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Economic Globalization and the Free Market

A Gender Perspective

by Dr. Agnes Abuom

“Something is wrong when 1.2 million people live on less than a dollar a day and 2.8 billion still live on less than 2 dollars a day. With all the forces making the world smaller, it is time to change our way of thinking... Growth is not enough. We must confront deep rooted inequalities.”
– James D. Wolfensohn, 9th President of the World Bank

No! Free Trade Agreement
(Photo courtesy: KoA)

Women are, of course, a large and diverse group, and the impact of globalization on women is complex and often contradictory. While a recent study by economists at the International Center for Research on Women concludes that “women have generally benefited from improvements in the world economy, “the experts in another Symposium describe “the overall negative effects of globalization on women.” Everyone agrees, however, that “forces shaping global integration affect women differently.” For many women globalization has been a mixed blessing, and for some it has been a disaster.

Free flow of capital and free trade

Since the 1960s the term globalization has been used to describe technological processes and advances that have made our world seem smaller. In terms of economics, an aspect of this process (economic globalization) greatly refers to the inexorable integration of markets, nation—states, and technologies to a degree never witnessed before—in a way that is enabling individuals, corporations and nation-states to reach around the world farther, faster, deeper and cheaper than ever before.

The predominant ideology steering economic globalization, macroeconomic policy and political decision-making in much of the world is referred to as “neoliberalism.”

Neoliberalism has in recent decades become widespread. The ideological origins of these neoliberal economic policies can be traced to the free-market (free-trade ethos of the 18th century economist, Adam Smith. In this book titled The Wealth of Nations (1776; 1937) Smith states that individuals naturally want to improve their lot in life by employing their capital so that its produce may be of highest value. Yet, the individual’s intention is not being the promotion of the society’s interest, but is rather purely focused on personal security and self gain. Experience however shows that individual-endeavors aimed at achieving personal gains often lead to the promotion of public interest.

Never ending progress

At the heart of clashing perspectives and claims concerning “globalization” lie clashing horizons of hope. At one pole is the horizon of endless progress in virtually every dimension of existence. Global economic growth is fuelling the development of entrepreneurial spirit, new technologies, greater efficiencies, vast new wealth, and growing prosperity in which all can participate.

In all of this, some prominent commentators proclaim, we are witnessing nothing less than the birth of a new neo-biological civilization. The realm of the born—all that is nature—and the realm of the made—all that is humanly constructed—are becoming one. Machines are becoming biological and the biological is becoming engineered.” Of course, old forms of bature—including human nature—are doomed. But this is “the dilemma all gods must accept: that they can no longer be completely sovereign over their finest creations.”

Not all have benefited from globalization

Although globalization has dramatically increased world income, it has also increased the polarization between the “haves” and “have-nots”. This is part of a longer tem trend beginning after World War II. As the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) summarizes: During the past five decades, world income increased sevenfold (in real GDP) and income per person more than tripled (in per capita GDP) but this gain has been spread very unequally nationally and internationally and the inequality is increasing. Between 1960 and 1991, the share of the world income for the richest 20% of the global population rose from 70% to 85%. Over the same period, all but the richest quintile saw their share of world income fall and the meager share to the poorest 20% declined from 2.3% to 1.4%.

Gaps in income and wealth, within countries and between them are rapidly growing. And, most importantly, so are the opportunities for the fullness of life as determined by the current state of knowledge and technological development. Social turmoil, conflict, and wars are driving uprooting millions of people, sending them streaming across borders, and threatening the fabric even of wealthy countries. Ecological crises loom on every horizon, threatening the fabric of life on the planet. “Resource wars” over oil, fresh water, other natural resources, and to escape ecological catastrophes, are inevitably on the horizon.

In the hothouse atmosphere of global human civilization biological evolution is actually speeding up, and frightening new diseases are also brewing. In sub-Saharan Africa HIV/Aids is an already-emerging apocalypse devastating whole generation who are dying before their time, and creating an impossible legacy of deficits and problems for their descendants.

