FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

50 Percent of the 99 Percent

What’s 50 percent of 99 percent?

This isn’t a math quiz. To put the question in non-numerical terms: where are women in the global economic crisis?

The movement of the 99 percent that began in the United States made visible the human beings who suffer the brutal inequality and injustice of an economic system that, in crisis, requires them to sacrifice even more. The mainstream emphasis on deficits and big banks relegated the human impact of the crisis to the feature pages or, worse, the obituaries. Women, who in many ways receive the brunt of the crisis, remain even more invisible. Economists and politicians scrambling to save the financial system leave out women as a group in their equations, except to rely implicitly on their unpaid work and the bonus economies receive from gender discrimination.

Yet women, especially poor women, perform economic miracles every day to ensure family survival. Their contributions go unregistered, and they themselves usually have little concept of the social role of their work. Economics has been mystified to shut out citizen participation and gender coded to exclude women. Ironically, the message that ‘there is no alternative’ is being actively enforced during a crisis that clearly demonstrates that therehas to be an alternative.

The answer to the question “where are women in the global crisis?” is, of course, “everywhere.” The problem is making that omnipresence visible, organized, and active. The challenge is assuring that the road to economic recovery isn’t built on redoubling gender discrimination and the exploitation of women’s labor.

Last April, some two thousand women from 140 countries met in Istanbul to discuss not just where we are in the global crisis, but how to transform how we see and how we wield economic power.

For those of us who have witnessed the vicissitudes of the feminist movement over the past 30 years, the most astounding and profoundly important achievement of the conference, organized by the Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), emerged the moment you walked in the door of the sprawling center on the strait of the Golden Horn. The women milling about the registration tables represented every region of the world. A broad diversity of religions and cultures was proudly affirmed in their dress. Differents age groups, colors, cultures, classes and beliefs came together at the Istanbul conference. The base of representation has broadened for a movement that might not always call itself “feminist,” but defines itself by fighting for women’s rights and equality in a world of multiple threats.

Lydia Alpizar, a Costa Rican feminist who directs AWID, explained that now more than ever women need tools to integrate economic issues into their many movements for human, economic and social rights across the globe. The women’s rights agenda has become so broad and so urgent that there’s a tendency to become entrenched in single issues, which presents the risk of missing the links and failing to grasp the broader meaning of what’s happening at a critical moment in history, she noted.

Unity in Diversity

Amid the diversity in Istanbul, women came together with a surprising level of agreement on key premises. First, economic inequality is the sign of our times, and as economic inequality grows, women face even deeper inequality in a system designed to discriminate. The use of women’s unpaid labor in what some feminist analysts call the “care economy” intensifies with inequality and is exploited to extremes under austerity measures.

There is also agreement, as expressed in the first plenary session by Turkish researcher Ipek Ilkkaracan, that this labor cannot—and should not—be commoditized. That is, the tasks of caring for others that women do every day can’t be entirely incorporated into the labor market and to do so would in many ways dehumanize what is essentially a labor of love. Women’s care work is one of the few spaces left that is organized along principles of solidarity, community, and bonds between people, rather than profit. The basics of the solution, she told the audience, will have to be some combination of creating more social recognition and organization of these tasks and moving forward on stalled efforts to get men to share domestic work.

Gita Sen, a pioneer in the field of gender and development, pointed out that women are the victims of inequality in a global crisis that does not affect everyone equally across the board. She noted that when we talk about improving conditions for indigenous people and other pressing social needs, we’re told there is no money, but there’s always money for bailing out the rich.

“We need to move to the needs of the 99 percent,” she told the crowd. “The welfare state is being hollowed out to continue with business as usual in the financial world, while the crisis is used as a means of blackmailing states and increasing the control of corporations.”

Sen expressed the most important consensus among the women activists who came to learn about the global economic context that constrains and defines their work: There can be no gender equality within the current economic development model.

She stated the problem in a rhetorical question: “Who wants a larger share of a poisoned pie?”

Life and Death Issues

Some speakers talked about development alternatives and others, like Lolita Chavez Ixcaquic, Quiché indigenous leader of Guatemala, talked about “alternatives to development.” All agreed that the equation that macroeconomic growth means greater general well-being has been thoroughly exposed as false.

“How do we say yes to life? In many ways: our community comes together around our meaning and existence and its close connection with nature – the sun, land and everything that gives us energy. We are told that we have to have the latest model of Blackberry, and that’s a kind of slavery. We identify what are our real needs are so we don’t reverse what we are doing. We are told we’re undeveloped, but are we? We don’t want American development or the American dream.”

Chavez and other especially indigenous participants spoke of a battle between life and death, where women are often on the front lines. Among many feminists and women activists, “Mother Earth” is far from being a new-age moniker. Rather, it is a central precept in the struggle for basic values representing the need to reconnect human society with the environment in a mutually beneficial relationship. Many workshops examined climate change and battles over land use and territories that have become a major focus of women’s organization, as the crisis initiates a new level of degradation and depredation.

Srilatha Batiwala, an Indian academic and activist, explained some of the connections between gender and resource control. “Gender and social power structures uphold differential control over material resources, as well as intangible resources, knowledge resources and human resources. These are maintained through the ideologies of inequality, social rules and norms, institutions and structures and more and more, violence or the threat of violence.”

