Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Women: the underrated credit plight

Taipei Times

By Ruth Sutherland
Tuesday, Mar 31, 2009

“Factories are closing everywhere — and now the women are being approached by sex traffickers asking if they want to go and work in the West.” — Jitra Kotchadet, union leader, Thailand.

“I lost my job, I’ve been evicted from my house and my belongings confiscated by the landlord. Now I rent a small room with my husband and two children. We’ve had to cut our spending on food.” — Kim Sunheap, Cambodia.

There, in two short quotations, is the female face of the credit crunch in the developing world. They come from a report by Oxfam International ahead of the G20 summit highlighting the devastating effect of the crisis on women and children in poorer countries. Research has also been published by the World Bank pointing to the severe vulnerability of women and girls, as well as by the International Labour Organisation, which predicted a bigger rise in female unemployment than male in many regions.

These largely unpublicized reports are reminders that behind the political rows, grandstanding, incomprehensible acronyms and banker-baiting, women in poor countries are paying a ruinously heavy price for the follies and mistakes of the Western financial system.

One school of thought states that to discuss the gender aspects of the credit crunch — or even to assert there are any — is an intellectually enfeebled form of self-indulgence by privileged Western feminists. Yet, as these reports make clear, the crunch is visiting an economic blight on women and children with effects that could reverberate for generations. For them, the impact of the credit crunch is not a matter of debate in the blogosphere; it is literally a matter of life and death.

Millions will lose their jobs without any safety net — Oxfam cites cases of women being forced to sign resignation letters so their employers can avoid paying redundancy; families will go hungry; there will be lower levels of schooling for girls; and, most horrific of all, the World Bank predicts the crunch will cause a surge in infant mortality, with up to 2.8 million more babies dying between now and 2015 if the crisis persists.

The Bank points out that falls in GDP lead to much greater increases in female infant mortality than male. No explanation is offered for this discrepancy; the likely causes scarcely bear thinking about.

The persistent unwillingness to concede that the crunch will affect women more than men because of pre-existing inequalities threatens to cause long-lasting damage to developing economies. As Oxfam director Barbara Stocking puts it: “If you hurt women’s incomes, everything unravels.”

Numerous studies have shown that reducing gender inequality leads to improved economic growth. Educating women is a key driver of prosperity because when girls become mothers they have better-planned families and their children are better nourished and educated. When poor women gain an income, they have a much higher propensity than men to reinvest it in family and community. Instead of denying or ignoring the harm being done to women, there should be a recognition at the G20 of the positive role we can play in countering the crisis, particularly in the developing world.

Responses to the credit crunch should include an explicit focus on women, which, as I have said before, means seats and voices at the top tables. It also means making sure that fiscal stimulus programs are not just about “jobs for the boys” in industries dominated by men. The crisis threatens to reverse the slow and sometimes painful progress that has been made toward equality and financial independence for women; in the rich world, that is bad enough, but in developing nations, it is many, many times worse.

It’s a point so obvious that it shouldn’t need making, but it seems it still has to be said: If you hurt women, you hurt men and children too.

Yet women need not be defined as victims of the crisis; if our economic role is fully recognized and respected, we can be powerful players in rebuilding out of the rubble.

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