Home > Culture & Religion > Women’s Movements and Economic Power: Connecting the local and the global

Women’s Movements and Economic Power: Connecting the local and the global

Lisa VeneKlasen and Alia Khan.

The authors present first a contextual analysis of the forces and actors shaping the reality of women’s lives today. They outline the importance of changing hearts and minds with time-tested strategies and new forms of organizing that can fuel development of and support for alternative economic arrangements that respect the rights, dignity, and interconnectivity of people and the planet.

The world has changed but somehow everything is the same

It has been nearly three decades since Gita Sen and Caren Grown laid out their critique of the free-market-oriented post-colonial growth and development model in Development, Crises and Alternative Visions: Third World Women’s Perspectives. In it, they traced poor women’s deteriorating social, economic, and health conditions to macro-structural policies and trends, notably the focus on industrial agriculture and manufacturing in developing countries, the World Bank and IMF’s structural adjustment programmes, seemingly boundless increases in military expenditures, and the role of socially conservative actors in creating and enforcing race, class, and gender hierarchies and discrimination. Sen and Grown called into question the prevailing technocratic approach to elevating the status of women that focused narrowly on increasing their participation and productivity in economic growth and development.

When it was published in 1985, the treatise was reflecting on nearly four decades of post-war reconstruction and development that ushered in political and economic liberalization and the unquestioned rule of the ‘free market’ which continues today. While much has happened in the world since 1985, the structural drivers of women’s poverty and social exclusion have been remarkably intransigent. In fact, they have become more consolidated and taken on even rawer forms.

Neo-liberal economic reform

For three decades, a fixed set of economic reform measures (Finnegan, 2003) have been implemented from St. Louis to Nairobi featuring less government, less taxes, fiscal austerity, privatization of essential services, deregulation, reduction of labour and environmental standards, and ‘free’ trade. Despite a steady stream of global financial crises, from the US housing and mortgage meltdown to the European debt crisis, decision makers continue to pursue the very same (failed) policy prescriptions. In recent months, the one-size-fits-all austerity pill has been met with widespread protest in Europe. But even rioting in the streets and skyrocketing unemployment did not deter decision makers. It was only after months of flat economic indicators that the terrain shifted. Perhaps, the Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians who have lived through structural adjustment IMF-style need to launch a special programme of teach-ins for Europeans on how to fight and survive. So normalized is the basic neo-liberal, austerity model that to suggest governments can and should play a different role is akin to being a communist in many circles.

The shrinking role and capacity of national governments

Downsizing and corruption have shredded safety nets and subsumed the welfare of citizens to the interests of external actors–international financial institutions, banks, corporations, and donors. Budgets and delivery mechanisms for social policy have been gutted, and with them, the ability to enforce and protect rights. Decentralization, as part of this trend, has been a mixed bag for women – at times, creating new opportunities for influencing decision making. In other cases, decentralization has simply handed power to more parochial or traditional elites quick to reverse women’s rights and eliminate basic freedoms.

Conflict, militarization and repression in the name of ‘national security’

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks and the US government’s launch of the ‘war on terror’, security and defense spending has exploded. While cuts to social spending are rationalized by budget shortfalls, states continue to find ways finance outsized defence and security strategies.

Emboldened by far-reaching ‘anti-terror’ and national security laws, states are using military and police powers to silence dissent, sometimes violently so. And despite these new laws, organized crime is flourishing, contributing to new and intensified forms of violence against women and women activists. The unseemly relationship between militarization and capitalism is increasingly at play, as both state and private security forces protect and defend the interests of individual and corporate investors bent on exploiting every available natural resource for their own profit. Although not a new phenomenon, the race to control the world’s resources has been wildly accelerated by consumer-driven demands for biofuels, communications technologies, energy, cheap goods, and food.


