Structural adjustment programs and women
Structural adjustment programs are economic measures geared towards reorienting a failing economy, particularly in developing countries. They are usually administered under the auspices of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Structural adjustment programs are usually systemic steps towards an efficient reallocation of resources geared towards boosting export and increasing employment. Opening the economy to international trade would supposedly result in more income, triggering a trickle-down effect that would benefit everyone in the long run (Alarcon-Gonzales and McKinley, 1999).
The costs of structural adjustment programs to human development, however, are not readily apparent. These programs were intended to improve a country's economy and perhaps result in better jobs. However, these programs can also often affect less-competitive sectors of the economy adversely, particularly the informal sector where women are most active.
In a study of structural adjustment policies in Jamaica, Faye Harrison studies how the "new conquistadors" of the IMF, the World Bank, and the Reagan and Bush administrations created strategies for an export-based Jamaican economy. However, she notes that their quest for development, these policies have sacrificed "basic needs in health care, housing, education, social services and employment for those of free enterprise and free trade" (Harrison 1997: 451).
Since nearly 50 percents of all Jamaican households have a female head, many women face tremendous pressure to make ends meet. Many women thus augment their income through informal sector work. Harrison studied the case of Mrs. Beulah Brown, one such "informal sector worker," in detail.
Mrs. Brown supplemented her income as an aide at the community health center by making dresses. She also sold meat patties, traded cheese and sold ice made in a deep freezer. However, the structural adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank and IMF diverted funds away from health programs. The Community Health Aide Program was shut down.
With the devaluation of the Jamaican dollar and the suspension of food subsidies, the cost of living rose dramatically. Mrs. Brown's friends and neighbors were driven to drug trafficking to make ends meet. In this new, export-driven economy, Mrs. Brown could barely afford food, much less the materials for her businesses. Eventually, the health care worker and proud business owner had to emigrate and work as a nanny, a profession many Jamaican women are forced into (Harrison 1997).
Similar structural adjustments have had detrimental effects on women in Mexico. Here, the new policies may have increased export and generated profit for the professional and more educated and skilled employees.
However, these programs involved wage repression, a lack of new jobs in manufacturing and a curtailment in agricultural production, jobs generally staffed by poor, unskilled women. These factors all contribute towards a loss of income sources among the poorer segments of the population (Alarcon-Gonzales and McKinley, 1999).
As in Jamaica, the effects of structural adjustment extend beyond the economic sphere. Cuts in public services, such as health, education and nutrition, tend to have a larger effect on women who are charged with the dual tasks of family earner and caregiver at home. As caretakers, women are expected to care for the sick and elderly family members. Women are also tasked with stretching a tight budget, a task that entails more time towards hunting for bargains and preparing food.
Layoffs and cuts in real wages often result in longer hours for women in household activities or informal activities to compensate for the loss of family income. In effect, these women are acting as economic "shock absorbers." They put in more hours in unpaid or low-paid activities that standard economic accounting does not recognize (Alarcon-Gonzales and McKinley, 1999).
In the Mexican case, structural adjustments have resulted in an unequal pattern of development. A small minority of educated, high-skilled workers may have profited at the expense of the poor, unskilled ones. Since many poor women make up the latter category, and because of the increased workload both inside and outside the home, structural adjustments thus take a heavy toll on the lives of women in the name of economic development.
The fight against structural adjustment programs in 36 countries Africa further illustrates the effects on structural adjustments on the lives of women. These effects include slashed wages, retrenchment, cuts in health care programs and declining resources allocated to education. In addition, because of stress over uncertain finances, many women report an increase in spousal abuse from frustrated husbands. Other women are forced to work as prostitutes, which leaves them vulnerable to violent or sexual assaults (African Women's Network, 1996).
In response, the African Women's Economic Policy Network (AWEPON) was formed in 1994. Their programs include teaching women "economic literacy" by building on their knowledge of household economics. These education programs seek to empower women by showing them their integral place in the larger economy. AWEPON is also trying to lobby the United Nations and other international organizations to address the human development discrepancies brought about by these structural adjustment programs.
In summary, while gender inequality in Jamaica, Mexico and Africa predates structural adjustment programs, the effects of these programs sharpen the gender divide.
They divert funding away from programs like low-cost healthcare and education programs for girls. Furthermore, the shift in dependency patters at home has contributed to violence against women. Though supposedly geared towards higher wages and higher standards of living, the ill effects of structural adjustments have disproportionately affected women.
In an era of gender equality, it is easy to overlook how structures of patriarchy continue to dominate the lives of women, both here in the United States and around the world.
In the disparate cultures of the Yanomamo, the Sherpa and the!Kung Sen, marriage relations are still seen as a way to united families or groups. In some societies, women continue to be betrothed as young girls, and do not have any voice in their choice of mates. Often, men are allowed more than one wife, but women are not allowed the same option.
After marriage, traditional domestic structures still continue to apply. Women are still expected to take care of household chores and caretaking responsibilities, even when they work outside the home. Finally, most women's participation in the economic sector remains invisible, because women like Beulah Brown are part of the informal sector. As such, their needs are often ignored by planners, and they are often adversely-affected by IMF and World Bank policies.
Though far from comprehensive, this survey of economic and social practices in various countries shows that even across disparate social, economic and racial groupings, women around the world struggle are burdened with unfair patriarchal norms and traditions. In the advent of the age of globalization, few concepts remain as truly global as patriarchy.
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