Feminist Responses to the Neoliberal Global Economic Order
This paper seeks to do describe how feminists have responded to the challenges and opportunities of the neoliberal global economic order. I proceed by briefly defining neoliberalism, noting its origins and the global processes it sought to address, then describing how it spread worldwide, its effects and feminist reactions thereto.
July 8th, 2011
This paper seeks to do describe how feminists have responded to the challenges and opportunities of the neoliberal global economic order. I proceed by briefly defining neoliberalism, noting its origins and the global processes it sought to address, then describing how it spread worldwide, its effects and feminist reactions thereto. Neoliberalism is a global phenomenon and per.vades all aspects of life, but I will limit my discussion to sub-Saharan Africa and to analysis arising out of the in.ternational United Nations (UN) conferences of the 1990s, which were key sites of activism and some of the turning points of critiquing neoliberalism.
The paper will focus on feminist critiques of neolib.eralism in academia, in feminist activism and debates on health, sexuality and development (including HIV and AIDS, and reproductive health), and in the political arena (governance, human rights, democratisation). These issues are discussed in general, not in detail, given limited space. This choice is personal, based on the as.sumption that these issues are perhaps more accessible to readers as well. I include critiques in academia not only because neoliberalism emerged in academia, but be.cause one of its persuasive strengths lies in its use of language or concepts, which sound like those used in identity and freedom movements such as the feminist movement. In reality, neoliberal policies counter feminist quests at many levels. In addition, neoliberal ways of thinking and doing things are often presented as if “there is no alternative”, as the only way to achieve de.velopment and economic success, arguing rationality and objectivity when in fact many neoliberal ideas and con.cepts were not tested before their worldwide application. There is nothing scientific about neoliberalism. Rather, it is a political strategy to retain economic dominance on the part of its proponents. Claims to ‘objectivity’ hide the vested interests of these policies and are the same forces that feminists have been struggling against for decades (Sparr 1994a).
Neoliberalism: its origins and spread to sub-Saharan Africa
Neoliberalism is a broad term which refers to policies that emphasise market-led as opposed to state-led devel.opment in response to the economic stagnation of the 1970s (Razavi 2003; Sparr 1994b). The former suppos.edly ensure economic growth as the only way to promote development. These beliefs (and policies based on them) emerged in the United States of America and the United Kingdom under the conservative administrations of Ronald Reagan and Margret Thatcher respectively. They were a response to the economic slow-downin the 1970’s, which was attributed to huge government spending be.cause of cradle-to-grave social protection – a means by which post-war wealth was redistributed to ordinary peo.ple. In addition, there were high labour costs because of strong unions, which ensured job security for all workers and living wages. Businesses had devised ways to produce cheaply by exporting production and importing cheap finished products. This led to job losses in the West. Such pursuits of cheap labour were seen as rational business responses for companies that wanted to make a profit. The same Western workers also preferred access to cheap goods. In both the UK and the US, the new thinking was that there was a need to do things differently by al.lowing business a freer hand, and to ensure that other parts of the world followed suit. The rest of the world was whipped into line using ‘aid’ – both technical expert.ise and money – as inducements to implement neoliberal reforms (see for instance Bond 1998).1 Successful ad.justers were rewarded with foreign investment, often in the form of footloose industries, employing young women with no prior experience of unions and with lim.ited fringe benefits (Bond and Manyanya 2002). In sub-Feminist Responses to the Neoliberal Global Economic Order Saharan Africa, these policies became known as Struc.tural Adjustment Policies (SAPs). They were supposed to ‘stabilise’ and ‘grow’ economies. In the mid 1990s, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was formed to deal specifically with international trade negotiations and mar.ket access rules – and any conflicts – always ensuring that business interests took precedence. Over the years, the term ‘globalisation’ became the catch-all term for neolib.eral change in the world. Through the process of glob.alisation, neoliberalism became a global force, which pervaded all sectors of life from health, access to medi.cines, communication, perceptions of time and interna.tional trade, to activism itself, all this on the back of technological changes.