We are witnessing a forceful, worldwide backlash against women’s equality and sexual rights at the hands of well-financed social and religious fundamentalists. Implementation of hard-fought gains for gender equality, the environment, and human rights has been stalled. In many countries, such as Nicaragua, unholy alliances between religious leaders and so-called left parties have led to total reversals in abortion rights. Conservative politicians in the United States routinely use social issues like abortion and gay rights to mobilize their constituencies, fuelling bitter divides and dismantling important legal protections. Everywhere in the world, backlash has made it more dangerous to promote women’s rights, or even step outside the lines of prescribed social roles. Not coincidentally, the global consensus on gender equality – the product of decades of women’s activism culminating in Cairo and Beijing – is slipping as a new era of cultural relativism re-emerges and women’s rights are traded away in the high stakes negotiations of global diplomacy.

A changing and uncertain global governance system

Global policy actors have more and more direct influence on the basic livelihoods and choices of poor and low-income people around the world, circumscribing the authority of governments and elected officials on macro-economic policy matters and fundamental policy questions. Institutions like the IMF – reinvigorated by a new incarnation of structural adjustment: austerity programmes – remain hugely influential, along with international banks and multinational corporations. New interests and actors have come on to the scene, including regional trade bodies, ‘philanthrocapitalists’,2 and public–private financing initiatives. Countries like India, China, and Brazil are on the ascendancy, on track to fundamentally shift the global balance of power.
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Running in place

Fairer, more sustainable economic policies and more inclusive decision making are the product of political struggle in which organized citizens debate, critique, and demand alternative solutions to common problems, from access to healthcare to agricultural pricing and markets. Civil society actors have seized such opportunities over the last three decades, fuelling democratic transitions in former Communist-bloc countries, driving consumer advocacy campaigns, and demanding both corporate and government transparency and accountability to stakeholders.

So how is it that the whole world is seemingly mobilizing against inequality and injustice at the same time that the institutions and architects of neo-liberalism continue to gain power? Despite the growth and sophistication of anti-poverty campaigns in the last 15 years, the world finds itself facing a total collapse at the hands of global financial capitalism. Likewise, in the wake of two decades of advances on women’s rights internationally, women are generally fairing worse, not better.

The growth and legitimization of civil society is a welcome development of recent decades, but it has come with some challenges undermining our impact, including:

  • the over-institutionalization of social justice and human rights work including competition for visibility and resources, and an over-reliance on policy advocacy, information campaigns, and sound bytes to engage power or effect social change;
  • fragmentation of agendas and groups – weakening movements – such that women’s groups working on economic issues do not collaborate with women’s groups working on sexual rights issues, and it is rare for women to work together across movements;
  • the depoliticization of strategies, including women’s movements, whereby change efforts had become narrowly focused on producing immediate, quantifiable results at the expense of engaging power and dealing with the structural drivers of poverty, discrimination, and violence; and
  • major disconnects between highly professionalized ‘elite’ NGOs operating in macro-level policy spaces, and the constituencies they claimed to represent.

While several global campaigns have included a women’s or women’s rights agenda, this is hardly a given. Getting and keeping women’s concerns and rights on the table has required constant vigilance, not the least within social justice movements themselves, ranging from campaigns against poverty to climate change, and HIV and AIDS. And when women’s interests are addressed, there is rarely the time and space to fully address the diversity of women’s needs and experiences.
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New forms of citizen power

Recently, ‘Facebook revolutions’ in the Arab Spring and ‘leaderless movements’ in Occupy Wall Street protests across the world have sparked new interest and excitement about the changing nature of citizen action. But, apart from new technologies, a groundswell of resistance, and unexpected locations, are people really organizing in ways that differ fundamentally from those of recent decades? Despite the media fascination with it, the slow process of consciousness-raising and dialogue that the Occupy movement has rediscovered is not new. Consciousness-raising about the structural and internalized forms of oppression – one heart and mind at a time – has been a critical component of feminist movements and LGBT organizing for generations.

