World Social Forum - Porto Alegre, Brazil, 25-30 January, 2001


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DEVELOPMENT: Women Not Seen as Citizens of the World, Say Activists

By Judith Achieng'

COPENHAGEN, Jun 21 (IPS) ¡ Most African governments have failed to recognise their women as citizens, yet they continue to use women and girls as an attraction to global markets in the agricultural sector, export processing zones (EPZs) and in tourism, a gender expert has said.
Southern African feminist Patricia McPhadden likens Africa's marginalisation of women to racism in the north, both with similar negative social impacts.

"Like racism, gender discrimination and abuse is equally ideologically destructive," McPhadden told a conference here on solidarity in social development this week.

"Most governments feel no responsibility for women as their citizens, but take every opportunity to exploit their labour," she said.

McPhadden says, women in Africa have had to live with deeply rooted patriarchal systems, which not only marginalises them in all aspects of development, but also abuses their individual rights such as education.

"We make references to the large number of Africans women who are poor but we do not link it to the consequences of exclusion, which are severe," McPhadden told some 200 delegates at the Solidarity 2000 conference being held in this Danish capital.

The meeting, organised by the Danish Association for International Co-operation (MS) acts as a follow up to the World Summit on Social Development (WSSD) held here in 1995.

Gender development and women empowerment is one of the 10 key commitments made by leaders at the Copenhagen summit. But little seems to have changed in the lives of women especially in the Third World where poverty has been worsened by global trade policies, which hurt the poor.

In the Caribbean, women are grappling with problems of globalisation. "We are told that any micro-entrepreneur can become a millionaire. The only access they need is the Internet. But where do we start from when we are still dealing with alphabets and simple counting?" wonders Jeanne Henriquez, who heads the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (Cafra).

One negative impact of globalisation in the Caribbean, is the World Trade Organisation (WTO) decision against European Union's preferential treatment of Caribbean banana imports. It has disadvantaged women who make up 70 percent of the banana producers in the 400 million US dollar industry in the 12 Caribbean countries.

"We need to de-power WTO and empower the organisations that respect social rights," says Henriquez.

In Africa, the lack of land ownership among African women according to McPhadden, also reflects in the lack of credit and the new markets. "The market is the feature of the new century. If they don't own land and cannot get credit, how can they access the market," she wonders. "It is impossible for people who don't own property to access and exercise their rights.

Their economic problems are worsened by state systems which consciously work to subvert the direct relationship between women and property, by pursuing policies which deny women land ownership, yet they are majority in farm labour.

One example is Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, who once retorted that women "should not get married if they want property" when confronted by a group of widows who had been thrown off their land by in-laws after their spouses' death.

"This is our culture and you have to accept it," he said.

Most African courts too, despite being based on national laws, often rule in favour of customary laws, which discriminate against women. "What African women need is to be given citizenship," agrees Zambia's Mary Kazunga.

But marginalisation of women in key sectors of development is not only a third world problem.

Women in Denmark, one of the world's richest countries also complain of marginalisation in the employment sector and in the decision making process.

"Women's progress has nothing to do with economic structure of a country, but also male and female roles in society which tend to overburden women," says Lotte Grauballe, the Vice-Chairperson of MS here.

Lennie Person of the Danish women association argues that although Danish policies are up to date on equal pay for equal work, the labour market still discriminates against women.

She says women, because of their reproductive role get unequal pension because of the days of absence at work, and also enjoy fewer privileges such as promotion at work as compared with their male counterparts.

"It doesn't make sense to insist on the contribution and pursue the interests of the strong," she says. "We had beautiful initiatives in Copenhagen, the sad fact is that women are 80 percent of the poor and suffer social and economic abuse," says Grauballe.

"We need to put our money where our mouth is," she told some 200 delegates attending a special gender session.

Women reporting back from the just concluded Beijing Plus Five forum in New York, where women's economic rights were placed at the top of the agenda, are unhappy too. They are disappointed that little was achieved to address the "violent" economic environment imposed by globalisation, trade liberalisation and debt.

Some extreme Muslim and Catholic countries even wanted to go back on their commitments on women to rights such as reproductive health. "Beijing Plus Five was a failure rather than a success," regrets Marie Louise Nuff, of the Belgian women's movement (KULU).

"We saw that our victories are not untouchable, they risk being reversed if we don't fight," she says.

Torben Brylle who heads the Danish aid organisation DANIDA, however, insists that women's problems in the Third World have to do more with governance than global trade. "It is not right for us to say the reason for African women's problems is global trade," she argues.

"I don't see why we did not succeed at including governance at the forum, but we know that governance is a major factor in developing countries," said the Danish ambassador who had represented her country at the Beijing Plus Five forum in New York, early this month. (END/IPS/DV/IP/ja/da/00)

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Selection of IPS features on Development, Environment and Human Rights issues.

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