Patriarchy is pervasive across the entirety of the global political economy, and women all over the world feel its effects in both their public and private lives. This male dominance dictates women’s career paths, personal image, safety, security, and countless other aspects of their lives. On the whole, women occupy a lesser position than their male counterparts in the global market due to patriarchal norms which exacerbate the many forms of inequality women experience. The feminization of poverty is the result of a plethora of patriarchal practices currently in place. Not being able to attend school, marrying young, not having access to contraception and sexual health resources, being forced into low paying jobs, not being able to own property, and generally not having governmental support are all ways in which women experience poverty differently from men.
The United Nations Development Program released a Human Development Report in 1997 that gave close attention to women’s experiences with poverty. Author Richard Jolly explains that “Women and men experience poverty in different ways. And the feminization of poverty may be a question less of whether more women than men are poor than of the severity of poverty and the greater hardship women face in lifting themselves and their children out of the trap. The wide range of biases in society – unequal opportunities in education, employment and asset ownership among them – mean that women have fewer opportunities. Poverty accentuates gender gaps, and when adversity strikes, it is women who often are the most vulnerable.” This describes the barriers women face and how they are still disadvantaged in their quest to live happy, successful and fulfilled lives.
Global economic restructuring efforts to reduce poverty, implemented by institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, have had negative effects which have been felt primarily across the Global South. Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) are enforced through a neoliberal approach to economic development. These organizations offer loans or tied aid in exchange for enforcing austerity measures to curb government spending, redirecting money to specific business endeavours, and liberalizing trade so the recipient country can fully integrate into the global market. In Mexico, however, during the structural adjustment of the 1980s, “women’s wages fell from 80% of men’s in 1980 to 57% in 1992,” according to the 1997 United Nations Human Development Report. This pay gap exemplifies the feminization of poverty, as poor women are becoming more disadvantaged than their male counterparts. This also shows that the IMF and World Bank have little concern for the negative impact their SAPs have had on women in recipient countries. Neoliberalism’s sole purpose is to generate wealth, even if that wealth is accrued at the expense of others. Women, especially in the Global South, all too often fall into the category of ‘other.’
Another form of inequality that disadvantages only women are motherhood penalties, which are imposed upon childbearing women by patriarchal practices and negatively effect their employment opportunities. Although men are equally responsible for raising their children, they are not penalized to the same extent for choosing to have them. In Mothers, Migrants and Markets: Re-Thinking the Link Between Motherhood and Work in the Global Economy, the authors claim that “The dominant theoretical framework used to explain motherhood penalties defines motherhood as a status characteristic that is incompatible with employers’ construction of the ‘ideal worker.’” Women are expected to bear children in order to fulfill an expectation of womanhood, but when they carry out this ‘duty’ they are punished for not fitting into what it means to be an “ideal worker.” While it is true that women who choose to have children require certain accommodations, their partners should also share the responsibility of parenthood. For example, parents should share parental leave time, as both parents are equally responsible for the child’s care. In Sweden, parental leave is allotted as equally as possible; 60 days of leave are allocated to each parent, and cannot be transferred to the other. As a country that is at the forefront of gender equality, perhaps this is a practice other countries should adopt.
Amartya Sen’s approach to gender inequality is evident in much of his work, as he fully stands behind the empowerment of women and sees this as a way to advance many societies. In his article in The New Republic, The Many Faces of Gender Inequality, Sen outlines a variety of inequalities faced by women. One that he mentions is “sex-specific abortions,” in which a mother, after finding out her fetus is female, chooses to have an abortion because male children are more desirable. Sex-specific abortions are prevalent in East Asia – China, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan – and emerging in India and other parts of South Asia. Sen describes this as “high-tech sexism.” He also mentions that the Taliban specifically excludes girls from attending school in Afghanistan as one aspect of its enforced gender inequality. Sen is highly critical of sexist practices, especially when they are justified by traditional cultural beliefs. He emphasizes the importance of “the freedom to question and to scrutinize inherited beliefs and traditional priorities.” He also highlights that the “presence of extensive gender asymmetry can be seen in many areas of education, training, and professional work even in Europe and North America.”
Gender inequality is far too often portrayed as a Global South issue, yet it is still a pressing concern across the developed nations of the world. In 2006, the Conservative Minister of Canadian Heritage, Beverley Oda, claimed “this government does fundamentally believe that all women are equal.” However, this statement coincided with the $2 billion ‘fat-trimming’ exercise implemented by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government to cut down on funding for equal rights groups. Additionally, the word ‘equality’ was removed from the Status of Women Canada (SWC) website. Oda’s justification was that because equality is already enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it would be redundant to include it in SWC’s mission statement. Harper’s government also eliminated the SWC’s Independent Research Fund, which effectively disallowed studies to be carried out that would generate data about women’s policy issues to ensure women’s equality in policy decisions. Harper’s government focused on what was a ‘valuable’ use of taxpayers’ money, and Oda saw women’s advocacy groups as redundant and unnecessary.
Janine Brodie, author of We Are All Equal Now: Contemporary Gender Politics in Canada, discusses how the momentum built up by women’s equality movements during the post-war social liberalism period was greatly stunted by the ideals of neoliberalism. Neoconservative ideology discredited feminist advocacy groups, portraying them as unnecessary. All equality-seeking groups were labelled as ‘special interest groups’ and pushed to the periphery of Canadian mainstream politics. Efforts were made by the 2006 minority Conservative government to blur the lines between ‘women’s issues’ and ‘Canadian issues.’ Brodie writes, “Since the mid-1980s, gender has been progressively erased from the policy agendas of advanced democracies, especially those that have embraced the central tenets of neoliberal governance.” Brodie’s argument is that neoliberalism fundamentally erodes the post-war welfare state and other social provisions which promote the advancement of women. So, in its most basic precept, neoliberalism is damaging to women. Most of the Western world is consumed by neoliberalism, which create barriers to gender equality on an advocacy and policy level. Therefore, developed nations still struggle against inequality aimed at women, but perhaps in more covert ways than developing nations.
Women still experience various barriers to equality, both overt and covert, around the world. Whether it is penalization at work in the U.S. for choosing to have a child, or sex-specific abortions in China, girls and women are at a considerable disadvantage because of their gender. Patriarchy brings about many harmful practices and beliefs that both women and men need to recognize and resist. An essential element to advancing the plight of women is recognizing us as fully formed, three-dimensional, capable, and talented individuals. As Amartya Sen puts it, “Empowering women is key to building a future we want.”
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