong, Lahu and Lisu hilltribe.

The women left behind could hardly make ends meet because they were not able to plant rice after the arrests. They could not visit their men as often as they would have liked to because they are not considered Thai citizens and therefore their mobility was very constrained. Besides, they do not have the cash to travel to the detention centres. The majority of the hilltribe peoples in Thailand are not given citizenship even if they have been living there for generations.

The areas inhabited by these hilltribe peoples are targeted for eco-tourism, commercial tree plantations, and mining and quarrying operations. According to some academics from the Chiangmai University who are supporting the hilltribe peoples, this incident was part of the process of opening up the remaining resource-rich lands to further exploitation. After the crisis, the trend was to intensify the exploitation of primary resources to generate more revenues for the government and the private sector.

Sex trafficking and militarisation

Sex trafficking is taking place among the indigenous and hilltribe women of Burma, Thailand and Nepal. The Karen Women's Organisation (KWO) has documented the use of women as porters and sex-slaves by the military men of the State and Peace and Development Council (SPDC) of Burma. Because of the ongoing civil war, hundreds of thousands of so-called ethnic minorities in Burma have been dislocated into refugee camps at the borders of Thailand and Burma. These are actually indigenous peoples whose basic rights have been trampled upon by the Burmese government in collusion with foreign governments and corporations. Those who are not able to make it to the refugee camps are internally displaced, shifting from one place to another, to escape the Burmese military men.

The Burmese economy was closed to foreign investments from l962 to 1988. In l989, however, it opened up and foreign investors were invited to come and exploit the country's vast oil and natural resources. Yadana, which is reputed to be the single largest natural-gas field in South-East Asia, has become the subject of negotiations between the Burmese government, Thailand and the French and American oil giants, Total and UNOCAL. The construction of a pipe-line from Yadana to Rangoon to bring in this gas has resulted in massive human rights violations against the indigenous peoples. Forced labour, including sexual services, is imposed on indigenous women to build the infrastructure needed to support the economic projects, like the Yadana gas line.

Forced relocations have pushed women to enter the commercial sex industry. The KWO said that at present, around 40,000 indigenous women from Burma are working as prostitutes in Chiangmai, Chiangrai, Maesot and Ranong, in Thailand. The incidence of HIV infections among these women is very high.

Other indigenous peoples in Burma who are subjected to the same conditions are the Karenni, Shans, Mons, and the Chins. The Karenni Women's Organisation and the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) have similarly documented the extent of human rights violations against these peoples. According to the SHRF, the assault of the Burmese military against the indigenous peoples is to give the SPDC full control to develop infrastructures projects in the so-called Golden Economic Quadrangle which includes Burma, Thailand, China and Laos.

The SHRF report says, 'Over the last two years, the SPDC has relocated over 1,400 villages in an area of 7,000 square miles in Central Shan State. Over 300,000 people have been uprooted from their homes and ordered at gunpoint into strategic relocation sites, where nothing is provided for them... Vast rural areas of 12 townships have now been completely depopulated. The heritage of these long-standing, prosperous communities has been destroyed, and the once fertile valleys of Central Shan State are now lying barren.' The women bear the brunt of the burdens because many men have left the refugee camps to join the armed resistance or just to flee the military atrocities directed at them.

Militarisation is the usual government response to peoples' resistance against incursions into their ancestral territories. In the Philippines, several indigenous peoples' communities are beefing up their resistance against the entry of mining companies. The government has already deployed military men in areas which they have identified as critical areas because of these kinds of resistance. Last year, three Mangyan (indigenous peoples in Mindoro) activists were arrested when they went home after attending a national conference on the issue of mining. It is anticipated that militarisation will further increase in many indigenous peoples' communities in the Asia-Pacific region because of the increasing resistance against globalisation.


The perspectives and experiences shared by Asia-Pacific women in the two events mentioned earlier have strengthened the view that globali-sation has had many negative impacts on the women, especially those who come from the poorer classes.

From the cases presented, it is clear that globalisation has reinforced the existing inequalities based on class, gender, race and ethnicity. The disparity between rich and poor nations and between the rich and poor within nations has worsened. Food security, which is essential for any nation's survival and stability, is traded away. Export-crop production has taken precedence over domestic food crops and has led to the erosion of sustainable economic systems developed and nurtured by indigenous women.

The increasing dependence on foreign capital and foreign technology, and the growing dominance of the Western consumerist culture and lifestyle have trapped many countries in an economic bind. Adherence to WTO rules, even at the expense of the welfare of the majority of the citizens in the country, has proven to be disastrous. The changes in legislation and government policies to allow the free entry of foreign corporations, to give more incentives to big businesses rather than to small firms, and to lift import controls on agricultural products produced locally have meant the further marginalisation of rural and indigenous women.

Traditional sources of livelihood, whether in agriculture or in the subsistence economy, are destroyed to give way to large-scale commercial agricultural production. This has likewise destroyed existing viable economic systems which are mainly run by indigenous women. Women end up as farm workers, contractual workers in Export Processing Zones, domestic helpers, entertainers (mainly overseas) and as urban poor and prostitutes in the cities.

The austerity and privatisation schemes carried out by governments have made access to resources for human reproduction more difficult. The cutting back of budgets for health, social welfare and services, education, etc., has further increased the burdens of the women. The removal of subsidies for staple-crop production has made the prices of staple food more expensive.

Food security has been compromised because of the logic of global competitiveness and comparative advantage. This has allowed the entry of cheap imported food from the Northern countries, like wheat, corn and even rice, which has to be paid for in foreign currency. The local production of these crops has suffered, and farm workers and peasants involved in this economic activity have been displaced. The subsidies which were offered to farmers to maintain stable prices for their produce have been withdrawn. Consumers have suffered because although the prices of these products went down, during the financial crisis they inevitably went up because the foreign exchange rate went up by as much as 100% to 200 %. The state has surrendered its right to regulate prices of basic commodities because of its commitments to the WTO agreements or to the WB and the IMF.

The reduction of the role of the state to just being the provider of physical and social infrastructure and legal frameworks favourable to transnational corporations, foreign investments, and the WB, IMF and WTO requirements should be questioned. The least that women expect from the state is for it to come up with policies, programmes and laws which will give priority to the needs of its citizens over and above those of foreign entities like transnational corporations. The challenge for the states and the citizens is to come up with a strategy on how to get out of the crisis in which many of our countries are trapped.

Many lessons can be learned from this financial crisis. The roles played by the international institutions such as the IMF, WB and the WTO in this whole crisis should be exposed and made transparent. The governments should also be made accountable for what they did (and did not do) to contribute to the crisis.

The extreme mobility of capital, which remains unregulated and which characterises the present face of globalisation, should be the subject of more discussions and negotiations at the international, regional and national levels. The operations of transnational corporations, likewise, should not be left unregulated. They should be made accountable in terms of their practices in resource exploitation, production, marketing and labour relations.

The women's organisations and movements should exert more effort to increase their level of awareness on globalisation, which includes understanding the roles played by each of the major actors behind it. This means understanding the WTO, the WB and the IMF, the roles played by the northern countries and the dynamics between the South and the North. The particularities of how the forces of globalisation are operating on the country level should also be understood.

Finally, the women's movements should be able to join forces with other people's movements to collectively challenge the forces of globalisation at both the international and the national levels. The need to address the issue of inequities between nations, classes, genders, ethnicities, and races (all of which have been exacerbated by globali-sation) can provide the overall framework to guide the alliances between the various movements for transformation. (Third World Resurgence No. 94, June 1998)

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz is the Director of Tebtebba Foundation (Indigenous Peoples' International Center for Policy Research and Education).