New Internationalist Issue 270
Still something to shout about
Women are facing up to a ruthless killer. Nikki van der Gaag asks if there is still a feminist movement to defend them.
The 'world's most ruthless killer' is coded as Z59.5. It has meant 'widening gaps between rich and poor, between one population group and another, between age groups and between the sexes' 1 (my italics). It has caused more suffering to more people than anything else on earth. And it has got worse over the last ten years. Despite improvements in education and health, for hundreds of millions of women Z59.5 has meant lives lived closer to the edge than before. Beneath the rhetoric of 'post-feminism' and 'equality between the sexes' lies another, more sinister, phenomenon.
So what is Z59.5? A recently discovered virus? A new form of nerve gas? No. Z59.5 is a code listed in the World Health Organization's A-Z of ailments, the International Classification of Diseases. It stands for 'extreme poverty'.
In the jargon it is known as 'the feminization of poverty'. It has influenced women's lives more than any other factor over the last decade. In a study carried out over 20 years up to 1990, 'the number of rural women in poverty has increased by 50 per cent, reaching an awesome 565 million, while that of men has grown by 30 per cent to about 400 million.'2
The poverty problem is not confined to the Majority World. In the US, almost half of all poor families are supported by women with no spouse present, and their average income is 23 per cent below the official poverty line.
Why have women become so much poorer? There is no one reason. In countries like Kenya and India, cutbacks resulting from the International Monetary Fund's structural-adjustment polices (SAPs) have affected women most because they are the main recipients of education and health services. In the West, economic liberalization and the dominance of the market has meant that those with least earning power - women with children - have suffered most. All over the world men have had to leave their families to seek work: this has meant more women-headed households and consequently more families living in poverty3 (see the table below).
Selvi from Adiramapattinam in India is one of those women struggling to support a family on her own. 'I have four children and have to feed them from the income I get by selling fish [which she buys from the fishermen and sells on]. Until last year I could send them all to school. This last year the price of fish has gone up beyond my reach. At the shore there are big people who come and take away all the good fish in trucks. The fish catch has come down a lot. This is because most of the fish is caught in double nets by the motor boats and ships. I now send my two daughters to work... I thought I could make a good life for my children in this place... It seems I was wrong.'4
So has the women's movement made no difference to Selvi and others like her? The media would certainly have us believe that things are fine for women. We are in a 'post-feminist era'. A Labour Councillor interviewed on British television recently argued against the party's latest policy of interviewing only female candidates for some safe seats in order to increase the numbers of women in Parliament. 'Women are equal now,' she said.
There are moves towards equality. New laws have been enacted to protect women's rights. More girls everywhere are being educated (and even sometimes doing better than boys), women are living longer, and more children are surviving beyond infancy. Access to contraception has increased. There are more women in positions of power - though their numbers overall are still pitifully few. Worldwide, about six per cent of cabinet positions are held by women - up from three per cent in 1987. And of the 24 female heads of state this century, half have been elected since 1990. More women are working - not only in jobs that were specifically designated as 'women's work', but as bus drivers, miners and even priests.
But women are still far from equal. Many working women are stuck in low-paid, part-time work or scraping a living in the burgeoning 'informal economy'. They are still doing most of the housework and childcare as well - in studies of 17 less-developed countries, women's work hours exceeded men's by 30 per cent. And data from 12 industrialized countries found that formally-employed women worked about 20-per-cent longer hours than men.5
Even the positive changes are under threat as powerful factions stress the return of women to their 'proper sphere' - the home. Sometimes this is couched in terms of religious duty: 'Raising children is a blessing from the Lord, and I can't imagine a home without the mother being there,' says Nancy Tucker, a 'stay-at-home mother' in an American fundamentalist magazine.6 At other times, it is phrased amid dire warnings of societal demise if women continue to try and 'have everything'. The fact that men already 'have everything' is considered irrelevant.