Neoliberalism is based on the untested assumption that ‘the market’ is more efficient in service and com.modity distribution because of its profit motive. Further, it is said to be neutral – indifferent to the race, gender, class or religion of clients as long as they pay for goods and services – unlike the state, whose decisions are always biased towards political interests. The latter is inefficient and associated with red tape, or with outright corruption in the case of Third World countries (see Sparr 1994: 13.14; Razavi 2003; Dawson 2000). This is seen as a stum.bling block for development. Furthermore, it is assumed that there is ‘no society’ – no coherent system of rela.tions, norms and beliefs – but rather self-interested and calculating individuals who seek to maximise gain in every interaction.2 The individuals are ‘economic agents’, who voluntarily use the market to pursue their interests, and businesses respond to their ‘tastes’, ‘preferences’ and ‘choices’, with each individual a potential entrepreneur. Consequently, individuals access services less as ‘citizens’, but more as fee-paying ‘clients’ or ‘consumers’, where their wallets and purses are the bases of the exercise of ‘free will’ (see for instance Trentmann 2006). There is a deliberate conflation of concepts such as citizens’ rights and client or consumer choices. These two words are often used in empowerment discourses as if they are the same when they are not; their politics are also different.
Thus, neoliberal policies recommend ‘rolling back’ the state so that it no longer participates in service deliv.ery, but concentrates on legal reforms to create a con.ducive environment for competitive business. ‘Rolling back’ has meant trimming civil services by retrenching workers, and making permanent workers part-time or ca.sual workers to reduce the wage bill and in turn govern.ment expenditure. In addition, governments embark on the privatisation of public enterprises, remove subsidies on basic services and commodities, including credit and food, introduce user-fees on basic services such as health and education, devalue currencies, and ‘open’ the econ.omy to foreign competition and investment. All these have had contradictory effects. Often inflation goes up, followed by the cost of living, and the severity of poverty. Conducive environments for business mean governments have changed investment, labour and prop.erty laws to make their countries attractive to foreign in.vestors.
Feminist researchers have criticised the language and assumptions of neoliberalism as misleading and gender bi.ased. ‘The market’, as unattached to society, is a myth and gender biased (Dawson 2000). The market is organ.ised to mirror social divisions existing in society – such as class, gender, race, ethnicity and other differences (Sparr 1994; Dawson 2000). Thus, people with higher in.come and wealth play more dominant roles in the market and are better able to pay for services available in the market. It is such people who can exercise choice at the market. There are class, race and gender divides in terms of who is not able to be in the market and the terms on which they enter the market. Neoliberal conceptualisa.tions of the market hide from view women’s labour in reproductive work, which is not paid, not voluntary, and invisible to (neoliberal) policy makers, who assume that women are available at all times as ‘unemployed’ individ.uals to do work abandoned by the state. Furthermore, customary practices and laws often define women’s roles in such a way that they cannot openly earn and control independent income, but instead are dependent on male providers. The same applies to their ownership of prop.erty (see Sparr 1994: 16).
In addition, reference to ‘the market’ may be said to be ethnocentric, speaking to Western experiences of ex.change. There are different forms of markets embedded in different socio-cultural contexts and rules. These mar.kets are not isolated but interact with ‘the market’. For instance, in kin-based rural economies, marriage ex.changes are as important as ‘the market’ and interact in complex ways. In marriage markets, women’s sexuality and fertility and economic roles are transacted and ex.changed for goods of value as determined by ‘the mar.ket’. Such exchanges are rendered complex by kinship rules, the gender and religious norms that bind them and the given laws that recognise them. Debates abound about their meaning; whether or not they objectify women or their sexuality (and especially fertility), hence the price they attract, and compensation for premarital sex. Thus, even if states are able to discipline society by creating this ideal type of market, in non-Western soci.eties – especially in southern Africa where marriage pay.ments persist – the marriage market continues to be at the centre of family formation, descent, gender roles and property rights and relations. Its persistence also renders women less able to participate in ‘the market’ as fully-fledged individuals, as indicated below. In addition, there is also growing criticism of the fact that in many soci.eties, social provisioning or gift giving to ensure survival of the less fortunate is made invisible by this focus on ‘the market’ (Dawson 2000).
Neoliberal theories see the individual as the unit of analysis, as they do not accept that ‘society’ exists. In other words, they do not agree that there are collective interests, which train people (socialisation) and therefore influence behaviour. Individuals are seen as ‘economic agents’ with no social identifiers – they are genderless, classless, have no race and so on. They are abstract indi.viduals (Dawson 2000: 2). The market sees only their ‘choices’, ‘preferences’ and ‘tastes’, and responds to them as the demand side of the supply-and-demand forces of the market. Some variants of neoliberal policies see ‘the household’ as the smallest unit of analysis, assuming it to be a harmonious unit headed by the so-called ‘benev.olent dictator’, assumed to be male. The internal divisions within the household, and the possibility of multiple pro.duction systems and divergent uses of income – as men prioritise some things while women focus on others – remain unseen. Assuming that men are heads of house.holds means that they benefit from proposed changes, while women’s roles remain invisible. Due to the popu.larisation of the ‘feminisation of poverty’, women in fe.male-headed households may be recognised as targets of development while those in male-headed households re.main in a bind as far as policy is concerned.
