Globalization, “Development,” and the Feminization of Poverty By Mitch Teberg, MA ©2006 The issues of development and women’s rights

are increasingly important in this era of globalization. The move towards national development that is sustainable must coincide with a move to ensure rights the rights of women as well. The reason for this is quite simple; when globalization is examined carefully it is not sustainable; it does not consider the contributions of women outside the labor force; and for women within the labor force it frequently violates their rights. For these reasons the rights of women must be upheld in the face of globalization if there is to be a viable future in which gender equality can be attained and human rights can be respected. Therefore, this section is committed to offering a critical examination of development in terms of globalization and the impact it has on women. In the context of globalization when the international community speaks of “development,” they refer to the economic development of a nation. This is the basis for determining which country is developed and which country is a “developing nation” such as Vietnam. Seldom is there any reference to community development, family

development, social development, cultural development and so on. These other forms of development are of the utmost importance and even viewed as a priority in many cultures and societies, but go uncounted here. What does count is strictly economic development of a country which is narrowly defined by the Gross National Product (GNP). The GNP is a skewed form of measurement which includes only the goods and services produced in a national economy, plus the value of the goods and services imported, minus the goods and services exported. In other words it only counts what is

viewed as the formal market. For example if a person buys laundry soap (an exchange of goods1) or someone else is hired to fix the plumbing of a house (an exchange of services2) these are included in the GNP. Excluded is the informal market where the exchange is not brought onto the market and systematically calculated. In many cases informal exchanges are not measured monetarily but measured in relation to friends, family, and community. For example, a plumber who does the same service for a relative without charging them because they are family is not counted in the GNP, yet the service has the same value to the relative as it does for someone who would pay for it. GNP also negates the value of household work such as house keeping, child rearing and meal preparation, but these too have a value, especially for those residing in the household. Under the current definition, buying laundry soap is counted in the GNP, but doing the laundry at home is not counted unless someone is paid to do it. The same is true for raising children or preparing a meal. With these definitions, the contributions of women are often excluded. If a nation is to be judged by the exchange of goods and services it must accurately measure all exchanges, thus the GNP is a faulty system of measurement excluding the informal markets and what is socially viewed as a woman’s contribution to the household. However, a flawed system of measurement alone is not what makes globalization unsustainable. Examining the economic trends in the West exposes the real definition of a developed nation. In particular, a developed nation is noted for an extremely high rate of consumption. The Sierra Club notes the largest consumers of the world’s natural resources are from the developed West. Keep in mind, the definition of a developed

1 2

Exchanging money for laundry soap is defined as an “exchange of goods” Exchanging money for a plumber to fix the pipes in a house is defined as an “exchange of services”

nation comes from the global West, not from a country such as Vietnam. The Sierra Club analysis states, “Only one fifth of the world's people live in industrialized countries, yet they consume more than two thirds of the planet's resources. With less than 5 percent of global population, the United States accounts for about one fourth of global consumption. A child born in a developed country will consume and pollute more over his or her lifetime than thirty to fifty children born in low-income countries. Resources extracted from countries other than those in which they are consumed create environmental damage far beyond local and national borders.”3 Simply stated, this rate of consumption and waste production is not sustainable and detrimental to the earth. Consider if all the earth was to meet that same rate of consumption by January, 2007. It is doubtful the earth would be able to tolerate the stripping of natural resources and mass polluting for today’s children to have a future with clear skies and clean water, yet this is the goal; to become a mass consuming/polluting developed nation as current international organizations and TransNational Corporations push for with their agenda for globalization and free trade. So on one end of the spectrum is the goal of becoming a “developed nation” with high rates of consumption and pollution. On the other end of the spectrum, the

international business community believes there needs to be a low cost labor force to supply those demands for more products to consume. Enter the business world of TransNational Corporations (TNCs). They see themselves as necessary middlemen supplying the Western markets with products demanded by the high consuming/polluting developed nations and to the developing markets. But to supply a demand, first there must be a marketing strategy to create a demand. Also known as propaganda, advertisements are pumped into the homes of consumers to create a demand for both essential and needless

Downloaded from the Sierra Club Website, on 10 October, 2006.


products. Whether they are name-brand clothing, toys or electronic gadgets, marketing agents use every tool available to manipulate the consumer into believing they need it simply because there is a name-brand affiliation or a symbol of social status. Worse yet is the array of methods used to target and manipulate children. But who makes these items to be sold in the Western and developing markets? According to the large corporations, it is the impoverished people of the developing nations where jobs are scarce and labor is cheap. In Vietnam, the impoverished masses are drawn from the countryside to the overcrowded city to compete for the low wage jobs. But one must ask, “Is there an opportunity to get out of poverty by working in small or large factories supplying the products to be consumed in the West?” According to the WTO, TNCs and advocates for globalization, the answer is a resounding “yes,” but the mounting evidence suggests otherwise. Here is where understanding women’s rights in the context of globalization becomes vital. Not only is globalization not sustainable, it exacts an extreme toll on women. Well known feminist, Gita Sen (2005) eloquently states in her speech,

Challenges to Gender Justice in a Neo Conservative Era: …as kept being recorded in one human development report after another, was soaring global inequality, between countries and within countries, soaring inequalities between different classes, between different sections and segments of people and particularly the feminization of poverty on a dramatic scale. Now this is interesting because globalization is often held up as being the era of the feminization of the labour force. Women in fact have come into the labour force in large numbers. What is ironic therefore is that you have a feminization of the labour force and a feminization of poverty taking place simultaneously. And I think this reflects the paradoxes and the ironies of the current stage of global capitalist order. Because it means that getting a job is no guarantee that you will

be out of poverty. The number of working poor, the insecurity for those who work and who struggle to survive increased (p.5-6)4.

Considering a job is no longer a guaranteed method to alleviate poverty and that the main workforce employed in the factories producing goods for the Western markets are women (upwards of 80% to 90%), the feminization of the labor force and a feminization of poverty is a serious issue that must be addressed. As noted in research in South Asia concludes, “women have had to bear the brunt of the negative impact of globalization.”5 Despite the low wages earned by working in factories, TNCs are making inordinate profits which are unprecedented in history. Considering this grim reality, there is hope with the internationally agreed upon United Nations Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Vietnam signed onto CEDAW on 29 July 1980, and ratified it 17 February 1982. As recently as June 2005 the fifth and sixth country reports have been submitted. Article 11 of CEDAW states, women have the right to engage in economic activity and to enjoy the benefits of their participation. However, the feminization of both the labor force and poverty is not guaranteeing a right to the benefits of economic activities. Quite the contrary, it enslaves women to low wage labor with little opportunity. Without the institutionalization and enforcement of women’s rights at national and international levels, this era of unsustainable globalization could very well usher in a


Sen, G. (2005) Challenges to Gender Justice in a Neo Conservative Era. Published in Gender, Society and Change. Center for Women’s Research (CENWOR). Colombo: Karunaratne & Sons Ltd. Wijayatilake, K. (2001) Unravelling Herstories: A Three Generational Study. Ratmalana, Sri Lanka: Sarvodaya Vishva Lekha Printers

degree of dehumanizing exploitation to rival the era of Colonization6. Just as in the checkered past of Western expansion and world domination, the economically disadvantaged classes and women in general suffer the most. Future features will closely examine many of the issues brought to light in this article by examining international organizations, current events and development by taking a critical look at how they relate to the rights of women.


Tucker, V. (1999) ‘The Myth of Development: A Critique of Eurocentric Discourse’ in Munck, R. and O’Hearn, D. (eds) Critical Development Theory. London: Zed Books.