A struggle without borders

Published : Dec 09, 2000 00:00 IST

The World March of Women for the Eradication of Poverty and Violence Against Women organises a rally in New York and presents a critique of the market-guided globalisation strategy.


With or without papers we will speak out With or without shoes we will march Our struggle is without borders So, take your sister by the hand Our song will move hearts It's time for a change!

- from the theme song of the World March of Women-2000,composed in 20 languages.

THE 1990s saw a deluge of rhetoric on poverty, expressed in figures and narratives, mostly in international forums of various kinds. Extreme poverty was called "the most ruthless killer and greatest cause of suffering on earth" (World Health Report). The 1993 World Conference on Human Rights affirmed that extreme poverty and exclusion constituted "violation of human dignity". The World Summit for Social Development at Copenhagen (1995) pronounced that "the right to development, which implied an ultimate eradication of poverty", was a "fundamental right". The Special United Nations Rapporteur on human rights and poverty, waxed eloquent: "For one part of mankind, change is gathering pace; for the other, it is marking time or losing ground everyday... mor e people fall behind... with terrifying speed." At the proclamation of 1997-2006 as the International Decade for the Eradication of Poverty, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent a message to those in poverty: "We are listening. We ask you to tell us ho w we can work to meet your aspirations; not for you, but with you." However, more recently, Annan confessed: "...neither governments, nor the United Nations, nor the private sectors have found the key to eradicating the persistent poverty that grips a ma jority of humankind." But the 'never say die' World Bank/International Monetary Fund pair, disagree, ignoring hard facts and experiences in several parts of the world. The market economy and structural adjustment policy combine is, for them, the magic wa nd to wish away poverty.

It is in this backdrop of suffocating global verbiage of concern for poverty that finally leaves one - at least the world body - without a clue to the modalities of its eradication, that the initiative of the Quebec Association of Women, started in 1998, to focus attention of women, the world over, on poverty, its causes and strategies for elimination, gains immediate relevance. In the last two years the initiative has become global, gaining the status of World March of Women for the Eradication of Pove rty and Violence Against Women, completing the first stage of its struggle with a rally in New York on October 17. Representing nearly 6,000 organisations spread across a hundred countries, the World March of Women presented a comprehensive and strident critique of the market-guided globalisation strategy forced upon the developing countries by the World Bank, the IMF and the U.N.

In an age of high-tech information, no one could be entirely clueless about the basic issues affecting communities the world over, which prompted the March. It is worthwhile, however, to recall a few of these reasons, as the women marchers did. Women, wh o represent 40 per cent of the world's agricultural labour force, possess roughly 1 per cent of the land; in 100 years, only 24 women have been elected heads of state; the U.N. estimates that it will take 500 years before men and women are equally repres ented in the highest ranks of economic power; out of a billion illiterate persons two-thirds are women; over two lakh women die every year as a result of back street abortions; around one million children, mainly girl children, are recruited into the sex industry; two million little girls are subjected to genital mutilation each year; the World Bank considers that violence against women equals "cancer as a cause of death and incapacitation in women of childbearing age, and causes more ill health than ro ad accidents and malaria combined".

About 10,000 women and a few men who gathered at the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza near the U.N. building in New York on October 17, were in a festive mood. They were wearing clothes with the logo of the March and slogans printed on them, pushing children in st rollers, singing and dancing, playing musical instruments, distributing leaflets, pitching tents and exhibiting visual objects on their movements and activities, their spirit of militancy and struggles overriding the hundred odd things that separated the m on the surface. As part of their agenda, the members of the International Political Delegation, on which India was represented by the National Alliance of Women Organisations (NAWO) and the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), handed over baskets carrying nearly 60 lakh signatures on ways to eliminate poverty and violence to the U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frachette and interacted with her and with Ms. King, Adviser to the Secretary-General on gender issues. The Secretary-General himself was away in West Asia.