Haunting all the new breakthroughs in knowledge and technologies, in the eyes of some thoughtful commentators, lies “the infrequently acknowledged, more encompassing worry that human beings have created circumstances-from the info-glut in our offices to financial crises that flash around the world in the blink of an eye—whose complexity, unpredictability, and pace exceed the cognitive abilities of the human brain.”

And, for some at the cutting edge of these developments, it becomes easier and easier to imagine that developments in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics (including artificial intelligence), full of such great promise, will escape human control, unleashing unimaginable horrors on humanity, other species, and the planetary eco-system, perhaps even leading to a future which “doesn’t need us.”

Women and Globalization

Economic liberalization policies are based on the neoliberal ideology, which currently dominates increasingly integrating world economies. This process affects men and women in different ways.

According to Chineze J. Onyejekwe (2004a; 200b), women’s experiences with this process are extremely complex and diverse—both positive and negative. The extent to which one is affected depends on a number of factors such as race, class, sexuality, religion, age, nationality and ethnicity. In terms of employment, for Nebula 1.1, June 2004.

These impacts include among others, the feminization of labor, low-income, and the feminization of poverty (Cornia et al 1987; Elson and Pearson 1981; Standing 1989; Deshpande 1994). Over the last decade, the number of women living in poverty has increased disproportionately to the number of men (UNFPA 2002). Poverty makes them vulnerable to the various forms of exploitation. For example, it makes them vulnerable to gender-based violence (GBV), and HIV/AIDS. A 2002 World Health Organization (WHO) report states that GBV makes women vulnerable to HIV/AIDS infection and untimely deaths. The report attributes women’s vulnerability to both HIV/AIDS and GBV to these factors:

Biological: greater susceptibility to infection during unprotected sex Economic: the lack of education, employment and economic opportunities, and inequitable inheritance laws Cultural and gender norms: these restrict women’s sexuality and prevent them from availing themselves of information on sexual and reproductive health Unwillingness of governments to publicly discuss the empowerment of women in gender relations and sexual practices (WHO 2003).

Neo-liberal economics emphasizes efficiently and growth but it has often failed large segments of the population, particularly women who have largely borne the negative impacts of these policies. In this process, there is therefore the need to institutionalize regulations and structures that will provide for women’s welfare and empowerment. Hopefully, better economic policies can be developed in the future.

Globalization has caused an impact and the resistance of women workers and women’s activism: political and economic dominance of richer nations, feminization of labour, decline of the welfare state, rise of identity politics, spread of concepts of women’s rights and human rights and proliferation of women’s organizations and transnational feminist networks.”

The Impact of Globalisation

The political and cultural dimensions of globalization have had contradictory social effects on women workers and women’s activism. These include the political and economic dominance of richer nations, the feminization of the labour force, the decline of the welfare state, the rise of identity politics, the spread of concepts of women’s rights and human rights and the proliferation of women’s organizations and transnational feminist networks. Although globalization has had negative economic consequences the process has created a new constituency of working women and organizing women who are attempting, through advocacy work, to challenge the dominant culture of capitalism. The emergence of this constituency, notwithstanding cultural, class, and ideological differences among women is the result of the existence of a capitalist world-economy in an era of globalization, and the universal fact of gender inequality. World systems theory, social movements theory and development studies should take account of female labour and of global feminist networks.

Advances for the world’s women have been made in a number of critical areas, such as legislation and resources to address violence against women, governance and leadership, increasing women’s access to economic empowerment and economic rights.

Globalisation has led to growth without jobs in the North, structural adjustment in the South, privatisation in the east and the dismantling of states everywhere. It is also a process which depends on the feminization of employment. Rather than liberating women in to the workplace, globalisation has bred a new underclass of low paid or unpaid women workers. Wichterich looks at case studies from across the world, including testimonies from individual women, to show how their lives have been turned upside down by industrialisation in the South and a return to homeworking in the North. Transnational corporations have been given the freedom to employ people particularly women without regard for their rights. However responses by women and the women’s movement pose a challenge to the globalization of neo-liberal markets and reveals how globalization has shaped the women’s movement into what it is today. The example is given of the Philippines women’s association ‘Gabriela’, waged a campaign against the Asia-Pacific Economic Community to try and defend the Philippines’ economic self-reliance against an increasing influx of foreign capital and foreign ownership of national.