Women from Mexico, Central America, Nepal, Colombia, the Middle East, and other places testified to the increasing use of violence against them, especially in the context of land and resource grabs, increasing militarization, and selective attacks on women human rights defenders, including those who defend the earth in indigenous territories and beyond.

More Questions

As usual, the conference raised more questions than answers. Women’s participation in the formal labor force seemed to get short shrift, leaving major challenges regarding union organization in a hostile economic environment and a heavily male-dominated milieu.

The big challenges will have to be worked out in the daily practice of on-the-ground organizing. How do we go about humanizing the economic model, when scarcity is driving it toward more fragmentation, militarism, and aggressiveness? How can we build on concepts like the Andean indigenous “Buen Vivir” (Good living) and women’s defense of human relations and Mother Earth, to create real development alternatives? How can we make gender equality and justice an integral part of a larger agenda to transform the economic system?

Most difficult of all, how do we make our alternatives politically viable?

Many speakers noted that the main enemies of women’s rights have shape-shifted in recent years. Economist Susan George noted that today “financial markets tell governments what to do” and for that reason “the women’s movement has to join more coalitions, speak to people we don’t usually speak to—unions, education workers, faith, and environmental groups.”

“No single group can win by itself, ” she concluded.

No one left the Istanbul conference with clear marching orders or a road map. Women organizers left with tools to understand the economic environment they struggle in. We left with a greater understanding of the links between us– from region to region, from sector to sector, from woman to woman.

And everyone left with a renewed commitment to figure it out, step by step, empowering women in their daily lives toward solutions that respect women’s rights and build new paths toward strong and just communities, a healthy planet, and a happy future for our children.

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy. She is based in Mexico City and has written extensively on security and human rights issues.

More articles by:

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .

February 18, 2019
Paul Street
31 Actual National Emergencies
Robert Fisk
What Happened to the Remains of Khashoggi’s Predecessor?
David Mattson
When Grizzly Bears Go Bad: Constructions of Victimhood and Blame
Julian Vigo
USMCA’s Outsourcing of Free Speech to Big Tech
George Wuerthner
How the BLM Serves the West’s Welfare Ranchers
Christopher Fons
The Crimes of Elliot Abrams
Thomas Knapp
The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC
Mitchel Cohen
A Tale of Two Citations: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Michael Harrington’s “The Other America”
Jake Johnston
Haiti and the Collapse of a Political and Economic System
Dave Lindorff
It’s Not Just Trump and the Republicans
Laura Flanders
An End to Amazon’s Two-Bit Romance. No Low-Rent Rendezvous.
Patrick Walker
Venezuelan Coup Democrats Vomit on Green New Deal
Natalie Dowzick
The Millennial Generation Will Tear Down Trump’s Wall
Nick Licata
Of Stress and Inequality
Joseph G. Ramsey
Waking Up on President’s Day During the Reign of Donald Trump
Elliot Sperber
Greater Than Food
Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
Rob Urie
The Green New Deal, Capitalism and the State
Jim Kavanagh
The Siege of Venezuela and the Travails of Empire
Paul Street
Someone Needs to Teach These As$#oles a Lesson
Andrew Levine
World Historical Donald: Unwitting and Unwilling Author of The Green New Deal
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Third Rail-Roaded
Eric Draitser
Impacts of Exploding US Oil Production on Climate and Foreign Policy
Ron Jacobs
Maduro, Guaidó and American Exceptionalism
John Laforge
Nuclear Power Can’t Survive, Much Less Slow Climate Disruption
Joyce Nelson
Venezuela & The Mighty Wurlitzer
Jonathan Cook
In Hebron, Israel Removes the Last Restraint on Its Settlers’ Reign of Terror
Ramzy Baroud
Enough Western Meddling and Interventions: Let the Venezuelan People Decide
Robert Fantina
Congress, Israel and the Politics of “Righteous Indignation”
Dave Lindorff
Using Students, Teachers, Journalists and other Professionals as Spies Puts Everyone in Jeopardy
Kathy Kelly
What it Really Takes to Secure Peace in Afghanistan
Brian Cloughley
In Libya, “We Came, We Saw, He Died.” Now, Maduro?
Nicky Reid
The Councils Before Maduro!
Gary Leupp
“It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby”
Jon Rynn
What a Green New Deal Should Look Like: Filling in the Details
David Swanson
Will the U.S. Senate Let the People of Yemen Live?
Dana E. Abizaid
On Candace Owens’s Praise of Hitler
Raouf Halaby
‘Tiz Kosher for Elected Jewish U.S. Officials to Malign
Rev. William Alberts
Trump’s Deceitful God-Talk at the Annual National Prayer Breakfast
W. T. Whitney
Caribbean Crosswinds: Revolutionary Turmoil and Social Change 
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
Avoiding Authoritarian Socialism
Howard Lisnoff
Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Anti-immigrant Hate
Ralph Nader
The Realized Temptations of NPR and PBS
Cindy Garcia
Trump Pledged to Protect Families, Then He Deported My Husband
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail