Engendering change in the crisis

When recession hits the developing world, it is often women who bear the brunt of falling incomes and joblessness. But how do women in differing contexts across the South respond to these challenges? More, what about other diversity issues - such as age, or sexual orientation - within the context of financial crisis?

Ben Garside's picture
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10 May 2010

The International Labour Organization (ILO) says that the economic crisis was expected to have a greater impact on women's than on men's unemployment in most areas of the world - and particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean. The ILO also notes that ‘women's lower employment rates, weaker control over property and resources, concentration in informal and vulnerable forms of employment with lower earnings, and less social protection, all place women in a weaker position than men to weather the crisis'.

ILO figures on Asia predict a 5.7 per cent rise in unemployed women in 2009, compared with 4.9 per cent for men. In Bangkok, for instance, a major swimwear factory that found its sales plummeting in the downturn laid off some 1900 workers, almost all of them women.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has forecast that women's unemployment will accelerate at a faster rate than men's throughout 2010 as the crisis continues to affect female-dominated industries such as manufacturing and tourism.

Not all in the numbers

A recent report by Oxfam also highlights some interesting gender perspectives on the recession. Looking at common attitudes toward gender (known as ‘gender norms'), women are still very much seen as secondary breadwinners. So a question to be asked beyond the important debate over unemployment levels is whether the recession itself reinforced gender attitudes and norms, or has it in some cases chipped away at them?

An example given in the Oxfam report is that women may be the first to lose their jobs in an office or factory, but the impact of this on workers and their families may be underestimated if gender norms perpetuate the notion that men are primary providers for the family while women work to earn small amounts to cover incidental expenses.

This perception can be extremely damaging to the most vulnerable women. A household's strong dependence on a female wage is often a sign of higher poverty, fewer choices and less power to survive the crisis.

The recession may, however, challenge some gender norms. In some cases norms may be broken down and change - for example, men who find themselves unemployed may temporarily take on the cooking, cleaning, and child care - roles still reserved for women in many cultures..

Not just production but reproduction

The higher presence of women in the informal economy is not the only area where gender plays an important role for recession outcomes. Another overlooked facet is the non-economised role of women in the so-called ‘reproductive economy' - that is, unpaid domestic work in family and community. Yet this remains the least visible and arguably most important component of the global economy.

One lead thinker around this issue argues that to fully understand the economic crisis from a gender perspective, we cannot simply ask how the crisis affects women, or indeed explore how it affects men and women differently; rather, we need to explore the impact that it has on the reproductive economy.

This involves looking at the ways in which women and men in poverty struggle to survive day to day, at the different roles and responsibilities that each sex has in the context of care and support of the family, and at the impact the crisis has on their ability to do this.

The importance of considering gender and diversity within policies designed to address the global recession is clear. It should also be recognised that gender and diversity should not be viewed as 'issues related to women' - but the complex societal interactions and norms that are faced by a wide variety of overlapping groups within different societies - including youth, the elderly, lesbians and homosexual men - and the differing effects the recession is having on each under specific local contexts.

Pause to think, for example, about this: young people aged 18 to 24 are two to three times more likely than adults to be unemployed - and are two fifths of the unemployed globally. Africa faces a pressing problem of youth unemployment. Steadily worsening over the years, youth unemployment on the continent is now assuming crisis proportions, particularly in the wake of the current global economic. The situation is particularly critical for young women who suffer higher rates of unemployment than young men in the majority of economies.

This blog post has only touched on a few issues, it is hoped this will kickstart a discussion on gender and equality in times of crisis.


Ben Garside is a researcher in the Sustainable Markets Group

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