Issue 1: The Feminisation of Employment

In order to respond to increasing and intense global competition, corporations are creating various strategies to meet the challenges of their own survival. One of the major strategies deals with labour and takes three main forms: labour flexibility, the casualisation of labour and the feminization of labour. Concretely, dual labour processes are occurring. One leads to a fragmentation of the labour process resulting in low-skilled and repetitive work whereby there is a shift and/or combination of regular work with various forms of non-regular, flexible employment, e.g., part-time. Temporary, subcontracted and home-based workers. The other process is the upgrading of workers’ skills in multitask jobs using information communication technology (ICT), resulting in an increasing demand for multiskilled workers with hardware and/or software as well as business skills. The majority of the workers in the first category are women while those in the second are men, although more and more women are now being employed in ICT-led sectors.

However, such a process is also double-edged. On the one hand, the globalisation of trade and the economy has definitely opened up economic and income opportunities for women, resulting in her improved status in the household and an increase in her position in society as well as her self-esteem. However, on the other hand, we know that the majority of the women workers labour under inferior working conditions and often on shifts with serious implications for their social and physical health. Those in the lower end, labour-intensive consumer electronics industries suffer from health problems that include extreme fatigue and general health problems due to chemical hazards and job stress.

The current economic crisis has more serious implications for women than for men, not least because more women than men are hired in the export-led industries being affected and more women than men are in the unskilled and low-skilled jobs, but also because women are also strongly affected by the loss of their incomes within the household. The retrenchment data for the Malaysian electronics sector reveals that 26 percent of the employees in this sector were retrenched during the 17-month period from January 1998 to May 1999. The majority were local workers with women comprising 65 percent of those retrenched. Most of the retrenchment came from foreign-owned companies with their workers forming 75 percent of the total retrenched. According to Jayati Ghosh, there is a real possibility that the long march towards equality for women in the region, particularly for poor women, may be halted or even reversed by the current economic turmoil.

FIGHTING FTA. Members of the Philippine Nurses
Association protest against the Japan-Philippines Economic
Partnership Agreement, or JPEPA. The JPEPA apparently
will only cause more abuse and exploitation of migrant
workers, a part of the deal within the said agreement.
(photocourtesy of

This is because poor women all over Asia are at the bottom of a vertical sub-contracting process which squeezes profits at each level. These women, located in urban slums, in small towns, estates, rural villages as well as migrant workers, will be the most exploited as they are often low-skilled, possess less formal education, are unorganized and, hence, are more of information technology. In such a situation, those who fall by the wayside are the older production workers, both men and women. Generational gaps will occur within and across genders in terms of the new and dynamic forms of knowledge-based employment.

Issue 2: Migration – Breakdown of the Extended Family and Kinship Network

At the global level, more than 120 million migrants have left their home countries in search of greener pastures abroad, leading to a warning by the United Nations of the ‘human crisis of our age’. In Asia, migration for economic reasons has denuded poor families, leaving children to fare for themselves with either their father or mother away in a foreign land. The problems faced by female migrant workers are concerns with which we need to grapple in a systematic manner.

The breakdown of the extended family is more clearly seen in the urban sector. Today the nuclear family is more and more the norm, especially in the cities, where the burden is heavier for working couples who have to deal with stress both at work and in the family. Stress at work is compounded by calls for efficiency, productivity and the achievement of quotas while, at the familial level, there are daily struggles to catch up with the increasing cost of living, particularly as various public services are privatised. With women finding employment and a newfound freedom, they are asking for traditional gender relations to change. Without proper communication and with patriarchal ideology slow to change, tensions within families increase, leading to a breakdown of the family. Divorce rates are increasing, especially in the cities, and society often blames women for marriage breakdowns as they have become more aggressive in ‘demanding their own space.’

Issue 3: Better Laws, Increased Awareness,
Increasing Violence against Women: A Crisis in Masculinity?

