Recovery with rights: Towards an economy that cares

By Avanti Mukherjee. Dated: 9/24/2013 12:04:14 AM

Financial crises and austerity measures to combat crises undermine the human rights to work, education, health and nourishment and the capacity to provide care and social reproduction. Their consequences are particularly acute for women who are held responsible for reproduction and face unequal gender relations that function to deny them access to resources and opportunities. Regulation and recovery must therefore be rooted in a human rights based approach taking special note of women's rights and impacts on social reproduction.
Economic Crises as Gender Unequal
The 2008-09 crisis led to greater job loss and poverty among women than men. US national unemployment was 10% by September 2010, but in several US counties it was as high as 20 percent. Although manufacturing jobs that are typically "male" such as in automobiles were the first to be hit during the crisis, layoffs in teaching, nursing, the public sector, etc, meant that women's jobs were not growing as fast during the recovery. Similar patterns were observable in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and the UK where female unemployment rates were much higher. As jobless persons are 6 times more likely to be poor than working people, women have higher poverty ratios than men. A third of all single female headed households in the US were poor compared to 16% and 6% of single male headed households and married couple families respectively.
Similar impacts were visible in the South. With the deepening recession, export and remittances earnings fell throughout the late 2000s increasing job losses and vulnerability to poverty. Korean women were laid off at seven times the rate that men were in labour intensive export oriented manufacturing. For Indian women who work from their homes, sharp declines in piece rates and opportunities for informal work were observed. In the Philippines, where 9% of the GDP comes from remittances and 70% of the international migrants are women, transfers from abroad not only shore up the balance of payments but also contributed to nearly a third of the decline in poverty ratios in the early 2000s. Job and remittance losses, even from informal, precarious sources, will constrain incomes for poor women and hence also for their families.
Financial and food crises also entail risks for women as direct care-givers. Women typically prepare meals, even grow, prepare and procure food in their households, besides feeding children. Food procurement is highly constrained with livelihood loss. Additionally, the double-digit food price inflation observed in several developing countries directly impairs women's ability to provide food with several implications. Several case studies illustrate women's tendency to cut back their own food shares in lean times to feed the men and (male) children, or the increased risk of violence that women face from husbands with poor access to food and uncertainty. Amidst declining real incomes, coping strategies include girls being pulled out of schools to help their mothers, and enable their brothers' education.
Economic Justice needs Gender Justice
Human rights to work, education, health and adequate nourishment are inextricably linked to ending discrimination and unequal gender relations. The social construction of women as care-givers and men as bread-winners is particularly pernicious for human rights. Such norms shape perceptions of women as secondary earners and possessing specific skills and attributes to justify their poorer earnings and position in the labour market compared to men. In OECD countries women are 5 to 15 times more likely to be in relatively poorer-paid occupations such as primary and secondary education, midwifery and nursing secretarial work, personal care-giving etc. In Asia, just as stereotypes of women as obedient, docile and possessing "nimble fingers" shapes demand for their labour in export oriented manufacturing, their relative lack of mobilization and unionization makes it simpler to cut their wages or fire them. Moreover, women's care-giving responsibilities make them prefer home-based work and hence they become a cheap, flexible, home-based labour force that does not threaten patriarchal hierarchies.
Regardless of context, care-giving and social reproduction are perceived and treated as exclusively feminine responsibilities. Social reproduction, which includes biological reproduction, daily and long-term care including the socialization of human beings, is vital to any society. Those who perform social reproduction yield positive externalities in form of healthy, and well-adjusted children, workers and citizens. Yet, women face systematic wage penalties for labour market breaks to have and raise children, and maintain work-family balance. Even fathers face a penalty if they are not-white, though these are lower than those faced by mothers. Besides, women work longer hours with less time for leisure and sleep, and face increased risks of under-nourishment, health shocks and violence during economic crises. Single mothers are particularly vulnerable partly due to poorer earning capacities, and the high time constraints entailed in being the sole care-giver.
Recovery for Rights and Social Reproduction
Social reproduction is a public good that needs protection especially during hardship. Public spending cuts limit public provision of food, health care, education and work, constraining social reproduction. Interest rate hikes and regressive taxes also limit private spending. These measures diminish real incomes and quality of life of all people, but also place a greater burden on women who work hard to make up the difference. In contrast fiscal spending can ease such burdens. For instance, the American stimulus package extended unemployment insurance to workers who leave jobs to care for ill/disabled family members, domestic and part-time workers (most of whom are women). In India, public employment is guaranteed to every rural household that is within 5 km of residence with adequate child care facilities. However, several states in both countries are yet to put these in practice.
It is vital that recovery measures take the form of stimulus spending to create jobs and maintain social reproduction, but also make special provisions for women, especially poor single mothers. Financial taxes and levies, such as the financial transaction tax, can finance such spending while also complementing other regulations of the financial sector. Such measures can be guided by the provisions of CEDAW which outlines policy directions to eliminate gender discrimination.
—(Third World Network Features)



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