Double whammy for women

Women are bearing the brunt of the economic crisis in Asia. As Boonthan Sakanond writes, the recession is 'redomesticating' the women.

AS the Asian recession rolls on, women are being forced to make the maximum sacrifices whether in the family, the workplace or in school.

Asia's economic slump, now almost a year and a half old, is also pushing more and more women to migrate overseas in search of work and take up employment in the commercial sex industry, say new studies.

Expects warn that without appropriate policies in place, decades of work done to improve the status of Asian women could be rolled back in the space of a few years.

'There is a distinct need for designing macroeconomic policies in Asia that are sensitive to the needs of women and which do not put the main burden of adjustment on this already disadvantaged group,' says a paper by Jayati Ghosh of the Centre of Economic Studies and Planning at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India.

Her paper on women and economic liberalisation in the Asia-Pacific region was part of a discussion at a recent forum in Bangkok on the impact of globalisation on women, organised by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific (ESCAP).

While official figures on rising unemployment in Asia do not look specifically at the impact on women, there is growing evidence that in the industrial sector women in general, and older women in particular, are the first to bear the brunt of job cuts.

In Thailand, for example, where more than 300,000 people have lost jobs in the past year, trade union activists claim that a majority of retrenched employees are women. 'Women are considered easier to dismiss by many employers and so they are more vulnerable in times of crisis like the current one,' says Voravidh Charoenlert, a labour economist and trade union adviser in Bangkok.

Increased female employment

As Ghosh's paper points out, the possibility of easy dismissal was always one of the main reasons why women found employment in large numbers during the boom years of the 1980s and early 1990s.

She points to the widespread perception that female employees are more tractable and subservient to managerial authority, less prone to organise into unions, more willing to accept lower wages, less likely to expect upward job mobility and easier to dismiss using life-cycle criteria like marriage and childbirth.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), figures in Indonesia between 1980 and 1996 show the percentage of women in the labour force jumped from 27.7 to 37.2%.

In Thailand, it went up from 49.5% to 52.2% in the same period. In China, another Asian country which has seen a spurt in export-oriented industries, the number of women in the labour force increased from 48.9 to 55.6% from 1980 to 1996.

While many of the jobs that women held during Asia's boom years were low-skill, low-paid and repetitive work, Ghosh's paper says that despite this, the increase in the number of employed women benefitted them socially and culturally.

Given the strong patriarchal traditions in most of Asia, the ability to earn outside income was an important instrument for the transformation of gender relations, argues Ghosh. However, she says the economic crisis has tended to reverse the positive aspect of this process.

While on one hand, industrial women workers are losing jobs in the informal sector, there has been an influx of more women forced to take up low-paying, menial jobs due to falling household incomes. Worse still, there are worries that the economic crisis is pushing large numbers of women into the commercial sex industry, often in foreign countries.

'Both women and children, particularly the young girls, have become increasingly vulnerable to being tempted or coerced into migrating abroad in search of jobs,' says Dr Saisuree Chutikul, a senator in the Thai Parliament and chairperson of several bodies working against trafficking in children and women.

'Unfortunately many of them will end up in the commercial sex establishments of countries like Japan and Taiwan,' Saisuree points out. Domestic workers, who make up the bulk of Asian migrant women workers, are also facing serious problems due to the economic downturn and subsequent drop in demand for their services.

Arbitrary wage freezes

In Hong Kong for example, Filipino domestic workers have been sujected to arbitrary wage freezes and even dismissals by employers citing the economic crisis as reason.

In the long run, Ghosh points out, the greatest damage to the status of Asia's women may ultimately be due to the structural adjustment programmes sponsored by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has extended more than $100 billion to bail out economies from South Korea to Indonesia.

These 'reform' programmes have forced governments to cut back on social welfare and subsidies, and increased dependence on private sector-controlled market mechanisms.

Ghosh points out that the cuts in state subsidies are likely to affect food security, a critical issue in populous countries like China, India and Indonesia.

The lowering of food consumption due to rising prices will have negative implications for women and girl children, usually the first to be denied a proportional share in times of shortage.

The crisis will also have a serious long-term impact on the education of girls, who are being forced to drop out of school in large numbers and assist in income-supplementing activities at home, Ghosh says.

This is likely to perpetuate and even increase the traditional gap in skill and levels of education between male and female populations in the regions.

In Thailand, for example, between 1980 and 1990 illiteracy rates among girls were cut by half. In the past year following the crisis, the elementary school drop-out rate has tripled and a majority of the drop-outs are girls.

If governments do not specifically tackle problems faced by women, the net result could be a steady erosion in women's status. Says Ghosh: 'There is apprehension that a traditionalist reaction during times of economic crisis could result in the redomestication of women.' (Third World Resurgence No. 100/101, Dec 98/Jan 99)

This article was originally published by the Inter Press Service.