Speech by Laura Tuominen (Left Forum Finland) in the conference for commemorating the 100 annivarsary of International women's day in Budapest March 7, 2010
On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the initiative for the first International Women’s Day it is important to think about the status of women in the current economic and social crisis.
A hundred years ago women of the working class decided to struggle for the basic rights of women. Many of the demands from one hundred years ago have been satisfied, such as the suffrage for women. In these one hundred years the equality of genders has also been recognized as a fundamental human right. However, many of the problems that women were facing a hundred years ago still remain. For example, the status of women as workers and nurturers is still precarious. This is my topic today.
According to United Nations Development Fund For Women, UNIFEM, women worldwide are concentrated in insecure jobs in the informal sector. They have low income and only few rights. They tend to have few skills and only basic education. For example 80 percent of women workers are considered to be in vulnerable employment in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In the time of economic downturn these women are the first to be fired. Women make up around 60–80 percent of the export manufacturing workforce in the developing world. This sector has suffered heavily during the economic crisis.
According to a Greek researcher Maria Karamessini who spoke at a Transform! seminar in Vienna in January, in Europe the impact of the crisis on employment is that dismissals have started from temporary workers. However, employment insecurity is now rising also among the previously so called ‘stable’ workforce. Besides mass dismissals, also a large number of workers have been affected by wage decreases. This means that income precarity has increased along with employment precarity.
In Europe men, youth, the low and medium-educated and non-EU nationals saw a larger increase in unemployment than for example women. According to Maria Karamessini, though, women have a higher tendency of discouragement and exit from the labour force than men. The crisis has strongly decreased hiring new personnel which has boosted unemployment among young labour market entrants and women returnees. Women also tend to have more precarious working conditions than men.
Besides participating in wage earning, women also have the responsibility of taking care of unpaid reproductive work. Unpaid work is perhaps the biggest contribution that women make to the economy but it remains officially ignored. According to estimations of Canadian UNPAC, unpaid work is estimated to make up 41% of GDP in Canada. Globally the number of unpaid work in the economy is estimated to be $11 trillion US. One could say, that this is one of the most important stimulus packages for the economy but it is not recognised as such.
UNIFEM sources remind us that economic downturn has also a direct impact on development. Parents are likely to take their children, mostly girls, out of school and send them either to work or to take care of responsibilities in the home. This is quite contradictory not only to gender equality in the long run but also to building a steady economy. It is estimated that if female participation in employment were as high as that of men, the GDP of the Euro zone would be 13 % higher. This most probably applies to developing countries as well.
This economic crisis not only weakens the possibilities for gender equality but also the whole starting point of the crisis has been based on gender and ethnic bias. Feminist economists such as Brigitte Young have studied the housing and financial crisis in the United States. A so-called privatised Keynesianism has replaced the principle of a publicly financed social insurance system in the US. As part of this privatised Keynesianism women and minorities were integrated into the ideology of home ownership society through private debt.
Studies show, that the banks’ approval ratings for mortgages were not merely on the basis of person’s credit rating and economic status. Women and minorities were disproportionally more likely to receive sub-prime loans at every income level. For example women with income levels twice the median income in the US were nearly 50 percent more likely to be offered subprime loans than men with similar earnings. Black Americans were twice as likely to receive sub-prime loans than whites in all income ranges.
The costs of the subprime loans are heavy. A subprime loan could mean 85,000 up to 186,000 US dollars in extra payments. This has been a major distribution of wealth from women and minorities to the banks. And they also have to bear the burden of losing their homes as a result of the financial crisis.
What does all of this mean for the left? The left has always been the strongest political movement for gender equality. However, also within the left political and economic thinking and political practises are often gender-neutral. Without analysis of the impacts of gender relations on society the left simply cannot function as a movement for social transformation. By adopting feminist analysis of politics and society the left will have more tools in making initiatives for a more just and sustainable world.