Social relations based on this conceptualisation of ‘the market’ and ‘the individual’ make people look at each other as ‘opportunities to make profit’ – a recipe for ex.ploitation and insecurity as ‘opportunities’ are exhaustible (see Elson 2001; Elson 2004). Relations terminate soon after opportunities are exhausted, and the anxiety this en.tails for those who are exploited and left after they have served their purposes are not dealt with (Bauman 2004). This has seen a lot of instability and insecurity in rela.tionships and institutions such as marriage and house.holds. The rise of transactionalism in the wake of this instability and insecurity should be seen as despair, which comes with the rapid change. Opportunities are of course gendered; women provide opportunities for do.mesticity, while the women themselves may transact in their domestic skills, leading to a range of behaviours and arrangements, which are associated with risk, such as transactional sex, temporary marriages and sex work. In other words neoliberal change has worsened inequality and pushed women into worse forms of despair. Some.times fear of this despair forces women to stay in violent relations because the alternative is seen as worse.
Thus, state withdrawal from social services such as healthcare and education through the introduction of user fees often leaves women doing most of the care work. With the AIDS crisis, especially in southern Africa, women have carried a large burden of care for the sick. With the increase in the use of antiretrovirals, perhaps this burden will decline in time. A lot of the care work is done with very few materials and little technical support from the state and non-governmental organisations.
Emerging livelihoods: ‘coping’ and ‘survival’ strategies
Many studies claim that talk about impoverishment and despair is disempowering, arguing that it is better to talk about ‘coping’ and ‘survival’ strategies. But such terms play down the depths of despair to which people are pushed. These terms emerged to highlight the agency and capabilities of women victims of neoliberalism, as opposed to their expressing despair and helplessness. However, the overplay of ‘coping’ and ‘survival’ also drowns out the despair. Rugalema, for instance, argues that there is a need to show people’s struggles and de.spair in order to demonstrate the urgent need for change (Rugalema 2000). Poor people (men and women), some.times living with chronic diseases, and without the wherewithal to deal with either the poverty or their chronic illnesses, are described as coping and devising survival strategies. Use of such politically correct and seemingly empowering language gives the impression that things are under control, and often postpone action. They lead to activists praising the resilience and will to live rather than demanding more and better resources for the affected individuals and challenging systems which perpetuate suffering. In individuals’ lived realities, ‘coping’ and ‘surviving’ might mean that women sell the only skill society has bestowed on them, but it may not be adding to their human dignity.
The neoliberal economic order has threatened the survival of the vulnerable because of the way it chal.lenges existing social institutions – whether they are fam.ilies, households or communities. Previously established relationships have also become unstable because of the cash nexus. Some of this instability is to blame for mar.ital dissolutions and the instability of households. This situation has created growing populations of homeless children, youth and women in different African cities. Often homeless people’s needs are responded to through soup kitchens run by charities and faith groups, but the homeless are largely seen as outcasts and miscreants.
The growth of the informal sector has been another impact of the neoliberal order, thereby giving credence to the idea that there is a potential entrepreneur in each human being. However, women’s informal sector activi.ties are typically at the lowest end of the sector where earnings are low, hours are long and working conditions are not always favourable. Men dominate in high return sectors such as transport, where they supply or operate their own vehicles. Women lack the resources to acquire such vehicles. The lack of credit for women’s activities and their reliance on the little-acknowledged rotating credit schemes in sub-Saharan Africa remains a major stumbling block to growing these budding entrepreneurs (Tsikata and Kerr 2000: 9-16).
Individual/consumer making choices and being empowered?
