By Inés Alberdi, Executive Director, UNIFEM
Date: 13 July 2009
Occasion: Fifth Annual Meeting of Women Speakers of Parliament, Vienna, Austria, 13 July 2009
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I want to thank the members of the Women Speakers of Parliament for the opportunity to speak here today on the world economic crisis and its implications for gender equality. A week ago, the UN Secretary-General launched the 2009 UN Millennium Development Goals report, saying that while the full impact of the global economic crisis has yet to be felt, this crisis could “prevent us from keeping our promises, plunging millions more into poverty and risking social and political unrest.” For this reason, he continued, “our efforts to restore economic growth should be seen as an opportunity to take some of the hard decisions needed to create a more equitable and sustainable future.”
It is with that bifocal lens, of challenge and opportunity, that I want to consider some initial findings and observations about the impact of the crisis on gender equality goals.
What began as a crisis of finance in the United States has rapidly engulfed the entire world in an economic recession. The United Nations estimates that global economic production will fall by 2.6 percent in 2009; the first decline since the Second World War. The World Bank warns that as many as 53 million more people could be trapped in poverty, added to the more than 100 million impoverished by the food and energy crisis in 2008. Hundreds of millions of people all over the world are losing their jobs, their income, their savings, their homes, and their ability to survive.
The threat to gains in promoting gender equality, reducing poverty and hunger, achieving universal education and improving women’s health — in fact, to all of the Millennium Development Goals — is serious. The quality of and access to health care is likely to deteriorate significantly as a result of the crisis, obliging women to take on an increasing burden of unpaid care-giving responsibilities and further restricting their opportunities for paid employment. Girls in poor countries with low education attainment rates are more likely to be pulled out of school as households cope with declining resources; by 2007, girls already accounted for 54 percent of the world’s out-of-school population, a percentage likely to go higher. School attendance always declines during times of crisis; some children may never return to school. Incidences of abuse and violence against women also increase during hard times, as shown by the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Falling household incomes could further increase infant and child deaths, with disproportionate effects on women and girls, according to the World Bank.
However, it is now a truism that in every crisis there is an opportunity. Global crises such as this one, which can define a generation, can upset the business-as-usual way the world operates, which makes it so hard to bring about change. For a short time, such a crisis can shine a spotlight on the costs of business as usual, of a globalized economic system that is accompanied by increasing inequality, across and within countries, with the costs of expanding opportunities for some being counted in grinding poverty and stunted lives for so many others.
A policy statement by gender equality advocates within the World Bank points out that in each of the areas most impacted by the crisis, policy responses that build on women’s roles as economic agents can go a long way towards mitigating these negative effects. These responses are good for women and for development, they conclude, yielding "high returns in terms of containing current and future poverty — and should be enacted quickly." However, it is in the area of jobs and livelihoods, where the impact of the crisis is likely to be most profound, that the opportunities to shape more equitable development may be greatest.
The Gendered Impact on Employment
Over the long term, it is employment that is likely to be most radically altered by the crisis, changing the ways in which women and men make their livelihoods, in both developed and developing countries. Unlike in previous crises, where economies recovered quickly in response to continued demand, and employment quickly followed, this crisis is marked by a virtual collapse in global demand, making it difficult for industries to survive. It is likely that the manufacturing landscape in particular will be totally changed, which will create lasting challenges for countries to get people back to work — and provide worthwhile jobs to get back to.
The ILO reports that of 3 billion employed people around the world, slightly over 40 percent are women. While men’s job losses initially increased faster than women’s, more recent data show that the job loss rate for men is slowing, while the rate for women is likely to keep going up, reaching as much as 7.4 percent in 2009, compared to 7 percent for men. Up to 22 million women may lose their jobs, jeopardizing gender equality gains both at home and at work.
Women are especially vulnerable in developing countries, particularly in export processing industries, where they constitute up to 70-80 percent of workers. These industries have been among the biggest sources of export earnings in recent years, fuelling the rapid economic growth that many of these countries experienced. As the economic crisis intensifies, however, shrinking consumer demand has drastically impacted developing country exports, especially in textiles, footwear and electronics. For example:
The ILO also predicts that women will be pushed into insecure jobs at a faster rate than men. Even before the crisis, the vast majority of workers in developing countries were already working in insecure and badly paid jobs in the informal economy. A recent OECD report finds that 1.8 billion people, or more than half of the global labour force, are working without a formal labour contract and social security, compared to 1.2 billion with formal contracts and social security protection. That number is projected to grow to two-thirds of the workforce by 2020, and could go higher as jobs are lost and more migrant workers return home to informal sector jobs. The report notes that a further increase in informal employment and lower wages in poor countries that lack resources for safety nets will particularly affect women, who make up the majority of workers in poor quality jobs.
Informal employment, including part-time, seasonal and contract work in both the formal and informal economy has been growing for at least a decade, as increased economic growth did not translate into more secure jobs. In India, for example, which grew at a rate of 5 percent annually over the last 10 years, approximately 370 million people, or 9 out of 10 employees, do not have formal social security. Mexico, which has grown an average of 2.5 percent in the last ten years, extends social security to only 30 percent of its workforce.