There is no doubt that there has been an increased awareness that violence against women is a crime. In fact, this awareness, coupled with reforms in the relevant laws, has been one of the successes of the women’s movement at the global and national level. Yet why is it that violence against women in many countries is not decreasing despite numerous campaigns by women’s groups? As noted earlier, 20 percent to 50 percent of women worldwide suffer some domestic violence during marriage. Let us look at other statistics.

  1. The total number of reported rape cases in Malaysia increased from 879 in 1993 to 1,323 in 1997-an increase of 50 percent. The rape of teen-age girls rose from 604 cases in 1995 to 719 in 1996. Police statistics disclose that 67 percent of rapes in 1996 were victims below 16 years of age; 85 percent of these rapes were committed by boyfriends, family members and neighbours.
  2. The reported cases of female domestic violence increased from 466 in 1992 to 5,799 in 1997, a 1,000 percent increase. This number actually shot from 2,291 reported cases in 1996 to 5,799 in 1997 perhaps because of increased awareness created by the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act.Say NO to WTO
  3. Domestic abuse of women, both physical and mental, is on the rise with Bangladesh reporting an increasing trend in suicides among women.
  4. Increased cases of dowry-related deaths and the harassment of young brides are reported in India, Nepal and Bangladesh.
  5. Prostitution, forced prostitution and trafficking in women and children with associated violence and harassment have become a major concern in the region/
  6. Widespread sexual violence against women in areas of armed conflict and civil unrest are reported in Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines.
  7. Women migrant workers are increasingly becoming victims of sexual violence.

It is not very clear to what extent the economic crisis has led to an increase of violence against women. Indeed, today 30 percent, or 2.5 billion members of the work force, are unemployed or underemployed. Many of these are men whose socio-cultural and symbolic role as the breadwinner in the family (in fact, this is increasingly untrue, but society still treats female labour as secondary) is increasingly being threatened. The ability of men to take care of the family is thus being chipped away, leading, I believe, to a crisis in masculinity.

Issue 4: The Commoditisation of Women and Sexuality

The market has also affected culture, which is increasingly being commercialized and commoditised. The rise of individualism (to be different, to complete with others by having more) and consumerism actually accompany globalization and the need for TNCs to sell their products to accumulate a greater surplus for themselves. Firms and individuals follow this trend in their pursuit of materialism and the creation of status symbols. In the same vein, sexuality and women’s bodies are pornography, sex, tourism and sex trafficking to advertisements and beauty schemes which feed on our emotional insecurities and little vanities.

Issue 5: Privatisation and the Rolling Back of the State

Last, but not least, let us comment briefly on privatization, a strong arm of globalization, and its implications for women. Under the guise of free market restructuring, the privatization of public services has led not only to its reduced availability but often to higher prices for such services as well as basic necessities. Because women are still expected to be responsible for childcare and family maintenance, they will bear the disproportionate weight of these constraints. Women as homemakers have to balance the extra costs due to increasing charges for public utilities, education and health care as a result of cuts in public subsidies. Not only will their double burden be intensified, there will also be mounting pressure to assume multiple roles both as paid and unpaid labour, e.g., taking care of the elderly, the retrenched, taking on extra work in the informal sector. Those adversely affected will be poor women who will have decreased or no access to such amenities or will have to struggle more to gain access to these services for their family.

Churches respond to economic globalization

The church as a transnational actor guided by the ethical principles of its social teachings does indeed have a responsibility to contribute to the public discourse around (sis) globalization. There is a moral quality about the economy, a quality which has its roots in the morally correct or incorrect choices made by people; and it is the moral quality of the economy that enables us to make judgments about whether or not it is a just economy.

The Struggle Against Economic Globalization Is A Struggle For Liberation.The Struggle Against Economic Globalization Is A Struggle For Liberation.

All human beings have the inherent right to have their basic human needs met before any economic surplus is distributed to others. Simply stated, the basic needs of the poor transcend the superfluous desires of the rich in moral importance. But the growing disparity in income and wealth between the rich and poor increasingly fractures societies and erodes collective conscience. There is a question of distributive justice, defined by the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics as the “virtue by which goods and burdens of the community are distributed with due proportion among citizens”. Is a distributive ethic possible, one that will be fair to all people and at the same time produce abundance to be shared?

