Confronting Gender Inequities and Political Disempowerment

25 June 1999

Laura Rubio Frade*

* Laura Rubio Frade lives in Mexico and is Latin America regional coordinator of the Women’s Eyes on the World Bank campaign.

The Women’s Eyes campaign was launched by women’s movements and NGOs to monitor World Bank progress in bringing its lending operations in line with the Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women Beijing Women’s Summit in 1995. The campaign seeks a major reorientation of World Bank policies and projects so that they become supportive of women’s empowerment and equality and are responsive to women’s needs.

The first part of this presentation concerns the workings of the current development model, the second the World Bank’s latest Health and Education Reforms which the Women’s Eyes on the World Bank campaign is confronting.

Years ago there were three spheres within the welfare state model of development. Everything was ultimately controlled by the political sphere: the state dealt with every issue in most countries. The economics and social policy spheres was seen to be interrelated with state controls and subsidies. However the main contradiction of this model was that civil society did not participate much in development and women had a particularly limited role in development planning. With the implementation of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs); the economic sphere came to dominate people’s lives and the articulation between the economic and other spheres was lost when key resources such as water, light, petroleum, and gas were privatised.

Almost everywhere in the Latin America region there are now open, democratic, participatory methods for deciding upon government. However now parties of centre or left can win elections but cannot decide upon matters of the country’s economic life. A participatory approach has been built up but the space for participation is restricted to the social sphere. Poverty has increased as never before: although poverty existed before, it is now growing and growing. There are no signs of civil society groups being allowed to participate in shaping the country’s economic plans. Participation is only encouraged in developing policies to provide services that the government wishes to abandon – taking care of the very sick, for instance.

At the social level there is an increasing mobilisation of the people against the government, pushing for it to change its macro-economic policies. All over the region (eg., Mexico, Chile, Argentina) one can find huge movements against macro-economic policies such as privatisation. But these social movements are directed at national governments, with people not realising where the real decision-making is taking place. While people are demanding more of their governments, they have less and less ability to answer to their demands. The main impact of this economic development model is that both the people and government have less control over their lives, resources, and politics. Governments are often doing the best they can, but with so little power in economic matters they are in a very weak position to try and achieve anything.

So who does have control? All the key economic decisions now rest in the hands of three key actors: the World Bank, the IMF, and finally the World Trade Organisation and OECD countries lumped together as a group of common interests. The more the government does to implement the economic model embodied in the SAPs through privatisation etc., the more this triangle of power is strengthened within the region. But this triangle is so diffuse and difficult to reach that the people become very disempowered; especially women, who were disempowered in the previous model, but are even more so now. So the pressing question becomes one of how to gain empowerment.

The women’s difficulties are principally linked to the sectoral adjustment loans (SALs) which pass many of the costs of traditional welfare state provisions on to women. In the welfare state system certain key services were provided free to all, such as hospitals and education. Now, with the adjustments, women are bearing the costs of cuts in health and education budgets. The Women’s Eyes campaign is concentrating on those policies that are most damaging for women; studying the SALs in the region. The planned future reforms for the region are set out in the World Bank’s 1998 publication The Long Mach, A Reform Agenda for the Latin America and the Caribbean in the Next Decade. The World Bank’s agenda for the second generation of structural reforms centres on five issues; education, health, judicial reform, land market reforms and labour reforms.

For education, the Bank has outlined three objectives:

I. Improving the quality of teaching, including school autonomy and accountability through enhanced parental and community control, and reforming the payment structures to make remuneration dependent upon performance;

II. Reducing the high drop-out and repetition rates at primary level;

III. Reallocating public expenditure in education by reducing the public subsidies to university students and worker training.

In the region the illiteracy rate is 16%; with the majority of this is indigenous and black women in some countries. Just 10% of the relevant age group in the region goes onto tertiary education, and only 75 enrol for every 100 men. The critique of these reforms concentrates firstly on access; there is still a lack of real universal access to education, particularly for the most disadvantaged population. The Bank says that in the region there is access for all people, and everyone goes to primary school. But it also recognises that only 66% finish primary school, and the majority of those who do not are girls in many regions.

The Bank says the problem of the drop-out rate is one of quality; children don’t finish because they lack books, time for studying, readiness for schooling or well-trained teachers. Women’s Eyes feel that there are other reasons not being analysed; for instance, studies have shown that when salaries decrease, the household will respond by mobilising additional labour in the form of women and children – particularly girl children.

Criticism is also being directed at the Bank’s plans to devolve the responsibility for schools to communities. The Bank’s promotion of school autonomy means people being responsible for deciding how schools should operate; but more importantly being given the costs of supporting the school – the costs of uniforms, books, and the maintenance of buildings. These new responsibilities will fall upon the women, who are seen as being in charge of the children’s education. The Bank justifies this move on the basis of an experiment it conducted in El Salvador. Whilst this one example did work well, it cannot be assumed to be representative of the region as the population was highly organised with a tightly knit social structure arising from the war experience. This does not exist in many other places.

In terms of education outcomes, the Bank urges that women and girls have equal or more access to education in some countries, and in some cycles such as primary and secondary school. Again, whilst this may well be true of the Caribbean – where women have higher levels of education than men – the Caribbean cannot be taken to represent the whole region. Also, of the 30% of women are the labour market in the whole region, many have found that their education qualifications are not the main factor when they apply for jobs. In Chile for example women occupy 70% of the labour employed in sectors where formal education is not required, whereas in the banking sector where more educational skills are needed women represent only 40% of the labour force. This could be explained by the horizontal and vertical segregation of labour within different sectors. However, it has been found that across all sectors employers generally prefer women to men in the low-paid and unprotected jobs because they are seen to be so desperate for an income that they are obedient, submissive, unaware of their rights, and willing to work in any kind of conditions. Similar conclusions have been drawn from studies in Mexico, Peru and Nicaragua.

