Published in the Summer 2004 issue • Features
Slaves to the System
Globalization has made production faster, the rich richer and our world more connected. But at what cost to girls? A primer on the issues
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Generally speaking, globalization means we live in a more connected world. It means that, thanks to technology, we can exchange information, ideas and cultural trends with people on the other side of the globe, and we can do it at lightning speed. Globalization is the reason you can eat at McDonald’s in Singapore and drink Starbucks coffee in Tokyo. It’s what makes Indian saris a hot fashion trend one week, and protest gear the next. And for some — especially for those cashing in on co-opting culture — that’s a good thing.
But there’s more to globalization than cultural trends. Globalization comes from the idea of free-market capitalism — that the market should be left alone to do its thing. The idea is that if the whole world opens its markets to trade and competition, economies will be more efficient and wealth will spread around the world.
It hasn’t taken long for a growing number of people to realize that globalization isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The more we learn about the issues, the more concerned we are becoming with the negative effects of global capitalism.
Globalization has increased existing inequalities: between rich and poor, men and women, the advanced industrial countries of the Global North and developing countries of the Global South. Working conditions around the world are deteriorating, health and safety standards are dropping, and the environment is suffering. And as the real story of globalization emerges, it becomes increasingly clear that it most negatively affects girls and women.
Since the 1980s, poor countries have been forced by international financial institutions to implement structural adjustment programs (otherwise known as SAPs) in order to receive loans. Among other things, SAPs mean countries have to open their markets to foreign investment, leaving local farmers unable to compete with the multinational corporations that set up shop in their backyards. SAPs have also led to the privatization of countries’ natural resources (such as water) and social services (such as health and education), which means they are not available to the public and you have to have money to access them. This has been disastrous for the poor, and especially for poor women and children.
Thanks to SAPs enforced on the Philippines by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, land traditionally used to produce food for local people to eat, such as rice and corn, has been converted into cash crops for export overseas. While there may be a demand for exotic flowers and pineapples in North America and Europe, these crops do not feed the families who produce them. Farming costs have risen, family farms have collapsed, and people have been pushed off their land.
This displacement has been toughest for women, who are the first to suffer when hard times hit. Infant mortality rates have risen for girls, who are often underfed compared to boys. Girls are kept home from school to help their families, which limits their opportunities in life. When government food aid shrinks, women have to adjust their lifestyles to feed their children. When health care is drained, women take on the burden of caring for their parents, partners and kids. Yet, in the international economic system, this type of work is not considered productive or valuable, and they do not receive a penny for it.