Women are and have always been constructing much needed alternatives, often under the radar, with little to no external resources, and invisible within mainstream development approaches and economic indicators. Women are lending their support to all justice issues while fighting for women’s rights all by themselves, and often against extraordinary levels of normalized and sexual violence. From traditional savings clubs to informal care networks and solidarity economies, women’s work and resolve function as the social safety nets that states have failed to provide. If the rising tide of civil society participation and influence is to truly lift all boats, advocates and social movements must from all walks of life reconnect to the day-to-day realities of grassroots women, particularly those most marginalized by social exclusion.
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Back to basics: women organizing for economic democracy

Economic justice and true equality goes beyond a technical policy task. It is a struggle rooted in ideology, core beliefs about what is right, what is wrong, what is ‘normal’, and who decides. These beliefs shape the behaviour and expectation of citizens as well as powerful political economic and cultural institutions. They are also the source of tension within and between organizations struggling for social justice and with the people they seek to serve.

Beyond policy victories, the definition of ‘winning’ needs to take into account what it takes to build the political clout of groups that have been disenfranchised from political processes – including helping them to counter feelings of powerlessness and the ideologies that create them. These range from beliefs about who is to blame for social inequities and the role of government to whose rights count in any given society. This is a complicated and often undervalued task because it involves tapping how people feel, as well as how they see the world and what they know to be true. Yet engaging hearts and minds is a critical step in getting people to recognize their power to make a difference, begin to seek out information and act.
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Re-visiting popular education

In this context, social justice strategies need to re-integrate the political and the economic in the ways they did in the 1970s and 1980s, in addition to having a much more nuanced analysis that integrates questions of race, class, gender, sexuality and so on. In practice, this means using immediate problems as an entry point for organizers to motivate people to come together, raise questions, and organize. Reflection and dialogue that promotes sharing can validate people’s experience and knowledge, building solidarity for collective action. Sharing stories about how other communities have fought back can re-instill a sense of agency and the belief that there are indeed alternatives to what people have come to understand as the inevitable order of things. Perhaps, most importantly, linking awareness and dialogue to concrete political action is essential for generating forward momentum, a sense of genuine empowerment, and a virtuous cycle of individual and collective resistance that can fundamentally transform underlying power structures one heart and mind at a time.

Historically, popular education focused on enabling people to critically understand and act to change local realities. Today, an added complexity is that much of what happens locally is shaped by outside dynamics and agendas that are largely invisible and inaccessible to communities. Thus, popular education is neither a panacea nor a strategy, to be used in isolation of global solidarity efforts that link local realities to national and global processes and decision making. The following highlights some core principles that those concerned with social justice must take in account to reinvigorate our efforts to make the world a more just and humane place for everyone.
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Principles for change

