The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, August 19, 2001

Feminist economics comes of age
Sakuntala Narasimhan

THERE is a joke among economists about how a nation’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) gets diminished when an employer marries his secretary. Even if she continues to do the same work as before, her inputs do not get reckoned as ‘work’ because only paid work constitutes ‘production’ in economic parlance. In most countries, even census statistics use ‘workforce’ to mean ‘employed’ disregarding the inputs that women make, however vital and sizeable these may be.

Another aspect which had been largely disregarded till recently was the effect of various macro economic policies on the female half of the population. For instance, globalisation as caused a trend of pushing women further into poverty by eliminating many of the petty jobs indigent women did to eke out a living. Moreover, the fact that despite an increase in money incomes due to development the gains do not always accrue equitably to women has made apparent the need for feminist economics.


The need to include a gender dimension in assessing economic policies if development is to be truly meaningful has been recognised the world over. Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen, among the leading advocates of the importance of gender sensitisation in developmental planning, is one of the members of the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) which had its tenth annual conference in the end of June in Oslo, Norway.

Over 120 participants from 25 countries both developed and developing spoke about and debated on gender issues and the roadblocks that women encounter in their respective regions.

The issues raised were wide-ranging. For instance, delegates from United States described how the recent spate of shootings among school children has been attributed to the increasing trend of ‘absentee mothers’. The media picked up the argument, and helped to reinforce the gender-related ‘I-told-you-so’ accusations.

Recent surveys in the US have, however, shown that children in day care are not any more aggressive than kids with stay-at-home mothers. But that doesn’t make juicy copy for the media. Using "children as bludgeons to punish women who aspire for career goals" is part of the "cultural pressures on women, to emphasise that their proper place is at home, minding the kids," as one American observer put it.

In India, Meena who used to eke out a living by selling tender coconuts beside a highway, now finds her business wiped out by soft drink giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi with their aggressive advertising. At the macro-level, the Women’s Reservation Bill has been stalled repeatedly over five years in spite of avowed state allegiance to women’s empowerment and the declaration of this year as the Women’s Empowerment Year by the government.

In Austria, the new rightist government targets and victimises women who do not conform to the conventional parameters of ‘feminine behaviour’, while in Sri Lanka, the economic plight of women-headed households affected by the violence of the on-going political strife does not merit sufficient attention.

There are, in addition, the issues of semantics too — when we say gender’, why do we automatically assume that the reference is to women? Isn’t ‘male’ also a gender? How can mindsets based exclusively on male viewpoints affect not merely policy-making but even academic discourse?

IAFFE’s objectives, thus, include not merely facilitating interdisciplinary interactions between academics (in and outside economics) and stimulating debate on feminist economic perspectives, but also "educating the planners, decision-makers and the general public — on feminist points of view on economic issues".

What emerged, at the end of the three-day deliberations — spread over 25 sub-sessions, each devoted to specific themes on race, class, colour, and First World/Third World labour markets — was a pattern of similarities in socio-political responses world wide, in spite of regional differences in lifestyles, cultures and economic status.

American women earn more than their Asian or African counterparts, but the core of the backlash spawned by women’s demands for a share in decision-making is no different from the hostility that an African woman in Zimbabwe, or a housewife in India, for example, faces. Also universally, irrespective of poverty or material well being, east or west, domestic violence is used as a weapon "to keep the woman in her place".

Addressing women’s economic dependence is not sufficient for women’s empowerment, felt the participants. Class and culture come in as determining factors, along with gender — in some cultures where a single or separated woman faces social hostility or censure, even economic independence does not help her in seeking an escape. Issues like these cannot be addressed through merely "economic policies for increasing incomes".

Feminist economics is thus not just about economic issues, IAFFE’s founders point out. It is, rather, a forum for an exchange of ideas and experiences between the developed and developing countries, and between academics and activists. Next year’s IAFFE conference will be at Los Angeles (July 2002) while the one after will be in Barbados (June 2003). By rotating the venue for its deliberations, IAFFE proposes to spotlight the unique perspectives that feminism manifests in each region, so that women, as a class, across cultural-geographical divides, could learn from each other’s experiences and strategies and help mould policy-making towards greater gender equity. — WFS

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