The Creeping Commodification of Feminism

  • by Rangita de Silva de Alwis (united nations)
  • Monday, January 08, 2018
  • Inter Press Service

Rangita de Silva de AlwisWomen's economic empowerment has enormous significance and consequence. Women's gender equality adds trillions to the global economy, yet women are conspicuously absent from board rooms and in some communities, school rooms. The evidence is now clear, when women are absent from the market place, the market suffers.

Although the cost analysis is important, we need to unmask the way in which women's economic participation pays lip service to women's power, while serving the power of the state. Feminism's urgent charge is not to commodify women through rules and data, but to pierce those veils to identify the underlying power structures and structural barriers that prevent women's access to and retention in the market.

Feminism's newest, avatar, "economic feminism," poses a complicated challenge to the pursuit of gender-equality around the world. By providing legal economic rights to women, empowerment becomes voluntary and structural barriers normalized. Entrepreneurial women are proudly paraded as proof of gender equality, a by product of a transformation in culture that sees value in women.

In this cultural shift, if a woman is not in the marketplace, it is because she has made a choice not to work, and not because of debilitating structural inequalities. This thinking masks patriarchy's power over women.

"Economic feminism" in its unquestioned authority, can pose a threat to women's advancement around the world. The importance attached to economic instrumentalist arguments for women's rights can hide unexamined challenges.

Without a doubt, the plethora of recent research confirming that gender equality significantly boosts economic growth, is to be celebrated for giving a tangible economic reason for countries to improve the status of women. Unfortunately, this message has been warped by some economies and economic policies supplant important social change policies and hold back feminism's goal of full realization of gender equality under law. The reality is that women continue to face inequality that goes beyond just economic opportunity.

Several countries put forward "win-win" economic policies as an excuse to ignore controversial and difficult social policies such as violence against women. This approach is similar to the nations that peddled the "Asian Values" theory in 1990. The better approach is to reveal the interconnectedness of women's economic participation with equal protection of laws.

In many corners of the world from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, women have unequal access to property and land. Women's unequal access to citizenship, residency, inheritance, access to credit, banking and decision-making in public and private often subordinate women's economic participation.

Gender equality in all laws, most importantly family laws, have a profound impact on shaping and advancing women's economic participation. In many countries, laws that regulate women in their families require women to get permission from their husbands to apply for a passport or to travel and disallow married mothers to confer citizenship on their children. Several states have legislation that do not recognize women as heads of household and control their free movement.

Martha Minow, the former Dean of Harvard Law School, has argued that the rules of family law construct not only roles and duties of men and women but can shape rules about employment and commerce and perhaps the governance of the state.

Violence is one of the most insidious barriers to women's economic empowerment. Where a woman suffers abuse, her capacity to work and function are severely impaired- Fortune estimates that it costs the US $500 billion, but the human cost cannot be computed. Women married as children will reach one billion by 2030. Every two seconds, a girl is forced into marriage.

Even Fortune argues that when talking about equality, the focus should include violence—or, more specifically, violence against women. According to a McKinsey Global Institute violence is one of the biggest factors holding American women back.

Feminism's power lies in its capacity to disrupt seemingly immutable gender norms. The international women's rights community, as it convenes in New York, cannot be swayed by the promise of economic opportunity alone, it must continue to press on issues of violence, sexual abuse and discrimination that disallow women from participating in economic activity.

The #Metoo movement has shocked our collective conscience and made it impossible to ignore that empowerment goes far beyond economic agency.

© Inter Press Service (2018) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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