Workshop 30th October 2009 Gendered Resistance at Times of Economic Crisis
GADNET (Gender and Development Network) and GADIP (Gender and Development in
Practice) in cooperation with WIDE held a workshop at University of Gothenburg
Sweden on the theme “Gendered Resistance at Times of Economic Crisis”. About 25
persons gathered a Friday in late October to listen to four speakers and to discuss issues
raised by these presentations. Anja Franck, who is a PhD student in Economic Geography
and a WIDE member, acted as the moderator. The event also included lunch. Here
follows a summary of the presentations and the afternoon discussion.
Hameda Deedat is a researcher and activist based in Cape Town and she made her
presentation on line from South Africa. Her presentation highlighted that resistance
theory is gender biased and to be meaningful it needs to be engendered. Taking examples
from her fieldwork on gender implications of job losses among women in the clothing
industry, Hameda showed how neo-liberalization policies in South Africa have had
unforeseen and intimate effects on women’s everyday lives. During the apartheid era,
employment meant that women became more independent not only economically but
indirectly also socially. Thanks to their wage labour, women could for instance leave
destructive or abusive relationships. Post-apartheid, the consequences of economic
liberalization and reduced protectionism were multiple and included loss of
independence, increased debt, rising family problems, depression and stress as well as
limited access to health services, water and electricity. On the other hand, those who
maintained their jobs lived in fear of retrenchment, sexual harassments of supervisors and
managers, and faced deteriorating work conditions. Hameda argued that neoliberalization offers us many motivations to resist since so many ordinary people live
with its bad consequences; the current economic paradigm favours profit over people.
However, despite many social movements a comprehensive unified strategy of resistance
is missing. Global competition for work has managed to divide people who have common
interests in resisting. Hameda argued that the reason for the failure of the resistance
movement to bring about change is that it has not taken women into account. “[F]or a
society to change, the interests of women need concretely be addressed and placed at the
core of decision making”, writes Hameda and she ends by emphasizing that women have
so often been the anchors for struggle and change.
Ewa Charkiewicz is an academic researcher and activist with an interest in critical
globalization studies and in feminism and ecology as new social critique. Recently she
has conducted research about women, poverty and financial crisis in Poland and other
parts of Eastern Europe. She is also involved in the Feminist Think Tank in Poland and in
WIDE. She spoke on the title “Women, financial crisis and care economy”. In Poland and
other Eastern European countries the resistance against neo-liberalization has been
suppressed but there is some resistance, especially among women active in trade unions.
There are thus pockets of resistance against a system that seriously undermines
sustainable livelihood. But what do we actually oppose and what is the “face of the
(metaphorical) enemy” although we are all in the system? Ewa asked. She also pointed at
the financial crisis as an opportunity that made the problems and failures of the system
visible and that brought criticism from unexpected actors in the locus of the neo-liberal
economy. Ewa underlined the importance of the care economy (i.e. the unpaid and often
neglected work of primarily women to reproduce families and households) and of natural
resources in the productive economy. It has even been argued by feminists that “ordinary
people” are not indebted to banks but banks are rather indebted to them because of the
care economy. For instance, if women would refuse care work, a state would not be able
to function. There is thus a mutual dependence between different economies which is
most often invisible and forgotten. By looking at connections between the productive
economy and nature we can also better understand how the system works and what
means we have to intervene. The use of computers for instance demand lots of natural
resources as well as care work. As feminist scholars and as activists, we need to make
clear what strategic interventions to use when resisting an economic system that damages
our daily lives.
Sara Spånt is a policy specialist, at team Market Development, the Department of
Economic Opportunities, Sida, Stockholm. Her presentation focused on Sida’s ongoing
and planned work for Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE). Sida defines WEE as
the process which enables women to make strategic life choices through, first, equal
access to and control over critical economic resources and opportunities and, second,
elimination of structural gender inequalities in the labour market (including a better
sharing of paid and unpaid work between men and women). Sida’s work is divided into
seven focus areas. The first area concentrates on building women’s human capital and
capabilities. This is mostly done through support to education which should be for
everyone and of high quality as to not reproduce pre-existing social inequalities.