In fact, life at home for many women still means drudgery, even violence. Domestic violence remains common, and rape within marriage is only just being recognized as a crime in a few countries. In the US, a woman is beaten every 18 minutes and domestic violence is the leading cause of injury among women of reproductive age.7 There is violence outside the home too, as fundamentalist movements attack women and wars subject them to the loss of family and home or even to rape and torture. According to Amnesty International: 'If doing nothing can put women in danger, then becoming actively involved in fighting repression can seal their fate. When women stand up as lawyers, trade unionists, grassroots campaigners or human-rights activists they seem to pose a particular threat to the status quo as well as to the government they oppose.'8
So what has feminism achieved? Is it dead, killed off by poverty and lack of tangible achievement? Certainly, the women's movement has not led to a less violent world, nor (as yet) has it meant much change in the way men behave. Its main impact, as British writer Joan Smith points out, has been 'the change it has brought about in female consciousness'.9 This seems to be true wherever you look in the world. Women still find themselves in impossible situations but because they are now more aware of their relative position in the world - and of the support they can get from other women - they are reacting differently.
This is especially true in the Majority World. And even truer for poor women, who have all three of the elements necessary for action: they have a clear agenda; they have other people in the same situation to act with them; and they have nothing to lose. As Nandini Azad of the Working Women's Forum (WWF) in India put it, 'poor women can be rich too' - rich in solidarity and rich in clarity of thought. 'We had to stop sobbing about SAPs (structural adjustment programmes) and do something,' says Nandini. And what they have done is remarkable. The Workng Women's Forum has mobilized 280,000 women throughout India in a range of programmes from credit banks to training workshops.
'Most of the women,' explains Nandini, 'are poor - really poor. Around 89 per cent work in the informal economy - as street vendors, landless labourers, or beedi (local cigarette) makers. But they try to use the economic situation as an opportunity rather than viewing it as a disaster. Lakshmiamma, a lace-maker in Narsapur, gave a talk to the other women recently. She gave them some sound advice: "I do not know enough to give you advice but I can give you a message that my President gave me when we started to organize the women lace-makers. The rich will always help the rich. The poor will therefore have to help the poor. Reach out to the poorest wherever they are and help them to help themselves... Then you will succeed..."'
This kind of radicalization has gone hand in hand with the feminization of poverty. Poor women are often radical women.
But radicalization can happen for personal reasons as well. While feminism has become a negative word for many young women, there are some who are still proud to claim it as their own. As part of the preparations for the Fourth World Women's Conference in Beijing I attended a workshop on 'intergenerational dialogue' in New York. The group of young women I was sitting with were discussing the differences between their generation and the previous one.
'If you call yourself a feminist it means you are crazy.' The dark-haired woman sitting next to me leaned towards the others to emphasize her point and the rest of them nodded. 'The image we have of the older women's movement is that it was dominated by white, middle-class women.' 'Calling yourself a feminist today,' said another, 'means you can get totally harassed.'
The speakers ranged in age from fifteen to their early twenties. The first came from China, others from the US, Canada and Kenya. They were all adamant that 'feminism' had got itself a bad name. But they were also clear that the things the movement had struggled for had by no means been won and that they themselves had much to fight for, albeit in a different way.
The other main difference they noted was that they did not define themselves in opposition to men. 'Because of the gains made by the women's movement in the US we take a lot for granted,' said Leba. 'And that makes it harder to see the male structure we are part of.' 'That's true,' agreed Rini, 'but we can talk to men - not all men, but some. And that is important. We need to deal with men if we are going to get anywhere.'
Rini had put her finger on one of the crucial differences between the feminism of ten or even five years ago and the young women of today - between what they call the 'second' and the 'third' waves of feminism. While feminism - or 'the F-word' as Julie Parker and Amy Richards call it in their article (The F-word) - as a concept has remained much the same, younger feminists are more ready to talk to and work alongside men.
