Indian women protesting - International Women's Day 2020

By Hannah Bargawi, Alessandra Mezzadri and Sara Stevano

With recent news of Harvey Weinstein being convicted of rape and sexual abuse in America, and gender pay gap reporting rarely out of news here in the UK, it is important not to neglect the international aspect of International Women’s Day 2020.

Across SOAS, including in the departments of Economics and Development Studies, academics continue to unpick gender and work-related issues in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, worthy of highlighting particularly on this IWD2020. For more information about this research and our taught programmes, please visit the Department of Economics and Department of Development Studies web pages. In this short blog, we highlight some of the differences and commonalities of our findings across the three regions, highlighting at the end some of the important feminist organisations in the Global South working towards addressing deep-rooted gender inequalities inside and outside the labour market. 

In the Middle East, women’s apparent low economic participation is put under question by research in occupied Palestine by Hannah Bargawi, Randa Alami and Hurriyah Ziada. Once the definition of ‘work’ is broadened beyond mere paid work in the formal economy, it is clear that women are equally, if not more economically active, than men, but such work remains under-counted and informal, under-valued, and often unpaid. Understanding this is imperative and goes some way in explaining why policy solutions that focus on increasing women’s participation in paid work don’t always achieve their desired outcomes. 

Research on the cashew processing industry in Mozambique, conducted by Sara Stevano and Rosimina Ali in 2018-2019, reveals that the sector’s mostly feminized workforce faces extremely poor working conditions. Amidst the shortage of employment opportunities, which is especially acute for women, investors are hailed for creating employment, but there is little scrutiny of the quality of these jobs. Women working in this sector receive low wages, often below the minimum wage, work long hours in the attempt to meet the daily production targets, are employed on weak contracts that make the employment relation insecure and disposable, and are not guaranteed adequate health and safety conditions.

In common with the findings in Palestine, women’s challenges in the workplace cannot be understood unless we see the interconnections with their responsibilities for cooking, cleaning, caring, and providing for their families. Across the African continent, unpaid carers tend to be young women with children who work for pay with no access to public care services (ILO, 2018).

The nexus between production and reproduction also emerges as a crucial intersection structuring class and livelihoods in Alessandra Mezzadri’s research on India’s Sweatshop Regime (2017). This research shows how exploitation in the garment shopfloor is structured along gender, caste and provenance lines and inequalities. It also shows that the social identity sets the basis for labour remuneration, so that workers arrive at factory gates with different price tags attached to their bodies, and this process of differential commodification of labour sets the basis for different wage-gaps and exploitation differentials.

Later research by Alessandra Mezzadri and Sanjita Majumder (2018, and forthcoming) on the ‘afterlife’ of this industrial proletariat, carried out in Bangalore, reveals that women sweatshop workers leave the garment factory young, often in debt, and go back to informal occupations on the basis of family ties and kinship connections. This illustrates that there is a revolving door between formal and informal occupation, and that factory work is often only a temporary, highly gendered experience in the complex lives of the working poor. 

In different ways, all these three research findings across the world economy illustrate how the globalisation of production has created jobs for women in the Global South while reinforcing and creating new forms of gender, race, and class exploitation. On International Women’s Day, this is a crucial message to underline: as we celebrate women’s gains in the world of work, we must also acknowledge how much we still need to struggle towards gender equality in labour markets.

The International Women Strike reclaims the strike as a space for feminist resistance that shows how work is not only wage work but also all the forms of paid and unpaid reproductive work overwhelmingly performed by women. By extending the notion of work, the strike connects women’s struggles in the workplace, at home, and in society. International feminist resistance and solidarity needs also to recognise the vital importance of feminist organisations and social movements across the Global South. Feminist struggles are about building international mechanisms of support and making visible those who are resisting, fighting, and creating alternatives across the globe. 

Across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia feminist voices and organisations are doing essential work to advance women’s rights, working and living conditions. In Sub-Saharan Africa, FEMNET are doing ground-breaking work on gender equality from a Pan-African perspective; the Institute of Economic Justice are supporting the student-led initiative Rethinking Economics for Africa and are working to place feminist economics at its core; Rama Salla Dieng is bringing to us the voice and the work of prominent African feminists with the ROAPE Talking Back blog.

In the Middle East, two organisations worth mentioning are CAWTAR, an NGO that promotes gender equality in the Arab world through research, training and advocacy, and KAFA (translated as ENOUGH), a self-described feminist, secular, Lebanese NGO seeking to create a society free of social, economic and legal patriarchal structures that discriminate against women.

In South Asia, while unions like Self Employed Women Association (SEWA) continue fighting for a better future for all women informal workers, others like the Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU) and Global Labour Union (GLU) in India’s export-led sectors continue pressing local employers and buyers towards paying living wages and humane working conditions. Moreover, at present, the voice of women is rising also in relation to social oppression in India, as the women’s mobilisations of Shaheen Bagh in Delhi against the new citizenship laws are demonstrating. 

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