Globalisation heightening gender inequalities

by Mithre J Sandrasagra

New York, 10 Oct 2000 (IPS) - Third World delegates are expressing fears that globalisation is leading to increased inequalities between men and women.

“Despite new initiatives and commitments, the sad reality is that the situation of the world’s women is progressively deteriorating due to globalisation,” Ramachandra Reddy of India told a meeting of the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee of the General Assembly this week.

A number of speakers at the ongoing consultations of the General Assembly have drawn attention to the link between development and the rights of women.

Reddy pointed out that “societies with the greatest gender equality had grown the fastest, and it must be recognised that gender equality is critical to the development process”.

“The link between gender equality and development means that marginalisation of women must be stopped, along with the continued feminisation of poverty,” Reddy added.

Globalisation, a process whereby owners of capital are enabled to move their capital around the globe more quickly and easily, has resulted in the removal of state controls on trade and investment, the disappearance of tariff barriers and the spread of new information and communications technologies.

Andres Franco of Colombia, speaking on behalf of the Rio Group of Latin American and Caribbean nations, said “the opportunities created by the process of globalisation have opened clear avenues for development, but in some cases its benefits have not been equitably distributed, thereby impeding efforts to promote the advancement of women, particularly those living in poverty.”

Reda Bebars of Egypt, stressing that the advancement of women would not be achieved by passing legislation, said that social development on the national scale must be strengthened and a climate conducive to development must be created if the goals set in Beijing [at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women] are to be realised.

Problems of inclusion stem from the fact that women are very differently positioned in relation to the markets in different parts of the world. In certain places, where women are socially excluded from leaving their homes, the challenge is to find ways for women to participate. In other places, the challenge is to create markets which are more friendly to women’s participation.

Ilham Ibrahim Mohamed Ahmed of Sudan condemned the debt burden carried by developing countries, economic sanctions, arbitrary measures and denial of access to new technological developments as obstacles to the growth of women’s rights.

Women remain very much in the minority among Internet users and still face huge imbalances in the ownership, control and regulation of new information technologies.

“The gains of globalisation have not been equitably distributed and the gap between rich and poor countries is widening,” said Zhang Lei of the People’s Republic of China.

The gains of globalisation thus far have for the most part been concentrated in the hands of better-off women with higher levels of education and with greater ownership of resources and access to capital.

“Work in China and Vietnam shows that globalisation has brought new opportunities to young women with familiarity with English in new service sector jobs, but has made a vast number of over-35-year-olds redundant, because they are either in declining industries or have outdated skills,” Swasti Mitter of the UN’s Women Watch Online Working Group on Women’s Economic Inequality said.

Lei emphasised that most of the world’s poor were women and that poverty had become a major impediment to their development.

International commitments such as the Beijing Platform for Action and the Copenhagen Programme of Action addressed some of the problems of globalisation.  However, it was pointed out that solutions proposed for women in these documents were largely microeconomic, with particular focus on enabling poor women to obtain access to credit, presumably to begin small businesses.

But many drawbacks have been identified to the use of microcredit as an enabling tool. One study in Bangladesh found that among female borrowers, a majority reported an increase in verbal and physical aggression from male relatives after taking out loans.

Other studies in Bangladesh have drawn attention to the fact that women run the risk of losing control of the loans to male relatives because they are culturally excluded from participating in markets outside their homes to buy inputs and sell outputs, according to the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

According to UNIFEM’s latest biennial report, over the past two decades the process of globalisation has contributed to widening inequality within and among countries, and has been punctuated by economic and social collapse in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and countries in transition (in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union) and by financial crises in Asia and Latin America.

“If a wider range of people are to gain, globalisation must be reshaped so that it is more people-centred instead of profit-centred and more accountable to women,” the UNIFEM report stresses.

“Growth cannot be assumed to automatically ‘trickle down’ to the poor. It can in fact trickle up to create greater inequalities,” Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Director of UNIFEM, emphasised.

In January 2000, a total of 116 UN members had submitted national action plans to fulfil government commitments to the Beijing Platform for Action. The majority focused on education and training, women in power and decision-making, women and health, and violence against women. However, few plans established comprehensive, time-bound targets for monitoring such progress, and most made no reference to sources of financing for the actions agreed.

“Indicators show that 13 countries - of which Albania, Burundi, Iraq, Liberia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Somalia and Tanzania are a few - are in the same shape or worse off today than they were in 1990, and for almost 40 countries the data is insufficient to say anything, which probably reflects an even worse situation for women,” according to Social Watch, an NGO watchdog system aimed at monitoring the commitments made by governments at the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen and the Beijing World Conference on Women.

“Legislation existing on paper is only one side of the story, since rights must be put into practice - millions of women still face a daily struggle for their human dignity,” Eva Latham of the Netherlands lamented.