Globalization is a spongy word, bandied about until it has become as familiar as a bad pop song, and yet its many interpretations illustrate the way issues of wealth and poverty are understood throughout the world. At a symposium, “Feminisms and Globalization: Women 2000,” that accompanied Beijing+5, women leaders from around the world tried to make sense of globalization’s implications for women, seeking not only to understand it, but to fight its harmful effects.
The symposium (sponsored by CUNY’s Center for the Study of Women in Society, the Japan Preparatory Committee, and the National Council for Research on Women) was held at the CUNY Graduate Center before a crowd of 250. Charlotte Bunch, founder and executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, offered one definition: “By globalization I mean the economy linked at the global level, the movement of capital and goods across borders.” But such neutral language can obscure what globalization actually means to people in the developing world. In the view of Rose Lugemba, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Labor and Youth Development in Tanzania, “Globalization means opening the economy to unequal competition before we have built the capacity to handle it. It means people come in and till our virgin land and exploit our natural resources.” Rosina Wiltshire of the United Nations Development Program amplified that, saying, “Capital is globalized, but not peace; power is globalized, but not the interests of the poor.”
The panelists discussed the ways globalization has aggravated inequalities for women—widening the gaps between women and men and between poor women and prosperous ones. Women make up 45 percent of the global workforce and account for 70 percent of the population living in poverty. Many women’s advocates contend that some of these disparities are exacerbated by the lowering of national trade barriers, as dictated by the World Trade Organization, and the tight strictures placed upon developing economies by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
In Tanzania, Lugemba points out, the IMF and WTO have aimed to reduce government spending through “cost sharing”—a policy that has unraveled the government-supported social-safety net that once allowed all citizens relatively equal access to medicine, water, and schooling. Because the cost of health care now must be “shared”
by the poor, many Tanzanians must forgo basic medical needs such as immunization, meaning that more children die before adolescence and fewer women are treated for AIDS. A seemingly small expense such as fees for school textbooks and uniforms can mean that poor students—and girls, in particular, according to Lugemba—are denied a basic education.
Although globalization has created new economic opportunities for educated professional women, it hasn’t necessarily given women more power. Women have gained a 30 percent share of parliamentary seats in seven European countries and in South Africa. However, as Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, reminded the audience: “Women make up 12 percent of the U.S. Congress, but none holds a committee chair or key leadership position.”
The American formula for economic “success” is being adopted around the globe, but some feminists question whether it is the right model. The Center for Policy Alternatives points out that women in the U.S. still earn only 74 cents on the dollar paid to men (African American women earn 63 cents and Hispanic women earn 56). U.S. women also work long hours away from home and family—63 percent of women with children under age six are in the labor force, often with little domestic support. As Brigitte Young, a professor of political economy in Germany, said: “The one positive thing to come from the 20th century was a ‘social Europe’ that has protected women’s rights. We have rights for women in the labor force and a 36-hour workweek, but in order to compete, especially with the U.S., we must weaken the very social programs that have protected us.”
In a global economy, how can women protect gains and improve their economic prospects for the next generation? Women at the symposium agreed on some key measures, including securing access to and funding for girls’ education and monitoring the impact of taxation on women. They also agreed that women’s advocates must be economically literate so as to help make a place for women at the negotiating table; must create the means for global communication (Web sites, for example), so women can organize across borders (see “Rewiring the World“); and must demystify and deconstruct global institutions such as the World Bank, WTO, and IMF. This last strategy is crucial: As power shifts from national governments to international corporations, women’s groups have a new target. Historically feminists have lobbied congressional representatives and members of parliament. Now they must also pressure CEOs, boards of directors, and billionaire stockholders to ensure that corporations are accountable to women.
ADDITIONAL VOICE COVERAGE OF THE BEIJING+5 CONFERENCE:
Beating the Backlash by Jennifer Gonnerman
A U.S. Negotiator Details the Fight to Expand Feminist Gains at the UN’s Special Session on Women
A Girl’s World by Sharon Lerner
Young Tackle Issues From Playing Fields To Sexual Atrocities
Rewiring the World by Meg Murphy
Technology Sparks Debate at Beijing+5
Worldwide Women by Jennifer Gonnerman
Beijing+5 Looks at the Global State of Women’s Rights
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 13, 2000