In a publication for Demos, an independent think-tank in Britain, Helen Wilkinson pointed out that 'We are in the middle of an historic change in relations between men and women: a shift in power and values that is unravelling many of the assumptions not only of 200 years of industrial society, but also of millennia of traditions and beliefs.' 10
In this new and still-developing paradigm, men are no longer the enemy, although male structures and patriarchal thinking are still the major agents of repression. This has been recognized at a number of levels. By and large, the word 'gender' rather than 'women' is now used in the context of change and of any analysis of society. Thus 'Women in Development' has become 'Gender and Development', on the understanding that just working on women's situations is not going to make a difference, whereas working with men and women is.
Joyce Umbima campaigns in Kenya on behalf of girl-children, who, she says, still face a huge amount of discrimination. 'Even when you are born there are fewer celebrations for a girl than for a boy. If you are a boy, there is lots of feasting and joy. If you are a girl, people just keep quiet.' The tools she now uses to effect change include workshops for men and women together. 'We try not to be confrontational. We ask them "Can we develop economically if we are not pulling together?" And "How much time do you spend with your children?" We begin to look at the time fathers spend with their sons and we find it is very little. So we ask them: "If you have high hopes for your son how can you shape him if you spend no time with him, if you say childcare is a woman's task?" And in some places men will say "You are right. We had not thought about it."'
But inevitably, there is also resentment from men. As Christine Bradley, who has campaigned against domestic violence in Papua New Guinea, puts it: 'Women's development threatens male authority. Although this is seldom openly acknowledged... the position of women exists not in a vacuum but in relation to the position of men. Eliminating discrimination against women is another way of saying eliminating discrimination that favours men. Not surprisingly, men don't like this. And where men hold most of the power, what men think has serious consequences for women.' 11
This issue is global as well as local. Interestingly, one word which remained unresolved for a long time in the documents for the Beijing Conference was 'gender'. It is less threatening to male-led governments to consider 'women' as a separate category than to acknowledge that it is the relationship between men and women that is crucial. As Joyce Umbima shows, the only way of bringing men on board is to show that change is in their interest. And this will take much time and much persuasion.
One public face of this persuasion is the Women's Conference in Beijing. With 30,000-plus attending, it will be the biggest international gathering of women ever held anywhere. And the potential agenda is nothing short of revolutionary. Supatra Masjid, of the NGO Forum that parallels the main government conference, called it 'a movement for the twenty-first century that will transform the world'.
I spoke to Peggy Antrobus, one of the founders of DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era), a Third World feminist network at the forefront of research into women's issues. 'What matters is that we are dealing with a social movement. The heightened awareness of women's issues around these conferences helps to build a movement which operates not just at global but at national level - and it is the work at national level that is going to make the difference.'
Dame Nita Barrow, who organized the NGO Forum at the Nairobi Women's Conference in 1985, was quite clear about this: 'Back home is the only place that actions really count.'
The Beijing Conference has been riddled with problems, from its siting in China through a host of political debates around abortion, gender and human rights. But governments are still likely to emerge from it having promised to improve women's position across the board. A real commitment to defeating Z59.5 will take much more than fine words or pretty intentions. What is certain is that the women's movement - ever-changing but still very much alive - will be in the forefront of the campaign to make it happen.
1 The World Health Report 1995 Bridging the Gaps, WHO, Geneva, 1995.
2 'On women and poverty in developing countries' - a paper by Dr Idriss Jazairy of ACORD, 1995.
3 Mortgaging Women's Lives: Feminist Critiques of Structural Adjustment, edited by Pamela Sparr (Zed Books, 1995).
4 Groots (Grassroots Organisations Operating Together in Sisterhood - South Asia), Vol 2 Issue 5.
5 Progress of Nations 1995, UNICEF.
6 Fundamentalism and Gender edited by John Stratton Hawley (Oxford University Press, 1994).
7 Families in Focus, a report by the Population Council, May 1995.
8 'Women's Rights, Human Rights', Amnesty Issue 73, May/June 1995.
9 The Backlash: the Undeclared War Against Women by Susan Faludi, (Chatto & Windus 1991).
10 No Turning Back: Generations and the Genderquake, by Helen Wilkinson (Demos, 1995).
11 Written for this magazine.
12 The World's Women (UNDPI 1995).