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The Economic Victimization of the World’s Women

I recently returned from the largest meeting ever of people thinking about women’s issues, and I’d like to share with you my view of the key issues raised. The most important overall challenge is the impact of the “globalisation” of the economy on women’s lives. In particular, the imposition of “Structural Adjustment Programmes” by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the adoption of Free Trade Agreements each have a major effect on women worldwide.

The World Bank and the IMF require “Structural Adjustment Programmes” from the governments of countries that owe money to them. “Structural Adjustment Programme” is a euphemism for “cut back on public expenditures.” Requiring such spending cuts from governments that are desperately trying to establish health care, literacy, and clean water programmes has a devastating effect on the peoples of that country. Since women predominately take on the caring role in any community or family, these cutbacks heavily affect women. They undermine a woman’s health or standard of living, as well as the well-being of the people for whom she is caring.

One of the ways that people in many parts of the world are responding to the globalisation of the economy (and the parallel dominance of western [USA] culture) is by defining their identity in a more and more narrow way—for example, by taking on stronger national, regional, religious, and ethnic identities. When this is done defensively it is an entry for conservatism, which appeals to the desire to halt the potential disappearance of a culture or identity. Excellent women leaders made exciting presentations on the rise of conservatism and on strategies to combat it. These presentations challenged us all and subsequently led to some pretty hot exchanges between representatives.

I noticed a difference between many of the speakers on the platform of the large plenary sessions (attended by approximately 1,000 to 1,500 people) and the non-governmental organisation (NGO) representatives presenting some of the smaller workshops (attended by between 15 and 100 people). Most of the plenary speakers understood the need for international solidarity and action to challenge the power of international financial institutions and transnational corporations. Many of the NGO presenters held a limited vision, both of what is possible and of what is necessary to exact irreversible change. Many of the NGOs were working in grassroots projects to establish health education programmes, literacy programmes, etc. Their goals are to empower people to take charge of their lives and their communities. The women and men working on these NGO projects presented exciting examples of changes they have brought to grassroots women’s lives, but transforming society was not on their agenda. This is hardly surprising when the very projects they are involved in are most often funded by foundations set up and controlled by transnational and multinational companies. (It is in the interest of these companies to show a benevolent face to the world and so confuse the picture of the overall role they play.) Since these projects make a significant difference to the everyday lives of people, the NGOs working on them seemed either reluctant to take a public stance that criticised the global power of the paymaster or in fact did hold a limited view of what is possible.

Not all NGOs are confused by this apparent contradiction. In particular, the trade union activists consistently recognised the over-arching power of transnational corporations and saw the need to challenge it. They understood the need for international alliances in order to ensure fundamental change and to hold firm against intimidation or manipulation of one group against another. In particular, they addressed the need to challenge “Free Trade Agreements.” The trade union activists understood that whilst such agreements “provide” jobs in the short term, in the long term they undermine both the working conditions of all workers and the economy of the countries that enter into such contracts. These trade unionists implicitly understood that collectively they held the ultimate power to require change. I was impressed by their personal power, which showed in their determination, intelligence, and courage.

Many of the people leading the NGO workshops appealed to women in “The North” to come to their assistance. There are undoubtedly many things we “Northern” women need to do, not the least of which is to challenge the extensive exploitation of the world’s resources in order to provide a so-called “high living standard.” However, whilst these people called on sisterly solidarity to relieve their plight, it was from a position of powerlessness, seeing others as holding the solution.

A critical issue throughout the NGO forum was the dominance of English as the spoken language. Outside of the large plenaries, where there was simultaneous translation, translation was consistently provided only where there was a non-English speaker on the platform. This left people managing as best they could. A number of people who spoke languages in addition to English worked extremely hard and generously to assist people to understand. (At the No Limits for Women workshops, we provided translations in as many languages as we could, drawing upon all No Limits delegates with a second language to serve as translators.) Nevertheless, there was a distinct reluctance on the part of representatives who knew any English at all to “create a fuss” by requiring translation. It seemed to me that many women for whom English was not their first language struggled to understand and possibly missed a lot of what was said. This led to an interesting dynamic in cases where NGO representatives came to the Forum accompanied by grassroots women with whom they were working. Many of these grassroots women from non-English speaking communities relied on the NGO employee to translate for them. This led to a situation where, for the sake of expediency, the paid NGO worker spoke on their behalf. Thus the paid worker (who was usually of a “higher” class background) was pushed into a middle role of spokesperson and therefore became the filter through which things were understood and the person who defined the terms of the discussion.

The understanding that all issues are women’s issues was clearly asserted during these two parallel events. A major stride was taken in the journey toward women’s liberation and so the elimination of all forms of oppression.

Rosie Brennan
Bristol, England

Last modified: 2020-07-17 20:50:52+00