Beijing + 10: Ten Years down the track from Beijing's promises Print E-mail
The Deccan Chronicle -- Monday 4 April 2005
Ten years after the Beijing Platform
By Jayati Ghosh
The explicit aim of the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995 was to “promote
women’s economic independence, including employment, and eradicate the
persistent and increasing burden of poverty on women by addressing the
structural causes of poverty through changes in economic structures,
ensuring equal access for all women, including those in rural areas, as
vital development agents, to productive resources, opportunities and public
services.”

As a result, many governments in the region started programmes targeting
certain measures specifically for women, and introducing more
gender-sensitive policies. But the current picture reflects at best a mixed
outcome. The experience of the past decade has suggested that targeted
programmes for women may not be effective in achieving desired goals, if the
broader macroeconomic policies and processes are working in the opposite
direction.

The past two decades have been momentous for the Asian region. This is now
the most “globally integrated” region in the world, with the highest average
ratios of trade to GDP, the largest absolute inflows of foreign direct
investment, substantial financial capital flows and even significant
movements of labour. These processes have in turn been associated with very
rapid changes in forms of work and life, especially for women. There are at
least six significant emerging issues which require urgent policy
intervention at both national and international levels:

* The volatility of export-oriented employment: From the early Eighties,
export-oriented manufacturing in many Asian countries mainly relied on
women’s paid labour. But this turned out to be a rather short-lived
phenomenon, declining by the mid Nineties. In the space of less than one
generation, there have been massive shifts of women’s labour into the paid
workforce, especially in export-oriented employment, and then the subsequent
ejection of older women and even younger counterparts into more fragile and
insecure forms of employment or even back to unpaid housework.

* Informal and casual contracts: Much of the paid work performed by women is
increasingly under casual contracts and in the non-formal sector. The
socially-imposed constraints upon women’s time and freedom to choose are
exploited by employers to ensure much more work for less pay being performed
by women. Home-based work or work in very small enterprises can be for long
hours and very demanding in other ways, and with the maximum tendency for
self-exploitation. Some basic responsibilities of employers, such as minimum
safety conditions at work, basic healthcare and pension provision, are all
entirely missing.

* Unpaid work: Reductions in public expenditure, and the related
deteriorating quality and quantity of public services and their effective
privatisation have entailed a shift in the distribution of costs of such
activities from the public sphere to the household. In most societies in the
region, such now-unpaid activities are undertaken by women and girl
children. The problem is accentuated as rapid social change undermines
traditional ties of family, kin and neighbourhood which allowed for greater
sharing of such unpaid activities.

* The crisis of livelihoods in agriculture: There is a crisis in developing
agriculture spread across not only countries but even continents, which has
continued for the past few years, reflecting the combination of effects of
trade liberalisation and the removal of state protection in a variety of
ways. This crisis has affected adversely the economic conditions of women,
since agriculture remains the largest employer of women in many developing
countries, and very large proportions of women are indirectly dependent upon
the incomes from agriculture because of their family incomes and rural
residence.

* Women’s migration for work: There has been an explosion in short-term
migration for work by women, not only across countries but also within
countries, and often taking seasonal form. Cross-border migration results in
remittance flows which have become the single most important (and most
stable) source of foreign exchange for many smaller countries including
Philippines and Sri Lanka, and are also extremely important even for
relatively large economies like India.

The substantial movement of women as part of this process is relatively new,
especially as women are increasingly moving on their own. Women migrant
workers tend to be concentrated in the low paid sectors of the service
industry, in semi-skilled or low-skilled activities ranging from nursing to
domestic service, or in the entertainment, tourism and sex industries where
they are highly vulnerable and subject to exploitation.

They rarely have access to education and other social services, have poor
and inadequate housing and living conditions. There is little recognition by
officialdom, in terms of ensuring decent working conditions and remuneration
for migrants, or safekeeping the health conditions. This is an important
issue for women migrants in particular, since they are specially vulnerable
to various forms of economic and sexual exploitation, not only when they are
workers in the entertainment and sex industries, but also when they are
employed in other service activities or in factories as cheap labour.

* Social and cultural effects: There have been increases in the availability
of different consumer goods due to trade liberalisation, but these come
along with declines in access to basic public goods and services. Meanwhile,
technological changes have made communication and the transmission of
cultural forms more extensive and rapid than could even have been imagined
in the past. All these have had very substantial and complex effects upon
the position of women and their ability to control their own lives.

There is more social recognition of women’s work, but still, unpaid work has
tended to increase. Recent reversals in the feminisation of employment
created social regression as well. Already, we have seen the rise of
revivalist and fundamentalist movements across various parts of the world,
which seek to put constraints upon the freedom of women to participate
actively in public life.

At the same time, advances in communication technology and the creation of
the “global village” provide both threats and opportunities. They encourage
adverse tendencies such as the commoditisation of women along the lines of
the hegemonic culture portrayed in international mass media controlled by
giant US-based corporations, and the reaction to that in the form of
restrictive traditionalist tendencies.

All this means that there are important measures which governments in the
region can ­ and must ­ take in order to ensure that work processes do not
add to the complex pattern of oppression of women that continues in Asian
societies today. More stable and less exploitative conditions for work by
women cannot be ensured without a revival of the role played by governments
in terms of macroeconomic management for employment generation and provision
of adequate labour protection for all workers.

The basic elements of a gender-sensitive macroeconomic strategy would
include: the focus on employment-led growth rather than growth-led
employment; and to ensure the public provision of essential goods and social
services of reasonable quality with universal access.