The implications of these findings are that gains in education for women are being discounted by cultural discrimination factors which are not considered in the education or labour reforms. These factors are not being considered in reforms promoted by the Bank because their underlying motive is not the promotion of equality or of quality investments in education, so much as consolidation of the current economic model. This means generating cheap manual labour and gradually privatising the education sector. This privatisation will in the medium and long-term generate its own failures in terms of access, quality, and efficiency.

In the case of the labour market, the World Bank will implement in the next ten years the following liberalisation measures; giving employers greater flexibility in terms of employment contracts; reducing the mandate to payroll taxes; eliminating the government’s role in wage determination; and centralising the collective bargaining processes, with the goal of reducing the segmentation of labour markets and boosting employment. These measures imply losses of the gains achieved through historical labour struggles; for example limits on the number of hours worked, baselines for wages, long-term fixed contracts, and the responsibilities of employers to workers in areas such as social security and indemnification in case of dismissal.

For women these changes imply the removal of gender-related measures such as maternity leave; the non-compulsory status of night-shift work; and exclusion from work involving chemicals. These changes are justified because they are held to remove discriminations against women which increase the cost of their labour comparative to that of men.

In a way such laws are used by employers to discriminate against women, for example in Northern Mexico where many women face pregnancy tests before they are hired. However research in Chile and Peru, where World Bank-style reforms have been carried out, has found that these changes do not help matters. The consequences of removing employers’ obligation to provide maternity leave has produced the same consequences in both countries. Women work between 10 and 12 more hours, usually on short-term fixed contracts, and can easily be dismissed if they become pregnant. The flexibilisation of the labour market in both countries has increased the number of short-term fixed contracts. The percentage of temporary jobs in Peru rose from 41% in 1990 to 50% in 1993. In both countries employment rates in the formal sector have increased since reforms, but notably increases in the informal sector have also been spectacular. The World Bank has acknowledged that whilst formal sector employment rates have increased since reforms (17%), informal sector employment has increased spectacularly across the region (65%).

In Chile, official unemployment has declined dramatically in the past 10 years, and increases in employment in the formal sector have seen corresponding decreases in wages, being based on production levels and employee numbers. The central trend in the current Chilean economy is economic growth based upon the low income of its workers. The main consequences of economic reforms are salary deterioration; more work for women; reduced time for reproductive sector activities, with impacts in health and education sectors and quality of life; more use of available manual labour for household labour in the form of young women who have to stop their studies; no prevention of sexual discrimination in the labour market; and continuing increases in the informal sector.

For women all these changes imply longer working days on top of their domestic and community work. As a consequence children are often being left unattended and locked up alone in rooms, generating high incidences of accidents, malnutrition and sickness. This situation has also been seen in areas where the market has not been formally deregulated; the situation is similar in the ‘free trade zones’ such as those in Nicaragua and El Salvador, where employers and the state do not provide any decent form of nursery care for employees with children. In Mexico’s state with the highest percentage of nurseries in the country, women generally do not use these facilities for their children – from a survey Women’s Eyes conducted of 1000 women, just 3 took their children under five to nurseries. The problem was that the availability of both services was of no use to women working 9-11 hour days, who furthermore had no time to take their children in to the nurseries and back each day. This was also given as a reason for not taking children in to pre-school.

It is important that we understand how the Bank approaches gender issues. It outlines perceived differences between men and women, but never contrasts and connects these differences. Instead it simply isolates different needs; when it speaks of addressing gender differences, it is in terms of making use of complementary gender roles in society – but this is a dangerous way of speaking, implying the return of women to the domestic sphere. Copies of the studies by Women’s Eyes are available on request. A new study is being done on the land-market reform/privatisation being implemented by the Bank in 8 countries. These reforms will again have significant impacts on women. Prior to the changes, women did not own the land, but the World Bank seems to assume that men and women are equal, so land reform is not going to harm women. In other words, because the Bank does not see the cultural and legal factors that impede equal access and equal rights between women and men, they assume that women and men have the same rights and equal opportunities to access land ownership.

In conclusion, Womens’ Eyes are trying to work on the Bank to illustrate that the impact of reforms in the Latin American region show that the market is not neutral; that market imperfections combined with a patriarchal society deepen women’s subordination in that society. The reproductive and productive roles of women, and patriarchal culture are not taken into account at the policy level. While women are expected to participate in education and health sectors, they also have to work 12 hour days due to labour reforms and the lack of land rights in the rural sector, in order to gain a miserable salary. The separation of women’s roles in each of the sector reforms neutralises the inherent productive potential in their combination. This will lead to failures in the achievements of the education, labour and health sectors’ goals as outlined by the World Bank; goals that have been defined by the Bank as centrally important to long-term economic development.

So we need to expose the weaknesses and the inconsistencies of the imposed reforms. How to promote changes in approach, real civil society participation in decision making processes; and how to restore to governments real power over the economic models to be pursued. These questions are very pressing for women, who are receiving the costs of the health and education sectors, are being incorporated into the cheap manual labour force. When considering how to expand national accounts to introduce green accounting techniques, we should also begin to recognise all the unaccounted for work performed by women in the informal sector.