Being a consumer has become an important identity as neoliberalism spreads across the world and consumer goods become widely available. Their availability neces.sitates ‘choice’, even if it is about the purchase of sec-ond-hand clothes as noted by Hansen’s long-term study of Zambia’s clothing cultures in the wake of neoliberal reforms in that country (Hansen 2000: 35), or of sec-ond-hand cars from the Far East (as is the case for most of southern and East Africa), and of everything else in between. Researchers studying consumption say that it is contextually defined; it is about individual and social identity – from the pursuit of vanity where choices are expanded at the mall, through shopping and packaging oneself for visibility to be seen and marvelled at – and about collective identities (Simon 1996: 5-14; Trent.mann 2006). For women especially, consumption be.comes a new way of inscribing class and upward mobility in ways which do not critique female depend.ence on men. The pressure brought to bear on the less
fortunate because of being excluded is palpable. Trent.mann observes that it is important to take the definition of a consumer beyond the narrow neoliberal definition of ‘market behaviour’ and see it as an activity which has implications for collective interests (Trentman 2006). Suggestions have been made that there are ethical con.sumption movements, where people consciously select goods to help protect the environment and to ensure the fair treatment of workers producing the goods, among other examples. In southern Africa, these issues are limited even when sweatshops and multinational factories are popping up in our midst. It is true that some of the sweatshops produce clothes for export, but some of their networks also sell clothes in the re.gion. In many instances, consumption becomes tied up with notions of dignity, choice and self-empowerment. Consumption is also seen as development, progress and modernity, given our recent histories of exclusion and marginalisation. In this vein, it takes on some political significance as an activity. However, the insatiability of desires of consumption in the face of mass production and the rapid innovation of goods make peoples slaves to ‘the cult of new’ (Ritzer 1999: 34) or ‘the cult of for.eign’ in sub-Saharan Africa – aided by the media – and creates challenges which are yet to be acknowledged. Where resources are in short supply, the pursuit of some forms of consumption exerts pressure on women to look for resources by means which undermine their dignity and make them vulnerable to abuse. These is.sues are often not mentioned in discussions of the vul.nerabilities of women.
Sexuality, health and development
The struggle for sexual and reproductive health rights has been long and complicated, and also contradictory, when looked at from North-South perspective. By the 1990s many lessons had been learnt from years of the pill, used in the global North as a liberating technology as it allowed women control of their bodies, but in the global South as part of ‘population control’ pro-grammes. The latter of course have been criticised for their assumptions about the bodies of women of the South as vehicles for excess humanity, and as worsen.ing prospects for development. Sexual and reproduc.tive rights have therefore sought to instil equality in demands based on four feminist principles namely: ‘bodily integrity’; ‘personhood’, ‘equality’ and ‘diver.sity’ (Petchesky 2003: 8). Petchesky defines these four principles as: a) dignity; freedom from abuse, unwanted sex and unwanted pregnancy; b) the right to self-determination and respect in reproduction; c) access to healthcare, information and relevant
services; and d) the right to belong to diverse cultural and identity groups.
She notes that the respect of human rights has often en.countered many obstacles, such as the instrumentality of development policies where women’s empowerment is used to mean piecemeal change, and the pervasiveness of shrinking access to services and unfair terms of in.ternational trade as a result of neoliberal policies (Petch.esky 2003: 14).
Sexual and reproductive health have to contend with the rise in fundamentalisms, which view these rights as the encroachment of Western norms into all spheres especially ‘the private’, challenging local patri.archies. The fundamentalisms are religious, cultural and nationalist, and often portray themselves as fighting imperialism when their perceived last frontier is control over women and children (Nyamu-Musembi 2005; Petchesky 2003; Sen 2005). Fundamentalists say they are against individualist forms of human rights and want to preserve ‘the family’, which they understand as the ‘patriarchal family’. Consequently, theirs is a quest for the democratisation of the ‘patriarchal divi.dend’. In this vein, abstinence is still a preferred policy when dealing with unmarried individuals even though it is unscientific, unsustainable and comes with limited education about alternative forms of pleasure for those not in socially approved relations (Kantor et al. 2008: 7-9). In Zimbabwe, to this day, condoms cannot be dis.cussed with students in primary and secondary school (Marindo et al. 2003). Yet, when youths leave school there are no appropriate sex education programmes for them to continue learning about their sexuality. Abor.tion remains a sensitive issue even among women’s or.ganisations for a variety of reasons, not least religious beliefs and ‘cultural’ concerns. This does not mean that there are no backstreet abortions. On these sensitive reproductive and sexual rights issues, the folly of or.ganising on the basis of women’s (as opposed to gen.der) issues, much less on feminism, is clear (Sen 2005). There is no united conceptualisation of the problems or situation analyses and ways forward. Some organi.sations/activists prefer a sectoral approach, leaving ‘hot button’ issues hanging. Even when the best way to prevent abortion is increasing access to contracep.tives for vulnerable individuals, such a move is consid.ered too sensitive because young women should maintain an untainted sexuality as coveted in the patri.lineal marriage economy. This remains unchallenged, even when the exercise of individual choice is seen as preferable.
