Governments didn't deal with roots of poverty

A major weakness of the UN Women's Conference was the refusal of governments to take on the structural roots of poverty affecting women. The absence of government commitment to change damaging global economic policies was criticised by NGOs.

WOMEN gathered in an NGO Economic Justice Caucus in Beijing strongly criticised governments for refusing to address the structural causes of women's poverty and marginalisation in the official Women's Conference.

The Caucus noted that every regional NGO meeting leading to Beijing, as well as scores of panels and workshops held at the NGO Women's Forum in Huairou, identified globalisation and structural adjustment policies (SAPs) as a major threat to women's well-being and economic rights. NGOs presented evidence on the failure of the current economic model which underlies international policy and which assumes that the market is the best means of distributing resources, including social services.

According to Helen Hill of Australia, 'by empowering multinational capital vis-a-vis the state and the worker, globalisation not only weakens the ability of governments to provide health, education, and other public services to their citizens, but it also weakens citizens' voices in economic decision-making.'

'Governments gathered in Beijing have refused to address a major cause of women's weakening economic status, while claiming to support women's economic empowerment. The US and the European Union are leading the pack by refusing to allow language and analysis in the Platform for Action that links their economic policies to poverty,' said Lisa McGowan of The Development GAP, a public-policy organisation in Washington DC that tracks economic issues.

According to the caucus, the sections of the Platform dealing with poverty, women's economic empowerment, and women and economic decision-making fail to provide long-term solutions to poverty and economic inequalities. This is very serious, given that the Platform is designed to serve as a blueprint for the coming decade. As it stands, the Platform is contradictory, lacks a coherent economic analysis, and therefore runs the danger of being reduced to nothing more than rhetoric. Women attending the Beijing meetings reported similar impacts of SAPs and other economic liberalisation policies.

A different story

In Africa, contrary to World Bank claims that SAPs would generate economic growth, promote investment, create jobs, and alleviate poverty, women's experience tells a different story. Economic policies such as high interest rates, trade liberalisation, devaluation, and the full removal of subsidies on inputs have undermined food production and local industries. For example, in Senegal, women were encouraged to invest in tomato production for sale to a local processing plant.

Massive devaluation of the CFA, coupled with increased input prices and the sudden importation of cheap tomato paste from Italy wiped out the market for locally produced tomatoes, leaving women worse off than they were before.

According to Dzodzi Tsikata of Third World Network Africa Secretariat in Ghana, economic growth, even where it has been achieved, has depended on women's unpaid and low-paid labour, including that of migrant workers, such that women are actually providing a subsidy to their economies. Moreover, the modest economic growth in a few countries does not justify the extreme and long-term hardship SAPs impose.

Women from both the North and the South expressed similar views. In Asia, Rukmini Rao from India reported that massive conversion of prime agricultural lands into export-processing zones has decreased women's food production, displaced women farmers, and destroyed the environment. Rural women have been forced to undertake multiple piece-rate jobs, domestic services, and other informal sector activities. This means longer hours for women, very poor working conditions with no worker rights and extremely low pay, without even the security of being able to produce food for household consumption. In Latin America, widespread retrenchments, coupled with a decrease of both men's and women's wages and increase in women's unemployment, has forced women into the informal sector, also making their work status more precarious.

Women from East and West Europe said that reductions in social services, increasing unemployment, and decreased worker benefits have increased women's responsibilities in their homes and communities, while decreasing their access to resources.

In the US and Canada, women reported similar experiences arising from trade agreements such as NAFTA, decreasing real wages, and a labour market increasingly dominated by temporary work. Women in all countries reported a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

National priorities

The Economic Justice Caucus rejected the claim by governments that there is no alternative to current economic policies. Women are calling for alternative trade practices based on fair exchange, social and economic investment policies that increases women's control over and access to resources, tax and investment policies that bring about an equitable distribution of resources, gender analysis as a basis of economic policy, and national accounting systems that count women's paid and unpaid work.

The Caucus also rejected the claim that resources are too scarce to increase social investment and bring about a transformation to a more equitable economic system. It is a question of redirecting national priorities. The Caucus is calling for multilateral debt relief for the poorest countries to free up funds for social investment, and a shift from military to social spending.

One thing is clear from the Beijing meetings: women around the world are mobilising to influence economic structures, invited or not, and will hold their governments and the international financial and trade institutions accountable to the needs and priorities of women.

Ten years ago in Nairobi, violence against women was barely mentioned in the Forward Looking Strategies, despite the fact that women had identified it as a key issue.

Ten years later, there is a UN Declaration condemning violence against women. Women are leading the way to an equitable and sustainable economic order, and will not rest until their call for profound change in the economic system is met. (Third World Resurgence No. 61/62, Sept/Oct 1995)