The Weakening of Women's Chances for Economic Equity

By Liepollo Pheko · 8 Sep 2010

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Picture: I am Kat
Picture: I am Kat

Women's month in South Africa has come and gone without much fanfare, and perhaps rightfully so, since African women continue to be confronted by institutions, policies and systems within an economy that entrenches patriarchy and a fundamentalist brand of neoliberalism.

The broad context is that African women pay the price for failing states and a hostile political economy that deepens poverty and widens inequalities in many societies of the global South, while polarising social and living conditions in the Global North.  

The architecture of globalisation - either by intent or as a devastating by-product - consolidates social diseases such as sexism, racism and class inequality. This neatly entrenches a layer of structural poverty to subsidise the haves with cheap, largely black, female labour and an unapologetically uneven distribution of wealth.

Considering that the point of departure for an African woman in Limpopo is characteristically marked by material lack, a lack in access to basic services and a patriarchal social framework which assumes that men’s work is more important than women’s work. The ruthless demands of Washington Consensus policies that have been strongly prescribed to African countries only enforce these inherent imbalances, by promoting market fundamentalism, which largely ignores the need for improving income distribution.

While millions of women and men free-fall out of the economic net in South Africa, notions of economic citizenship need to be scrutinized. South Africa’s economic performance has been reliable but not yet comparable to the oft cited India, China or Brazil. Growth in Thailand and Malaysia has been three times faster in the past ten years despite the Asian crisis.

But productivity indices suggest that there is greater productivity in South Africa than in comparative middle-income economies such as Poland, Brazil and Thailand. Productivity indices are also far higher in South Africa than in China or Kenya. This is partly attributable to South Africa’s historically capital-intensive sectors such as manufacturing and agriculture. This is where women are usually located in the lowest paid and least regulated industries. In the midst of this, women’s movement on development indices is moving at petty pace.  

Any benefits for women are further obviated by the huge wage gaps in South Africa, which are growing faster than poverty gaps, and secondly the relatively poor training opportunities offered by firms in South Africa. This is closely linked to skill levels and the attempts made by Sector Education and Training Authorities have yielded few returns. There seems to be a dearth of workers who have received any formal training from the skills development framework, which until recently had no mechanisms for measuring its efficacy. The structural inequalities, which presuppose that women and men will enter the labour force at different levels, mean that closing the skills gap for women remains relatively remote.

One useful model may contribute to a new way of looking at the dilemma by focusing on the social inclusion of women citizens and family issues in the economy through "the politics of motherhood." Another more recently conceptualised model is "the right to be cared for and the right to care, e.g. for children and the elderly" as a way to re-integrate care work and family responsibilities in public life. This serves as a potentially powerful antidote against the rapacious model of social disinvestment postulated by the Washington Consensus.

Another model focuses on the inclusion of women and marginalised groups through "a politics of presence" in political institutions, e.g. gender quotas or parity.

But the extent to which increased women's representation in government advances women’s citizenship in South Africa is contentious and for radical feminists and progressive gender activists, extremely problematic. It is particularly problematic because lessons from the feminist movement globally illustrate that there is negligible correlation between ‘presence’ and a transformative women’s agenda.

Our own political parties illustrate that women in leadership do not necessarily have any interest in addressing the differentiated spaces that women workers occupy, that the working class occupies, that African women occupy. The most devastating illustration of this was the endorsement of Jacob Zuma by the ANC women’s league.

When these concerns are expanded to include the policies that emanate from multi national supra structures such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) or the World Bank, issues of citizen’s agency and access to power are complicated further in conveying governance that speaks to how policies at the global level often directly impact and influence national legislation and policy.

Given the privatisation of services through the WTO's General Agreement on Trade in Services [GATS] this all but legitimises and forces women off the edge of mainstream economic activity.

Child care, caring for the sick and elderly, domestic work, cooking, cleaning, fuel and water gathering are all roles ascribed to women by 'culture', 'history' and even implied in the theories raised above. 

Assigning to poor women the burden of basic services and care work without recognising the value of this work and adequately compensating them for it (given the already challenging effects of privatised and unaffordable healthcare, education, electricity and water) will inevitably further marginalise them and exclude them from professional, social, economic, educational, recreational and creative pursuits.

Typically, these imperatives are determined by the ability of the most powerful and wealthy voices to overwhelm the aspirations of the impoverished majority. It seems that we are living with a new type of minority rule, where merit is replaced by profit, where the narrow interests of capital replace fraternity and guardianship of the State.

The vantage point of socially excluded and economically vulnerable women presents a good opportunity to examine the consequences of development strategies and models and the characteristics of their impact on women.

The myth that poverty is due to urban over saturation is making a worrying resurgence. The fiction that all rural and agricultural communities are jostling to leave for the bright lights of big cities obfuscates the fact of grinding and soul destroying living conditions for many women in this country.

The economics of social inclusion are linked to the economics of greed and the Northern hegemony of consumption. In the South, the East, the North a small social minority has accumulated vast amounts of wealth on the back of the vast majority of the population.

This new international order is nourished by human poverty and the ongoing destruction of natural resources. It enables and strengthens social apartheid, encourages racism and social strife, depletes the rights of women and threatens to drive our nation into continuing confrontations.

The process of systemic social exclusion undermines women’s citizenship and tries to fragment any organised and cohesive articulation of an alternative imagination.

Liepollo Lebohang Pheko is Executive Director at NGO/think-tank, the Trade Collective and is Africa co-convener of the World Dignity Forum.

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Monica Heynes
14 Sep

Women's Global Justice

This is a fantastic article. I could not help but share it with my facebook and twitter friends.

I will be in touch with the author.


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