The document presented to the U.N. was unique as documents go. Deriding the oft-repeated proclamations of the U.N. to eliminate poverty, the document said: "The feebleness of its political will and the lack of concrete actions and strategies outrage us." Criticism of the U.N.'s pro-globalisation stance and 'connivance with it' was unsparing. It expressed 'concern and anger' at witnessing the Secretary-General advocate "a global pact with private enterprise and endorse the belief that left to its own dev ices, the market will be a source of equality and progress of the people". All this happens because the U.N. remains a pocketborough of some of the dominant countries of the world. Despite everything, the delegation sought interaction with the U.N. offic ials as it "represented hope, above all - hope that we must cultivate for the 21st century".

The March clearly identified neo-liberal capitalism and patriarchy as fostering and reinforcing each other. The former was a system "bowing only to the tenet that the market reigns supreme; where the full exercise of fundamental human rights is subordina te to economic freedom". It pointed out that the U.N. should not be afraid of admitting it. The March called upon the U.N. to condemn any public, religious, economic or cultural authority that controlled the lives of women and girls and to denounce regim es that did not respect their fundamental rights. Similarly, states should introduce laws that recognise all forms of violence against women as violations of fundamental human rights. The right of the woman to determine her own destiny and to exercise co ntrol over her body and reproductive function should be recognised. Quoting the U.N. Rapporteur on Violence Against Women that 'the exploitation of women's bodies is an international industry', the World March said: "This is a particularly horrible facet of globalisation that your policies do not take into consideration. And the traffic flows in the same direction as debt repayment: from South to North and from East to West."

The plea that a person's sexual orientation must not bar him or her from the full exercise of the rights set out in international instruments and the right to asylum for victims of persecution based on such orientation was made with the rider that some p articipants of the March could not commit publicly to defending these demands in their countries.

The March did not confine itself to cataloguing the ills and woes of women in poverty. It demanded specific actions from the World Bank, the IMF and the U.N. and offered practical suggestions to raise resources to eliminate poverty. One such was the Tobi n tax. The American economist and a Nobel Laureate, James Tobin, had suggested that a small tax of 0.1 to 0.5 per cent be levied on speculative currency transactions that were notorious for devaluing national currencies and plunging countries into recess ion as happened to Mexico, Brazil and the 'Asian Tigers'. Another way of raising funds was by cancelling the foreign debt of the 53 poorest countries immediately and, in the longer term, cancelling the debt of all the Third World countries and ensuring t hat this money was utilised to eliminate poverty. The example of sub-Saharan Africa was cited as an instance of a region which received as loan an amount that equalled its debt servicing cost in 1996.

Yet another means of raising resources was to ensure that the developed countries paid 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Product (GNP) as development assistance, as they once piously committed themselves to doing. This ratio plummeted to 0.25 per cent in 1996. The U.N. estimate is that if the current rate of decline is maintained, Overseas Development Assistance will disappear altogether in another 15 years. Ironical as it may seem to those not too familiar with its ways, the United States, which fle xes its muscles to coerce the rest of the world to fall in line with globalisation, is not itself adhering to a decision taken at the global level - in fact, it leads the list of countries paying the least aid. In order to ensure that the funds were in f act used for anti-poverty measures, it was suggested that 20 per cent of the amount given by the donor country and a matching amount by the receiving country must be set aside for social programmes.

Given the information available on the extent of damage done to the marginalised sections of people in countries such as Iraq and Cuba the demand of the March that embargoes and blockades imposed by the major powers that principally affect women and chil dren be lifted, was bold and timely. The logical conclusion of the critique of the existing international institutions by the March was the demand for a radically different institution which was "fair, participatory and socially cohesive with the right to exercise political control over fin ancial markets and exercising democratic control over commercial trade or, applying zero tolerance on the criminal tendencies of the economy". Such a 'World Council of Economic and Financial Security', however far fetched it may seem now, should ensure e qual representation of countries of the North and South.

The high points of the March were two separate meetings with James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, and with the Managing Director of the IMF, Hoerst Kohler. The defiant tone of the 'Message' - not called memorandum as is normally done - given to these officials, was clear and loud. The spokespersons of the March said the meeting was sought not to engage in a "constructive dialogue" or "to negotiate" with them, but to tell them that the World Bank and the IMF were "themselves part of the problem of world poverty" because of the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) imposed on countries. An end to the SAP, to cutbacks in social budgets and public services and rejection of the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) were some of the important demands. Lack of transparency and accountability of these institutions was highlighted.