Democratisation and ‘rule of law’ reforms
The neoliberal economic order has also emphasised (more than any other) the need for legal reforms to en.able competitive business operations (more than any.thing else). These reforms are part of the state’s ‘roll back’ to the role of umpire, using new legal instruments. ‘Rule of law’ reforms should ensure the respect of prop.erty rights, allowing both local and foreign interests their due return on investment and the ability to move invest.ments anywhere as deemed fit by business plans, as well as the civil and political rights of citizens. Major donors like the European Union (EU) and USA support rule of law reforms and gender justice initiatives, but also sup.port without qualification the neoliberal project in bilat.eral and multilateral interactions, thus sending mixed messages.
Researchers have noted however that rule of law re.forms fall short when measured against gender justice needs (see Nyamu-Musembi 2005; Sen 2005). Often where legal reforms have to deal with civil and political rights there is agreement that this is necessary. But at.tempts at changing customary practices and laws to im.prove women’s property rights and cultural practices such as virginity testing are resisted as Western en.croachments, which undermine cultural identities and various forms of ‘tradition’ (see Vincent 2006: 18). Nyamu-Musembi (2005) observes that rule of law re.forms are an ally of market reforms, but when gender justice is thrown in, the harmony and consensus breaks down, forcing women to struggle for their quests. A case in point is Zimbabwe, where debates on the do.mestic violence law exposed divisions in the percep.tions of those seen as in favour of the rule of law, with some showing their alliance with conservative interests as far as women’s rights are concerned (see Christiansen 2009). Proposed changes are often seen as emasculating individual men in the privacy of their homes and their interpersonal interactions with women.
Resistance to gender justice often takes the form of a defensive stance about ‘cultural preservation’ against ‘ex.ternal’ intrusions, surveillance and regulation. Women and feminists, who live and experience different aspects of these cultural identities, must take care to highlight the flu.idity of cultural identities as they defend gender/feminist interests, and to rebut attempts at democratising ‘the patri.archal dividend’, which these resistances entail. This is a slippery slope though. An example of the slipperiness is seen in debates in South Africa on virginity testing in KwaZulu-Natal, where women community leaders volun.tarily initiated it, arguing for the cultural preservation of ethnic norms and past practices, the need to prevent the spread of HIV and out-of-wedlock pregnancies (responsi.bility for which often ended on their laps anyway), and moreover that girls voluntarily agreed to be tested (see Scorgie 2002). This was countered by the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), which argued that virginity testing violates bodily integrity and privacy rights as inspectors peered into the girls’ exposed genitalia (Scorgie 2002: 65: Vincent 2006: 19). At issue here are the meanings of ‘dig.nity’, ‘privacy’ and ‘consent’, and their violation. That is, did the girls consent of their own volition or as a result of pres.sure from their communities? The answer is not simple. Clearly, these terms are contestable. This might be a chal.lenge for feminist activism, but in democracies this plurality and contestability of concepts has to be there. Further.more, virginity testing as a traditional practice is rendered more complex when juxtaposed with traditional male cir.cumcision, in which boys participate under duress of con.formity, and threat of ostracism for those who refuse. Vincent (2008: 78-80) observes that laws made by the same institutions criminalise virginity testing, while upholding boys’ rights to consent to male circumcision despite con.siderable casualties – death and disfigurement – from the latter. In all these debates activists have to embrace legal re.forms while at the same time rebutting the idea that pro.posed changes are Western. they also have to be on the lookout for how women and men’s traditional rituals are treated by the same legal institutions. The analysis does not give any ready-to-use answers.
In conclusion, the neoliberal economic order has been full of promises – being all things to all people – but most have eluded women. There is a lot of talk about legal reforms to ensure justice for all, but women still struggle for the realisation of gender equality through legal reforms. Resistance to change comes not only from men, but also from some women whose empow.erment and autonomy are expressed and experienced through the preservation of specific versions of ‘tradi.tion’. Thus, the neoliberal economic order has been contradictory; it requires more debate and negotiation among and between groups. In addition, even though liberal norms ushered in by the neoliberal order may purport to be against ‘tradition’, they are used by people on both sides of any debate, thereby challenging these norms, as shown in the examples cited above. This shows that there is no one best way of doing things, but many, which coexist, converge and diverge. For many activists, the challenge has been to grasp these multiple meanings and to strategise around them.
- In South Africa, neoliberalism spread through policy advice not policy-based loans from the World Bank as happened in other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.
- “I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first....” Margaret Thatcher, October 31, 1987, quoted by Women’s Own Magazine. Accessed on the internet on 12 May 2010, (search words: there is no society).
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