Admittedly, sharing can be a means by which we retain power and control. This is too often the experience of African countries of the international aid given by western countries. It is vital, therefore, that sharing be seen both as constitutive of community’ and as an expression of community in giving every one a fair chance. Arguing for stakeholder rather than shareholder capitalism, Childs says that if sharing is understood as constitutive of community, businesses can and ought to consider the interests of all individuals and groups who have a stake in the activities of the company.

Our churches have exposed the weaknesses of economies based on domination, greed and exploitation. They have challenged the neoliberal economic ideology, which promotes individualism, greed, competition, consumerism and the plunder of the earth without regard to future generations, and the systemic injustices of racism, sexism and classism that accompany economic globalisation.

Thus, for example, South Africa’s Catholic bishops write, “An economic structure based on racism or which perpetuates third-world debt is itself sinful; those who benefit from those structures are tainted by that sin, and bear a responsibility for the suffering that inevitably flows from such sin.”

In 1995, the Southern Africa Alliance of Reformed Churches organized a consultation in Kitwe, Zambia, to explore the intersection between Reformed faith and economic justice. Participants observed the suffering and despair of many people in their churches and societies, and analysed the systematic improverishment of Africa and its exclusion from the world economy. They concluded, “Africans live on a crucified continent as people to be sacrificed. Our humanity and the future of our children are of no consequence to the global economy... The sacrifice of humanity on the altar of the global economy is intertwined. Kitwe contended that “today, the global market economy has been sacralized, and elevated to an imperial throne. It has changed places with the human beings who created it. By redefining what it means to be human, it has become the creator of human beings. Thereby it usurps the sovereignty of God, claiming a freedom that belongs to God alone. For us as Christians, this raises the question of idolatry and of loyalty to God or mammon.”

Whilst mainline churches in South Africa advocate principles of social and economic justice, there has also been an irruption of prosperity theology. Prosperity churches are enthusiastic supporters of economic globalization, and often suggest that the poor are poor either because they do not work hard enough or because they are sinners. Prosperity theology exaggerates the Bible’s teaching on blessings by God, affirming and upholding the rich without analyzing systematically why some in South Africa are rich and many others are poor. This individualistic and self-centered distortion of theology soothes the conscience of the affluent, but poses radical challenges in the articulation of social and economic justice.

Alternatives and sources of hope

The first task is to break the cultural myth that there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism. We need to challenge ideological weapons of globalisation and to confront prosperity theology. We need to organize and cooperate, linking all those who stand for economic justice at local, regional and global levels. We need to develop criteria for evaluating economic policies and plans consistent with the message of compassion, sharing and distributive justice for which Jesus in his ministry stood.

We should reject the claim that the current distribution of wealth in the world is somehow natural; emphasizing to what extent it is based on force:

... in the southern United States prior to emancipation, great wealth was created for plantation owners by workers (slaves) who did not even enjoy a token gesture of “free choice”. Although that wealth was passed on by inheritance to succeeding generations, any attempt to restore portions of such wealth to the heirs of its creators has always been labeled “reverse discrimination”. In nations victimized by colonial oppression, such as India, Africa and the Philippines, invaders conquered native populations and expropriated the land and its wealth which was, again, passed on through inheritance to succeeding generations even after the end of colonial rule. Yet those who have inherited unearned wealth in these... economies still refuse to accept economic reforms to restore any portion of such wealth to the heirs of those from whom it was taken by force, who are still forced to accept an unequal economic contract, with a result of widespread poverty.

A systematic programme of transfer of skills to the poor would also be another element of redistribution, enabling people to live full lives.

Neoliberal economic globalization is not benefiting the poor and our communities in Africa. Alternatives should be sought, promoted, and implemented so that all God’s creatures may live fully and abundantly.

Dr. Agnes Abuom is an expert in Programme and Policy development, currently serving the National Council of Churches of Kenya as a member of the Executive Committee. She is also in the WCC Executive Committee and Central Committee. Her current engagement is accompanying churches and ecumenical organizations in the Horn of Africa on peace and reconciliation as an Ecumenical Accompanier.