Women and the Great Recession

Nataliya is a single mother with two children. She runs a small business selling flowers in downtown Uzhgorod, Ukraine.

Nataliya is a single mother with two children. She runs a small business selling flowers in downtown Uzhgorod, Ukraine.

A colleague of mine sent me a link to the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College where they do a lot of research on Gender Equality and Economic Issues. The Institute’s Rania Antonopoulos has just released a very interesting study on The Current Economic and Financial Crisis:
A Gender Perspective
. It is an interesting addition to a growing field that finds that “widespread economic recessions and protracted financial crises have been documented as setting back gender equality and other development goals”.   Problems with development goals include food insecurity, poverty and increasing inequality.

I learned that women’s economic and social role in an economy is one of the primary indicators of when and if a country will every creep its way off the bottom of Human Development index when I began to study development economics way back in the late 70s and early 1980s.  Development economics spends a lot of time on institutions these days. I do a lot of my research into the depth and effectiveness of financial institutions. There are also legal institutions (like lack of government corruption and presence of an effective justice system) that make an important difference too.  But, overlying all of these institutional institutions is the society’s treatment of women.  Women’s access to education, birth control, and economic-self determination are essential to a country’s overall development.  This is especially true for developing nations but it holds true for industrialized ones as well.

Antonopoulos poses an interesting question for those of us interested in both eliminating poverty and achieving gender equality throughout the world.  She asks “what macroeconomic conditions must prevail for gender-equality processes to take root?”  and argues that women’s rights can only be achieved if economic development is “broadly  shared”.    I was particularly awed by her treatment of women in her study.

Hence, women in this analysis are not featured as passive recipients of gender-equality policies, but rather as full citizens participating at all levels of economic, political, and social life. As active members of the community, women have a stake in putting forward comprehensive, coherent, and consistent proposals instead of being content with a piecemeal agenda that targets the “poor” and “women.”

I like this definition of equality as ‘full participation’ in all aspects of a community although I would add that as stake holders women (and indeed GLBT and other minorities kept in an inequality gulag) not only should achieve full participation but also full rewards for that participation.

One of the most compelling arguments that she makes for Gender Awareness is that frequently women’s most important roles in the local economy are in nonpaying jobs.  She argues that you really can’t take any policy into full account unless you study the impact on all of women’s contributions to the economy.  That includes work that does not entail monetary compensation but is welfare-enhancing.

While the former (paid work) in the private and public sectors (under formal contracts or informal arrangement) is largely recognized, unpaid work, which includes unpaid family work contributions, subsistence production, collection of free goods from common lands and volunteer work, household maintenance, and unpaid care work for family members and communities, still remains hidden and, hence, outside policy consideration.

These contributions are still the dominant areas for women in traditional societies.  It has been shown that women who

Mrs. Som Neang, age 53, is married and lives with her two children in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She and her husband, Mr. Ban Boeun, 59, have a small business selling eggs and a variety of vegetables in a busy market.

Mrs. Som Neang, age 53, is married and lives with her two children in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She and her husband, Mr. Ban Boeun, 59, have a small business selling eggs and a variety of vegetables in a busy market.

understand health and nutrition issues as well as women who are educated and value education contribute a lot to an economy when they serve in these traditional capacities.  Educated women contribute through their children who are healthier and go on to achieve better outcomes in life.

There is also impact, however, on women who work outside the homes and women are concentrated in jobs that tend to suffer greatly during bad economic times.  Any time energy or food prices increase, development goals and gender equality goals suffer setbacks. Antonopolous forwards some broad areas where women tend to suffer most from any economic crisis.

“Among the emerging challenges of the current crisis, we now turn to the turbulence in the world of women’s work in four key areas: paid work (especially in textiles and agriculture); informal work; unpaid work; and fluctuations in remittances, including those from women migrant workers.”

Employment is always one of the slowest things to recovery from a macroeconomic downturn.  The last set of recessions resulting from the Asian Financial crisis as well as other country-specific downturns showed that employment recovery has been even more slow than recovery from recessions earlier in the post world war 2 years.  Current data is rich in information on how this impacts women’s equality goals.

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