In an increasingly globalised world, the impact of trade and investment liberalisation is an important area of policy focus. With the emergence of bilateral free trade and investment agreements and clamour for more and more foreign direct investment, all in the name of economic growth, the gender impact of these policies is changing and impacting women’s roles in society. Indian women face a number of challenges everyday as workers, care givers, food providers, healthcare seekers. In a country like India, where economic, social and gender inequalities persist historically, and where trade policies are not 'gender neutral' the impact of trade policy on women must be paid serious attention to.
Unfortunately, for the economists, women’s work remains invisible, especially in the agriculture sector. Likewise discourses on land reforms do not talk of women at all. Despite being actively involved in producing food, a very high percentage of women remain anaemic. Have we ever pondered as to why the same kitchen produces malnourished women and healthy men?
All these issues were discussed at length in a capacity building national workshop for media persons on ‘International Trade and Gender Dynamics in India’ which was jointly organised recently in Delhi by the Center for Trade and Development, Third World Network, Centre for Legislative Research and Advocacy and Heinrich Boell Foundation.
It is important to understand the gender dimensions of international trade and finance policies in relation to the new opportunities, expectations and responsibilities which are beckoning women. Women’s ownership of physical and financial assets is limited and employment in large sectors has low proportion of women while small sectors have higher numbers. Investment liberalisation has created an impact on gender dynamics in sub sectors like banking, health, construction, and information technology in terms of both employment and access. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in construction sector has involved more mechanization resulting in displacement of women workers before their male counterparts. With growing commercialization, the access and control over traditional knowledge systems (like in medicine and food) especially by women gets threatened. The new trade policies related to the pharmaceutical sector threaten the growth of generic medicine industry and hence the supply of affordable medicines to disadvantaged sections, including women who would rather choose to spend on the healthcare of their husband/child than their own due to financial constraints.
Renana Jhabwala, the National Coordinator of SEWA (Self employed women’s association) felt that, “Although with more opportunities available, more women are entering the workforce, but the patriarchal system ensures that the household and family responsibilities still rest upon them, increasing their emotional and physical burden. Women still do not own assets and their healthcare and education are still not given enough importance. 94% of the women workers are in the informal sector with low earnings and poor growth opportunities. In sectors with falling earnings like agricultural labour (having little input of technology), men are moving to other more skilled sectors, and are increasingly being replaced by women, resulting in feminization of agriculture. Similarly in the handloom sector there has been a marked shift from male to female weavers. However sectors which get more mechanised (like construction) are lost to women workers, as they lack requisite skills. Although there is a strong desire in members of SEWA to spend their earnings to educate their children, they have little inclination to spend in upgrading their own skills to face a more competitive market.”
The workshop highlighted cross cutting areas where the gender impacts of trade and investment liberalisation can be felt. According to Dr Axel Harneit-Sievers, Director of the Heinrich Boll Foundation, “India’s international trade has become much broader and deeper. Trade and investment agreements and liberalisation policies in general affect a vast range of sectors like agriculture; industry; services; intellectual property rights; and services and in all these areas gender impacts are getting stronger.”
The workshop also highlighted the contradictions in the gender-trade linkages. There are areas where India may lose markets, jobs and incomes by opening up to global competition. At the same time, women’s employment and income in export oriented industries like textile and garments, leather, food processing and marine products and in gems/jewellery have increased. But despite more work, disparity in wages, volatility of employment, harsh working conditions and inadequate health/maternity benefits are common. . In states like Kerala and Tamilnadu, increasing exports have threatened the livelihood of women fish vendors who get fish for local market consumption. Easier access to foreign fishing vessels to Indian fishing waters in future bilateral trade agreements can further threaten smaller domestic players. It is important that India’s trade policy takes gender sensitivities into account in its trade agreements and combines it with a gender friendly development policy.
Jayati Ghosh, Professor at Jawahar Lal Nehru University, said that, “The global crisis has resulted in a real wage decline in all women related activities. In India, export oriented growth has relied more and more on women’s work in the informal activities and unpaid work in social reproduction. To generate exports with better material conditions for those who produce them, we need not just better wages but also social protection measures.”
Abhijit Das, Director, Centre for WTO Studies, raised the issue of anomalies in women’s work in India’s industrial and service sectors and said that as literacy rate in women goes up, the wage gap between men and women narrows. He cited to Citizen News Service (CNS) a 2008 study which found that only 36% of the jobs created in the export oriented sectors in India went to women, although this was still 5% higher than the average overall share of jobs going to women. Abhijit felt that, “Just creating jobs for women in trade oriented sectors is not enough. We must go beyond the numbers to look at the underlying inequalities and address them and strengthen their social positions.”
Kalpana Sharma, former Deputy Editor of the Hindu lamented that, “It is ironic that in 2012 we still need to have a gender workshop. In our business pages, only women as heads of companies exist, but the common woman is not found anywhere. As journalist we are missing half the story if we do not understand the gender dimensions of the issues of economy, environment and development policies. We need to wear a gendered lens to humanise our stories by integrating facts with the life of the women on the street.”
Mainstream media has often been accused of neglecting agriculture related issues. Debt ridden farmers are not news worthy unless they commit suicide. The image of a woman farmer does not come easily. Paranjoy Guhathakurta, senior journalist and political commentator said that, “for the corporate media, news relating to trade and gender issues that affect the under privileged are rarely emphasized, except on occasions when the facts are too stark and important to be ignored. In other sections of the media, news stories on such subjects can sometimes be presented in a dull and prosaic manner, thereby reaching out to only those who are already interested in the subject.”
Ranja Sengupta of the Third World Network was worried that as India climbs up the ladder of an emerging economy, the health, education and food needs of women get affected. Whenever there is a crisis, women lose jobs much faster than men. When healthcare costs go up, women are the first and worst sufferers. She summed up by saying that, “The aim of the workshop was to encourage the media to develop focused stories from women’s lives and connect them to policy issues; spread awareness and bring examples related to the gender issue into public domain and create public pressure to influence government’s trade, investment and labour related policy making at all levels.”
Let us hope that in the coming months, we will get to read more about linkages between trade/investment liberalization and gender equality in the context of women’s access to critical physical, financial and human resources and access to basic services, with significant implications for their livelihoods, health, socio-economic status and well-being. The media will have live up to the expectations of the important role it can play in building awareness on trade and gender issues by educating the common masses as well as policy makers. (CNS)
(The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS). She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She also authored a book on childhood TB (2012), co-authored a book (translated in three languages) "Voices from the field on childhood pneumonia" and a report on Hepatitis C and HIV treatment access issues in 2011. Email: email@example.com, website: http://www.citizen-news.org)