However, at the same time as job losses are pushing more people into the informal economy, that work, too, is getting harder to come by. The closing of construction projects, for example, affects the vendors who sell food and drink to construction workers as well as those who scrape an income in the waste recycling sector: the prices for waste materials have plummeted and waste is accumulating by the ton on streets, at landfills, in warehouses, and at shipping docks around the world. These are the losses that do not show up in unemployment figures — and are likely to be neglected in efforts to stimulate new employment.
Adding to the employment crisis are returning migrant workers. Women constitute at least 50 percent of migrant worker flows from Africa and Latin America and up to 75 and 80 percent from parts of South and Southeast Asia. The growth of migrant workers over the last decade contributed to a steady growth in remittances, which reached US$305 billion in 2008. Since the end of last year, however, they have fallen steadily. Mexico for example, which is the third highest recipient of remittances worldwide, saw a drop of almost 10 percent in December last year compared to the same month in 2007. Protectionist measures are already being felt in more affluent countries, concerned about jobs going to foreign workers. In an effort to keep working as long as they can, migrants are enduring longer hours and more irregular pay, thereby reducing the frequency and amount of remittances that they send back to families and relatives. Women migrants in these situations are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
However, it is not only migrant women who are at greater risk of violence in hard times. While cross-country data are needed, there is growing concern that the widespread loss of jobs and livelihoods in countries will increase threats to women’s and girls’ personal security and exacerbate levels of violence against them. A four-country study of the impact of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 documented increases in crimes of all types, including domestic violence and sexual assault. This is already showing up in reports from shelters and hotlines in some countries. A May 2009 survey of more than 600 domestic violence shelters across the United States found that three out of four reported an increase in women seeking help for abuse since September 2008, when the economic downturn became serious. The survey directly links the increase in domestic violence to the economic downturn — stress and job loss were the leading factors.
Another thing we should recognize as gender-based violence is the fact that infant mortality is rising, in gender-biased ways, as families are obliged to make often very painful choices about pregnancy and childrearing. A World Bank policy brief reports that while boys and girls benefit equally from sudden upturns in per capita GDP, sudden downturns are much more harmful to girls than to boys: a one or more unit fall in GDP increases average infant mortality in the ratio of 7.4 deaths per 1,000 births for girls and 1.5 deaths per 1,000 births for boys.
The gender-specific ways in which the crisis is impacting on real people makes it critical to understand how countries are responding to the crisis. Already many countries have adopted a variety of measures to stimulate renewed economic growth and mitigate the impact on peoples’ lives. Each of these also has gender dimensions. If we look at jobs, for example, both the nature of public spending and the industries selected for support are relevant. While auto industry support is targeted in both developed and emerging economies, such as Brazil and Argentina, many countries, including China, India and Portugal are also targeting support to small and medium enterprises and export industries, particularly textiles.
Many of these packages also provide direct support for poor families or individuals, including those who have lost their jobs. This makes it important to unpack these provisions to see the extent to which they are likely to benefit women and men, for example, via cash transfers, food subsidies, or tax rebates, as well as the extension of unemployment insurance — which is limited to those in formal employment and thus misses the majority of poor women in developing countries. What provisions exist for guaranteeing access to microfinance — for example, which sustains livelihoods for millions of people, especially women — in low-income countries?
It is also important to break down the amount of resources going to each category. Parliamentarians and women’s groups, who have done so much work to encourage finance ministries to adopt gender-responsive budgeting, need to apply these tools to stimulus packages, most of which are done off-budget, to make sure they will benefit women equally with men.
Critical to shaping countries' responses to the crisis is the availability of data. The adoption of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, with time-bound targets and indicators, has taken us leap years ahead in terms of sex-disaggregated data collection and reporting. However, while many of the 12 areas of concern identified in the Beijing Platform have been captured in these indicators, one still has not, namely, violence against women. An inter-agency effort is currently underway to identify a set of indicators, which can be used to collect comparable data in countries worldwide. But meanwhile, as we approach the 15th anniversary of the Beijing conference, it is critical that governments, parliamentarians and women’s organizations work together to document the impact of the crisis on the level and scope of gender-based violence.
Finally, in addition to monitoring the allocations and impact of domestic resources, it is important to track the extent to which countries are fulfilling their commitments to ODA, and ensure that international financial institutions, including the World Bank, the IMF and regional development banks, live up to their recent promises to make funds available to struggling developing countries. This becomes crucial as other sources of income — from exports to remittances — dry up.
Beyond this, however, precisely because the impact on employment is expected to be the most far-reaching and long-lasting, it highlights the need for economic policymakers in all countries to rethink some fundamental economic assumptions, including the male-breadwinner notion that has kept countries locked into 19th- and 20th-century models of economic development. The global economic crisis is propelling countries large and small to examine new areas of economic growth, particularly in the "green economy." These offer an opportunity for countries to provide training and information to women to enable them to compete on a level playing field.
Similarly, as developing countries begin to re-invest in agriculture and rural development in an effort to stimulate new growth, they have an opportunity to invent a new kind of "green revolution," this time focusing on women small farmers, who constitute the majority of food staple producers, in order to break out of dependency on international commodity markets and food imports.
In closing, therefore, I want to suggest that it is precisely at times like this, when old models of progress and well-being have fractured, and in some cases collapsed, that outmoded gender stereotypes that make it so difficult to create the “more equitable and sustainable future” envisioned by the Secretary-General can also give way, enabling both women and men to more fully realize their human rights and human potential.