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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When SAPs push families off their farmland, it is the daughters who are sent to work in sweatshops in cities or sold into the sex trade. These are young, rural girls who face a high risk of mental and physical abuse. Girls working as prostitutes regularly face the risks of rape and sexually transmitted diseases. Vulnerable and afraid, they are kept trapped in debt by pimps and brothels, to whom they are forced to pay fees, sometimes just for “bad behaviour.”
The millions of girls between the ages of 14 and 25 employed in sweatshops live and work in similarly repressive conditions. They put in long hours for shockingly low pay and face health and safety hazards. The work of these young women (sweatshop workers are overwhelmingly female) is valued only because it comes at a low cost. Health benefits or maternity leave cost money, so pregnancy will not be tolerated, even though pregnant women are most in need of employment. Some factory supervisors even hand out birth control pills to make sure women can be physically and mentally pushed to their limits before they get too old and slow to work.
Girls and women have become the new labour supply of the global economy. The globalized world relies on patriarchal notions of what it means to be a girl, and what constitutes women’s work: cooking, cleaning, sewing and sex. Fathers and husbands have long dominated wives and daughters, and in many peasant economies, girls are seen to have little value, which limits their life opportunities. Even in countries such as Canada, many women are trapped in jobs that usually receive little recognition and low pay: service jobs, childcare and housework.
There are hundreds of reasons to be concerned about globalization; the plight of girls such as Alina is just one of them. But the suffering of girls under globalization has been kept relatively quiet.
As feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe writes, “...When any government or international organization assumes that women and girls are somehow less valuable, less responsible, less fully citizens than boys and men, officials of those governments and international organizations are apt to treat threats to women and girls as trivial, as not worthy of serious attention.” Enloe has long argued that we would learn more about the international economic system — and its failings — if we paid attention to where women and girls fit into the global picture.
Young women in North America need to be informed, speak out and get involved. There’s no easy answer or solution to the mess that globalization has gotten us into, but as young women we have the power to change the world we live in. Start by reading up on the subject (see suggested reading) and go from there.
Maybe you want to hit the streets — demand more accountability from multinational corporations, and insist that girls and women have a say in international politics. Or make a zine on issues you’re concerned about and distribute it at your school. Check out groups such as Taking IT Global that can link you up to youth around the world, or Stir It Up that organizes conferences and events around high school activism. There are many organizations fighting for change, and trying to prove that we can live in a more just and peaceful world. So do your research, join up and speak out.
You can make a difference.