Downturns in the capitalist economy are always more burdensome on the already poor. Often, they are the least educated and least skilled, and so the most likely to work in insecure jobs that will be the first to be cut. They have few assets that can cushion them from the economic free-fall.
During the current global recession, however, poor countries are especially going to come under the sharp edge of the knife. Since the 1970s, many poor countries have been subjected to globalization and neo-liberalization, and have depended heavily on export revenues from sweatshops that employ cheap labor. As developed countries reduce their demand, the export-intensive economies of the poor countries will fall into deep peril.
A Majority of the Worlds Poor Are Women
There has been an increasing global trend of a feminization of poverty. Surveys show that women are, by far, the most affected by the endemic poverty under capitalism and its attendant deprivations in terms of food, housing, healthcare, education, and safety.
For example, women comprise over 60 percent of the rural poor in 41 less developed countries (I. Jaziry et al., The State of World Rural Poverty).
Women currently account for half of the global workforce. And yet, as the International Labor Organization reports, women continue to be paid significantly less for comparable work than men in every country in the world. In poor countries, a majority of women work in low-wage jobs that do not provide job security, occupational safety, or pensions.
A majority of the worlds women also perform endless and virtually unrewarded tasks inside the home. Women do two-thirds of the worlds work, receive 10 percent of the worlds income, and own 1 percent of the means of production. (Richard Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism)
Despite gaining significant rights through struggle, women are still relegated to second-class status. Capitalism fosters a culture in which women are considered inessential to the economic life of society and less deserving of the gains of production and progress.
A central reason why this culture persists is that the chronic presence of an underclass of low-skilled and undereducated surplus labor, of which women are the majority, is essential for the capitalist ruling class to sustain and increase profits.
How the Recession is Likely to Affect Women
Mainstream organizations have warned that women will bear the brunt of the current economic crisis. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recently issued a statement that women and girls in both developed and developing countries will be particularly affected by the potential social and economic consequences, such as unemployment, increase of responsibilities both at work and at home, decrease of income, and potential increase in societal and domestic violence. (2/6/2009)
To predict how the current recession will affect women globally, we can look at past recessionary periods. Women disproportionately experienced the harshest effects of unemployment and poverty following the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.
The annual survey by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific found that women were the first and most likely to have lost their jobs, and that they represented 80% of the unskilled labor that was retrenched in the affected countries between 1997 and 1999.
Past recessions also indicate that millions of women in poor countries will become victims of sexual exploitation and be forced to turn to prostitution. Following the transition to capitalism in the 1990s, the former Soviet Bloc states plunged into a deep recession. Facing a sudden unemployment rate of 80%, many women in the region were forced to enter prostitution. Between 200,000 and 300,000 women were being trafficked annually into prostitution from Eastern to Western Europe (Balkan Crisis Report, 7/20/2001).
Women will also likely face other adverse effects globally. In Africa, women have been facing extreme distress from war and ethnic conflict induced by capitalism and neo-colonialism. Their plight is likely to worsen as the economic downturn spreads. The struggle for basic needs will intensify for poor households globally. For women and girls, this combined with the patriarchal culture that values men over women will result in increased malnutrition and reduced access to healthcare and education.
New Movement Needed
It is essential for women to recognize that, throughout history, they have made their greatest gains when they have organized and moved into struggle. This is what will allow women to effectively counter the impact of the capitalist economic crisis.
Suffrage was fought for by many generations of women globally before it was won. Legal access to abortion was achieved for the first time in the Soviet Union as one of the great gains of the Russian Revolution.
Recently, unionization has proved to be particularly powerful for women in the U.S., substantially increasing their wages and benefits. Women workers in Chinas export-zone sweatshops are now organizing for workplace democracy.
It is clear that capitalism offers no way forward for humanity, particularly women. And unless they are to accept the growing deprivations and horrors that capitalism entails, women have no choice but to organize to defend their existing rights and to extend them.
The economic crisis will inevitably force wider layers of workers to move into massive struggle. Women workers, as the most oppressed sections, will be at the forefront and will stand out as some of the most determined fighters.