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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 21, May 9, 2009

Globalisation and its Impact on Women: A Critical Assessment

Wednesday 13 May 2009, by Bharti Chhibber


Globalisation is a process of increasing interdependence, interconnectedness and integration of economies and societies to such an extent that an event in one part of the globe affects people in other parts of world. We have often heard of global culture and integration of the world economy. However, as this process is not consistent throughout the world, it leads to conflict and fragmentation.

In 2000, the Beijing+5 Document, while reviewing progress made since the 1995 UN Conference on Women, notes that globalisation presents opportunities to some women but leads to marginalisation of many others and thus advocates mainstreaming in order to achieve gender equality. Globalisation affects different groups of women in different places in different ways. On the one hand it may create new opportunities for women to be forerunners in economic and social progress. With the advent of global communication networks and cross-cultural exchange there seems to be a change in the status of women albeit not to a very large extent. However, globalisation has indeed promoted ideas and norms of equality for women that have brought about an awareness and acted as a catalyst in their struggle for equitable rights and opportunities. On the other hand it may exacerbate gender inequality in a patriarchal society, especially in the developing world. In the economic realm it may lead to further marginalisation of women in the informal labour sector or impoverishment through loss of traditional sources of income.

Gender equality is critical to the development process. The process of globalisation may have resulted in new avenues of growth, but due to unequal distribution of its benefits women have been adversely affected in many cases. It calls for creating opportunities for women to be part of this development process. Merely enacting legislation will not help. What is required is its proper implementation.

According to a United Nations Development Fund for Women’s report, over the past two decades the process of globalisation has contributed to widening inequality within and among countries, coupled with economic and social collapse in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and countries in transition like in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and financial crises in Asia and Latin America. The process of globalisation must be reshaped so that it is more people-centred instead of profit-centred and more accountable to women.

As another report on ‘The Realisation of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Globalisation and its Impact on the Full Enjoyment of Human Rights’, presented to the United Nations Economic and Social Council’s Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in its fiftysecond session, highlights:

Among the distinct groups of society upon whom globalisation’s impact has been most telling, women clearly stand out. Women have entered the workforce in large numbers in states that have embraced liberal economic policies.


Critics of liberalisation argue that following the World Trade Organisation regulations the states have brought about a change in national policies so as to allow the free entry of foreign corporations, to give more incentives to big businesses rather than to small firms, and to lift import controls on agricultural products. This has resulted in further marginalisation of rural and indigenous women. Globalisation has also increased women’s unpaid work as social services are privatised. Already the roles of international institutions like the Inter-national Monetary Fund, World Bank during the East Asian crisis were highly criticised. Similarly, the activities of transnational corporations should be regulated. They should be made accountable in terms of their practices in resource exploitation, production, marketing and labour relations.

Globalisation has had adverse effects on women especially in the developing countries. As consumers, women are increasingly facing a consumer culture which reduces them to commodities and as producers, women are exposed to work exploitation and occupational hazards. Owing to their many roles, as would-be mothers, as mothers responsible for the health of their children and families, as working women at home and outside they are major consumers of healthcare products. In recent years a serious issue has come to light where many products related to women’s health, found to be dangerous and banned or restricted in the developed countries, were marketed in the developing countries. Transnational Corporations (TNCs) see the developing world as a convenient dumping ground for these products and medicines. Of late many TNCs have located some of their manufacturing plants and industries in the developing countries due to the easy availability of cheap labour. As producers also women have to suffer exploitation in terms of low wages, poor working environment, instability of employment, and denial of right to representation.

This calls for networking among women and other groups affected by globalisation and undertaking joint campaigns on common concerns. The women’s movement has to fight for change at all levels. Women have to work for self-empowerment through engagement in action at multiple levels. Various international agencies are also working in this direction. As the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation underscores, globalisation is a multidimensional process of economic, political, cultural, and ideological change. It has had a mixed impact on women’s rights. On the one hand, it has led to increasing violations of women’s economic, political, and cultural rights in large measure due to the withering away of the welfare state, the feminisation of poverty, the expansion of religious fundamentalism, and new forms of militarism and conflict. It has been noted by many international women’s organisations, for example, that the new trade agreements contravene the spirit and often the letter of international conventions on human rights, labour rights, and women’s rights. On the other hand, aspects of globalisation have provided women with increasing opportunities to work in solidarity at regional, national and international levels to demand their rights. Their objective is to help promote mechanisms that strengthen the positive aspects and consequences of globalisation, especially with respect to women’s rights and gender equality.

Another related issue is of the state’s retreat from social responsibility and its impact on women’s health and livelihood. However, limited concerns about public welfare have always been under global capitalism, the extension of the market economy to virtually every remote atoll or mountain village has revealed the ties governments have to multinational corporations. Neoliberalism, the most recent form of global capitalism, has confronted notions of the public good with plans for privatisation of all productive resources.1

Further, structural adjustment includes strict population control policies which are seen as panacea for economic growth. This thinking reflects the traditional Western concept which views the problem of food security and starvation in Malthusian terms; rising populations overtake food availability, shortages occur. Without negating the importance of population control, I would like to stress that “ultimately the food problem is not concerned just with the availability of food but with the disposition of food. That involves economics, politics and even law. Starvations and malnutrition are related ultimately to ownership and exchange in addition to production possibility.”2 This calls into question the operations of international capitalism.

Thus no doubt there are some redeeming features of the economic reform process like reduced role of the state in forestry and greater and easier access to international markets for poor women’s products. But in the long run it is imperative to manage and mitigate the negative consequences of liberalisation and mechanisation by enhancing women’s skills and innovations as well as developing insurance cover so as to minimise the risks they endure. This calls for direct interventions so as not to marginalise a very important section of society in the race for economic development and empowerment.


1. Temma Kaplan, “Uncommon Women and the Common Good: Women and Environmental Protest” in Sheila Rowbotham and Stephanie Linkogle (eds.), Women Resist Globalisation: Mobilising for Livelihood and Rights, Zed Books, London, 2001, pp. 28-45.

2. Amartya Sen, “The Food Problem: Theory and Practice” in A. Gauhar (ed.), South-South Strategy, London: Third World Foundation, 1983, p. 103.

Dr Bharti Chhibber teaches Politicsl Science at the University of Delhi.

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