Globalisation: The new battleground for women’s rights

States increasingly rely on standardised political and economic regulation to attract new trading and investment streams. Optimists believe that this contact between developed and developing economies will help challenge any social inequalities that exist in the latter. Here, Michael Marsh explores whether or not globalisation has been a force for good in international efforts to achieve gender equality.

Although antiquated definitions of globalisation were restricted to the economic integration of geographies, contemporary interpretations encompass a much broader understanding of the phenomenon. Sociologists now argue that globalisation influences global political governance and social dependency; the debate surrounding its effect on gender equality has intensified.

Lars Plougmann/Creative commons license

Lars Plougmann/Creative commons license

Globalisation certainly has its merits – one could argue that merely by increasing opportunities for trade and economic growth, more jobs are made available for the disadvantaged. This is generally accepted as a key way for developed countries to positively influence elements of gender discrimination in less developed ones. Contrarily, some argue that these opportunities are not distributed evenly and could potentially disadvantage previously protected segments of society; in some instances, even marginalising entire regions of the world economy. There are those who take this argument further: Globalisation not only leads to aggravating pre-existing inequalities, but encourages new forms of discrimination.


Breaking through traditional barriers

In the 1980s, data from the United States indicated that where the country had improved opportunities for international trade, the creation of more diverse, fierce markets led to a general increase in female wages. Further data from that period also evidenced that the net effect of globalisation encouraged the notion of equal pay for equal work.

To the casual observer, this is a convincing argument; globalisation is an important emancipatory vehicle for women. The logic follows that open trade agreements lead to increased market competition and, as a result, employers have to consider adopting more liberal employment practices in order to keep up with global rivals – after all, it’s costly to maintain discriminatory barriers.

More broadly, increased contact between developed and less developed economies is seen as another way to challenge traditional patriarchal systems. Over the past decades, combatting entrenched sexism has been high on the agenda for numerous international organisations. The ratification of many international treaties and conventions, and the incorporation of nondiscriminatory clauses in some more general economic agreements, have united over 187 countries in efforts to combat a variety of barriers to women. These include concerns surrounding equal pay and employment discrimination. An example of this is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which led to increased employment, a rise in literacy rates and parliamentary participation, contributing to a reduction in absolute gender inequalities.

Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung/Creative commons license

Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung/Creative commons license

Entrenching the status quo

Whilst these are convincing arguments for some, there is always another side of the coin, and some would say the relationship between the developing world and more developed countries is defined by exploitation.

In developing economies, women’s rights are often the first casualties of trade liberalisation. Attempting to improve their economic and social rights can be an expensive policy decision – and for businesses, investing in countries that strictly enforce ridged regulations to alleviate inequality becomes a less appealing venture when other opportunities in a globalised market are available. In an attempt to attract investment, countries may then find themselves placing costly ideas, such as women’s rights, on the back burner.

Dr. Christa Wichterich, a leading anthropologist, agrees. She argues that the “globalised women is burnt up as a natural fuel: she is the piece-rate work in export industries”. She explains further that women are regarded as voluntary workers who are forced to absorb the shocks of social cutbacks and structural adjustment which naturally stem from globalisation.

Although this viewpoint may be perceived as somewhat radical, it is difficult to ignore empirical studies which lend support to it. For example, research into the impact of globalisation on the role of women in India found that women were not benefiting from advancements in the economy as the opportunities afforded conflicted with the social expectations of the area. Instead, women were being forced out of their traditional    occupations: agriculture, livestock and animal husbandry, which had become more mechanised. Once removed, women found themselves thrown into more exploitative roles which demanded unsociable working hours – all the while, still expected to fulfil the expected position of wife and mother.

The battle lines are drawn

The debate surrounding gender equality and globalisation is far from over. Whilst it can encourage legislative changes which champion women’s rights, its efficacy relies on the extent to which less developed economies are open to international influences.

Although positive changes can certainly take effect, it’s difficult to extrapolate from these that women are better off in absolute terms. In countries such as Iran, for example, international efforts to realise gender equality have led to more traditional gender norms being legislated for.

Even where countries have shown an openness to engage, some women have been forced into exploitative employment as companies compete to lower production costs. Ideally then, as globalisation continues, policy makers should be mindful of the ways discrimination can occur; in this way, they can create an enhanced form of globalisation which strives to inhibit discriminatory practice.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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