Representation Without Liberation: Rethinking Women’s Rights
For the first time in its 26-year history, the World Trade Organization (WTO) appointed a woman as its Director-General. Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a World Bank economist and former Finance Minister, stepped into the role earlier this month. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s confirmation was a landmark event for women in developing countries, whom she promised to advocate for via her WTO agenda. Hopefully, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala will deliver a more progressive approach than her predecessors have.
Women’s participation in global trade networks and the effects of globalization on their lives have been distinctly documented over the last 50 years. They have gained legal rights, education, and job opportunities, but modern industrial-driven globalization (which encompasses internationalization) has given rise to problems that disenfranchise women in new terms. Traditional gender discrimination, alongside globalization, has cast women into what some observers call an “offshore proletariat” status. They work in the lowest-earning, least-secure, and most-dangerous jobs. They are compensated below subsistence levels, because their skills are not seen as “skills,” but rather as “innate attributes” of their sex, and because they are assumed to be supplemental wage-earners for their households. They often take flexible home-based, part-time, or contract work due to their domestic responsibilities, which means they have few rights, and thus are easily fired. Loose and unregulated labor laws subject them to poor working conditions and multiple forms of exploitation, including trafficking and human rights abuses. Furthermore, women’s reproductive, family, and caregiver labor is unpaid and devalued—as it is not seen as “real work”—yet it remains necessary for a functioning economy in which men and women can work outside of domestic contexts. Culturally naturalized and seemingly legitimized by institutional inequality, the gendered access to labour in the new global system has pushed women to the margins of the economy, where their condition is made worse off (even more so during the pandemic).
Despite the downward pressure on wages and job growth, loosening labor laws, and increasing wealth disparity between rich and poor countries, mainstream economists have been intent on demonstrating how low-wage manufacturing jobs (namely, sweatshop work) “disproportionately benefit” and ultimately “empower women” in the Global South. The idea that these women are the “greatest unexploited resource” and are the solution to alleviating poverty has been especially popular. Development organisations and private corporations alike—from the IMF and World Bank, to Nike and Goldman Sachs—have disseminated the rhetoric that “investing in girls is smart economics,” because helping girls and women who are or will be left out of the modern workforce due to gender inequality (in the forms of poor healthcare, lack of education, high maternal mortality, gender-based violence, female infanticide, etc.), and introducing them into the formal economy can stimulate national export-led growth. Accordingly, they have launched strategies and interventions to increase women’s access to labour markets and micro-credit programs. The broader “assemblage of transnational policy discourses, novel corporate investment priorities, bio-political interventions, and branding and media campaigns” that brings the “Third World adolescent girl” to the forefront of change has been known as “the girl effect.” Proponents of this agenda, however, only show how much more women’s rights still have to overcome.
“The girl effect” is neither altruistic nor sustainable, as it claims. It alarmingly suggests we empower women and girls for the sake of economic development, rather than for the simple autonomy and well-being of females everywhere—amounting to helping women because it ultimately helps men. Defining “liberation” as being able to work and participate in the very production systems that alienate labour and oppress the autonomous self is not liberating at all—it places women in new subservient roles as workers and debtors. Scholars have pointed out that the focus on economically empowered girls, and their individual capability to solve underdevelopment, shifts attention and responsibility away from institutional causes of poverty (such as structural adjustment programs, debt, tax evasion, corruption in global governance systems, and the manipulation of sovereign economies), which negatively affect local income and food security much more significantly than do gender relations. In fact, the notion of “the girl effect” is a detrimental essentialism that designates women as inherently nurturing caregivers—reinforcing their exploitation by having them bear the responsibility of “bootstrapping themselves out of poverty,” as well as the burden of uplifting their families, communities, and nations.
Neoliberal institutions and transnational corporations have much to gain from a “girl effect” movement that can provide new sources of labour and expand consumer markets. Relying on social reforms to make Western free-market policies work in countries where these policies are otherwise not working means that multilateral institutions can ignore the devastation their policies have caused to the communities they claim to help, and they can instead blame local social structures and gender relations for market failures. Women’s emancipation is universal enough for these players to promote without undermining private interests, and compelling enough “to use as a public relations campaign that effectively disguises the extractive relationships they have with the Global South.” Channeling traditional Western ideas of self-capability, the freedom these institutions advocate for is the freedom to desire—to determine how one will act, what one’s interests are, and at the late stages, the things one wishes to possess—or, in other words, the freedom to consume. Indeed, the “concomitant of creating new markets is the imperative to create the conditions for consumption.” In this context, gender justice and social corporate responsibility become “smart” marketing strategies via which big businesses deepen their influence in global governance, and thereby become the self-appointed “saviours of women.” In short, capitalism has yet again co-opted the progressive language and imagery of social good to its own ends.
Perhaps “the girl effect” trend has made both policymakers and the public more aware of the benefits of gender equality, but this awareness has come at the cost of benefitting the wrong people, misidentifying actual problems, and derailing true social progress. It is critical that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala and the WTO recognize the adverse effects that globalization has had on girls and women in developing countries, and rearrange the power structures and allocation of resources to uplift them—even without any private investment returns.
Danielle Meng is an intern at M74 who lives in Boston and Beijing. She is a recent graduate of Bates College in Maine, where she studied English and Classical & Medieval Studies. She is interested in journalism and marketing, and is open to new opportunities.
The views expressed above are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the M74 Group, which remains neutral on all matters. Publishers assume no liability for content.