The Commonwealth Expert Group on Women and SAP had stressed the point that women were at the centre of the economic crisis in the 1980s, shouldering the lion's share of the burden of adjustment. It said that while on the surface SAPs seemed gender-neutra l, in reality they were "more demanding of women then men, as much in the formal sector as in the unstructured sector of the economy. They cut back on essential services to protect the family, and in many cases, erased the economic gains won by women dur ing the three preceding decades".

At the Fourth World Women's Conference in Beijing, Wolfensohn had committed himself to incorporating a gender perspective in the World Bank's policies. The reality in the past five years was perceptively criticised: "The gender perspective is only taken into consideration for specific projects and not at all when it comes to macro-economic policies such as SAP. The macro-economy has no sex, according to your institutions. Yet, the women's movement has strongly criticised this simplistic and traditional view of the economy... Feminists... have demanded recognition of the economic links between the paid and the unpaid sectors. They have called into question the vertical and horizontal segregation of women and men in the labour market and the distribution and relations of power in the dominant economic system." The 'Message' hit the nail on its head when it drew attention to a very basic postulate that gender perspective without real means to get women out of poverty was an illusion. The United Nations D evelopment Programme (UNDP) had said in a report: "The gender-blindness of most poverty programmes reveals weak links on both sides. Poverty programmes have not ordinarily incorporated gender as an important dimension. And gender programmes have not done well in focussing on poverty."

The chiefs of the World Bank and the IMF, who sat listening with their other officers, were hard put to give any meaningful response. One of them expressed his 'hurt' and the other his 'disappointment' at what the spokespersons of the March had to say.

On and around October 17, rallies were organised all over the world. The demands raised at the rally organised by the National Organisation for Women (NOW) in Washington on October 15 included prevention of violence against women, equal wages for equal w ork, abortion rights, better welfare measures for the poor and elimination of discrimination on the basis of the sexual orientation of a person. Some of the speakers made it clear that poverty was a serious problem in the U.S. For instance, the plight of migrant workers in Florida was said to be near slavery. In her speech, the vice-president of NOW said: "We won't let the Republicans eliminate poverty by letting the poor die of starvation, exposure and untreated diseases. We are not willing to tolerate a system that punishes women for being single mothers" and she added that "holding 26 per cent of the shares of the World Bank, the U.S. can use its leverage to reduce the number of people who die at the hands of poverty and violence." American women ha ve been made conscious by NOW that the U.S. Treasury has voting power in these two institutions and with the U.S. as the largest shareholder, 'change must begin at home'. Taking with them old kitchen utensils from all over the world, to symbolise poverty , the marchers clanged them as they passed by the offices of the World Bank and the IMF.

The UNDP's document, 'Overcoming Poverty', makes a telling point that if macro-economic policies heighten the vulnerability of the poor, targeted poverty alleviation projects are of little help to them. "The safety net responses to national breakdown bec ome an ineffectual attempt to limit or contain the damage that the basic macro policies simultaneously continue to inflict," the document said. Quite obviously, this understanding is yet to permeate to the World Bank. It is bat-blind to lessons of histor y, in this instance, of capitalism, that nowhere has it succeeded in eliminating poverty. A basic consensus on capitalism in recent times is that it generates affluence for the few and deprivation for the many; it is part of its dynamics to create inequa lities. With such historical truth staring you in the face, no one can, true to his or her conscience, expect market capitalism of the virulently profit and competition oriented kind to give a helping hand to those pushed to the bottom.

This is the 'message' that the Women's March had carried to the world's financial chiefs but - as could be expected - there were no takers for the message. But the growing ranks of the Women's March from the far-flung corners of the world show that it is only a matter of time before the financiers, and their masters, are forced to reckon with peoples' anger.

Mythily Sivaraman is Working President, All India Democratic Women's Association, Tamil Nadu.

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