  1. Start with women’s solutions: As always, when states relinquish their responsibility to provide for the basic welfare of their citizens, women step in to fill the gaps. From savings cooperatives to home-based care networks to mother’s demanding justice for family members, women are on the frontlines of all social justice struggles. In fact, as many of the male leaders are detained, movements fighting for land, water, and environment in Latin America are now headed by women. Their leadership, strategies, and their demands for sustainable alternatives are different and important. While society depends on this work, it is largely invisible and unrecognized, leaving these activists vulnerable to attack.
  2. Bring power and politics to the forefront of our analysis and strategies: Efforts to translate economic and political concepts (including rights) often do little more than simplify arcane terminology without linking it to real life economic problems and political realities. In many cases, these programmes have lacked a full appreciation of power or its implications for strategy. They have been heavily content-driven, combining information about economic systems and policies with tools for analysis, essentially assuming that policy alternatives and informed citizens are sufficient to foster change. In addition, there is a tendency to believe that participation on economic issues has to focus on the micro-level for citizens to fully engage and understand the process. This often means that groups focus on budget line items or small-scale production. These efforts may empower people by grounding new learning in concrete local realities, but they often fail to examine how economic conditions are shaped by numerous macro-level economic policies.
  3. Engaging hearts and minds: For lasting change, poverty reduction and empowerment strategies need to help people critically understand and question conventional economic wisdom and identify the institutions and interests who benefit from it. This is best approached as a process that enables people to understand their own circumstances within the context of prevailing norms and economic arrangements.
  4. Building bridges between movements, NGOs, and constituencies: Social movements, as well as NGOs, must take the time to unpack assumptions and ensure clear communication as we may use a common language of change (from feminism to racial justice) but have diverse interpretations. We need honest conversation to address conflict and negotiate political differences as well as fresh thinking and diversified funding sources to address competition for resources. We need to reorganize our work and division of labour based on relative access and competencies, but eliminating the false hierarchy between policy expertise and organizing. And we must honestly address the prickly questions of representation and legitimacy – on whose behalf are we speaking, and how are we ensuring that those voices are up front, visible, and influential?
  5. Revisiting and refining our understanding of key economic problems and their solutions: While groups are concerned with dividing up the pieces of the economic pie, it is also important for them to be able to question the assumptions that define the size of the pie and the rules governing the people with access to the pie (e.g., investment policies, labour standards, public goods etc.). We need to examine the ideologies that underpin dominant economic agendas and their impact on our strategic choices and messages; begin to define the ideas and principles that shape a gender equality and justice worldview that might frame our messages and alternatives going forward.
  6. Needs and rights: Organizing for political rights should not be separated from practical needs. In the context of poverty, if we want women to be involved politically, we have to support them to organize for access to economic resources – cash and property – and for the freedom that these provide.
  7. Revisit traditional advocacy targets and entry points: With limited political, strategic thinking, our organizations find themselves consumed by policy work that gets co-opted or diverts us from more relevant arenas and issues for change. Many groups have cultivated key allies on the inside and are reluctant to say ‘no’ to official invitations for polite discussion. Yet, with limited resources and capacity, the question has to be raised: ‘When is a political space worthwhile?’ Invited policy spaces (from the MDGs to the World Bank) with their pre-cooked and controlled agendas, need to be assessed and compared against the alternative of claiming policy spaces that advance women’s rights and economic justice interests in both the public and private sectors.3

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You don’t have to look too far to see that genuine alternatives to consumer-driven capitalism do exist. Women who are struggling on the margins of society have developed creative ways to survive that are based on solidarity and cooperation as opposed to competition and scarcity. And it’s not just a matter of sentimentality; it’s about practicing fairness, respect for humanity and our environment in the course of their day-to-day lives. More and more, we see similar models being brought to scale. From reclaiming shuttered factories as worker-owned co-ops to food sovereignty movements, activists and ‘ordinary’ citizens are re-discovering and revitalizing old concepts of the commons and solidarity economies. Peoples’ movements are demanding social protection, not only to protect citizens from livelihood risks but to ensure that all people can live with dignity. ‘Netizens’ are tapping the extraordinary reach of social media to mobilize consumer campaigns targeted at multinational companies and sparking entire revolutions. Even as news of a global economic slowdown strikes fear in the hearts of policymakers and citizens alike, the crisis of consumer-driven capitalism provides an opening for fresh alternatives hope for transformative social change.
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1 This article adapts and updates an article originally written in 2003, and thus some of the references date back nearly ten years. They have been retained because it is always surprising how relevant seemingly old thinking is to something that is considered a new problem.

2 Term coined by Matthew Bishop to describe billionaire philanthropists, such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates Jr, who are drawing on business models and market philosophies to guide their charitable giving.

3 Cornwall, Andrea and John Gaventa (2001), Power, Knowledge and Political Spaces in the Framing of Poverty Policy, IDS WP 143; and Gaventa, John (2006), ‘Finding the Spaces for Change: A power analysis’, in Exploring Power for Change, IDS Bulletin 37.6, Brighton, IDS.
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Bhargava, Deepak (2003) ‘Speech to the Ford Foundation’, Executive Director, Center for Community Change, Washington, DC.
Finnegan, William (2003) ‘The Economic of Empire: Notes on the Washington Consensus’, Harpers Magazine, May.


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