Vocational Education and Training programs (VET) should also be gender aware; for
instance they should not be focusing on training women only for traditional female
occupations or competencies. The second focus is on the redistribution of reproductive
and unpaid care work. By infrastructure investments (such as water, energy and transport)
women’s time spent on households’ chores may be reduced. In this area, public financing
of child care has immediate payoffs. Thirdly, Sida works to equalize property rights since
unequal access to land and housing blocks access to expansion and credit. Alternative and
better approaches to land titling and rights can also benefit women. The fourth area is
focusing on labour market rights with special attention to informal economy and
agriculture and to female migrant and domestic workers’ rights. Labour market reforms
should also recognize and work for the reconciliation of family and work obligations.
Entrepreneurship and private sector development was the fifth area of concern that Sara
spoke about. Sida here works for the availability of micro-credits and for
entrepreneurship programs which are better suited for women. The sixth focus is on
gender aware social protection which guarantees citizens’ access to their most basic
means. Women’s reproduction should also be recognized for instance in maternity health
care. The last area Sara talked about was gender and trade. Sida wants trade policies to
integrate gender considerations in order to minimize the unintended negative gender
impacts of structural reforms and to explicitly promote gender reforms. In sum, Sida
concentrates on gender awareness and prioritizes some specific areas when trying to
promote WEE.
Maria Padrón Hernández is a PhD student in social anthropology at School of Global
Studies, University of Gothenburg. Her research is about everyday economies in Havana,
Cuba. At the workshop, her presentation focused on the experiences and responses to a
more or less constant economic crisis, using a broad definition of resistance which is
more related to possibilities to cope than to protest openly. Maria described the Cuban
economic context in which a fundamental problem is that state salaries are not enough to
cover household needs for most. What people do is to diversify their income-generating
activities by working in the informal and thus illegal sector or by the informal letting of
valuable assets such as cars and phone lines. Since notions about the male breadwinner
and female care-taker prevail in Cuba (despite an ideological and factual participation of
women in wage-labour), women have more of an excuse not having a formal job. Men
without formal employment are more often suspected of working illegally which is not
only a legal problem but also a political one. Women without a job can claim to be
housewives and thus escape from suspicions of being unemployed or acting in the
informal sector. Maria argued that as a consequence of economic hardships people in
Havana feel that they cannot live “a normal life”. Economic crisis is thus not only about
difficulties to survive but also to lead a life that permits people to be “real persons” in the
moral and social sense of the word. Those notions about real personhood are also
gendered. In Cuba, concerns about lack of hygiene products and means to date create a
sense of abnormality, indignity and dissatisfaction. Even though Cubans seldom have to
go hungry, they have to forsake those things that they considered making life worth
living. In sum, both responses to and experiences of economic crisis are gendered.
Moreover, Maria argued that to fully understand the consequences of economic recession
poverty should not be reduced to the un-fulfilment of basic biological needs but people’s
own concerns and wants should also be taken into consideration.
For the afternoon session, which was also headed by Anja Franck, some of the present
researchers had prepared questions to open up the discussion, taking as point of departure
the concern of the theme of the workshop in different geographical areas of the world.
Edmé Domínguez spoke from a Latin American perspective, Ann Schlyter and Hauwa
Mahdi from an African one while Anja Franck focused on the situation in South East
Asia and Ewa Charkiewicz on the European context. Our discussion then came to
concentrate on the concept resistance and how it is defined. What do we mean by
resistance and why is it important to resist? Without reaching a consensus, we discussed
resistance as survival versus open opposition, as collective oppression while individual
freedom abounds, as an intended and recognized opposition as opposed to the unintended
outcome of acts and practices. Within our networks we need to maintain a critical
perspective but at the same time also think of the more practical implications of
resistance. Does resistance matter and does it make a difference? It was suggested that
resistance may be important to understand causes of subordination and to create a sense
of empowerment while a focus on for instance citizenship rights can be more constructive
in practice. Naila Kabeer, University of Sussex, who joined us by the end of the day
underlined that the so called food crisis may be more important than the financial crisis
for most people and that crisis may be an opportunity to talk about social protection and
to criticize trade agreements.
Nina Gren, GADIP