Gender in a Globalized World

Written by Roman Meier

Most programming on gender-based violence (GBV) seems to be based on the underlying assumption that the perpetrators in developing countries are local. Whether it may be a husband beating up his wife, a mother selling her daughter or a rebel group recruiting boys, the perpetrators are supposed to be local. Following, this assumption is scrutinized by having a closer look on how international corporations and new technologies shape gendered power relations in developing countries.

Most developing countries are well integrated into the global market. In 2017, for example, South Sudan, exported US$ 1.3 billion of mineral fuels while the Democratic Republic of Congo earned US$ 2.7 billion by exporting Copper, a mineral that is widely used in electronical devises [1]. Unfortunately, international businesses are often more concerned about their financial gains than about their socio-economic impact in such fragile settings. In some cases, multinational corporations reinforce gender inequalities or become perpetrators of GBV. Development organizations who are working on GBV need to be aware of the impact of globalization in general and the role of corporations in particular. However, understanding the effect of global trade upon local power relations is not easy. Whole sectors, such as the extractive industry, spare no expense to keep their activities private and resistant towards monitoring and regulations [2]. Whereas it is easy to pinpoint domestic violence, it is more difficult to determine to what extend multinational corporations inform violence that is based on gender differences.

This is well illustrated by the example of Aegis, a private military company who recruits mainly young men from poorer countries [3]. Because long-lasting conflicts are expensive and public revenues have become scarce, many countries, such as the United States, have outsourced their military activities to private corporations. Aegis is one of those companies which has established itself as a key actor during the US invasion in Iraq. In recent years, the company started to recruit soldiers in developing countries as cheap labor with little negotiation power. In the case of Sierra Leone, an extensive research project by Maya Mynster Christensen, working for the Royal Danish Defence College, revealed that especially young men and former child soldiers are targeted by companies like Aegis and sent back into war zones all over the world. As the international community has worked hard on re-integrating former child soldiers into civil life, the privatization of warfare enables companies to systematically undermine this progress for the mere purpose of profit maximization. Aegis as an enterprise that deliberately picks young men and exposes them to further violence should be understood as perpetrator of GBV. A stronger emphasis on such actors, especially when it comes to advocacy and lobbying, can make our engagement with GBV more comprehensive.

Multinational corporations are no silent stakeholders but active shapers of the development agenda. Monsanto, for instance, calls women the “most underutilized resources” [4] and is committed to combat the institutional and cultural barriers that keep women away from working in the agricultural sector. This can be a reasonable strategy to mitigate the risk to GBV. This approach, however, is based on the assumptions that participation in the labor market effectively increases the access and control over resources, the decision-making power and the freedom to make well-informed choices about one’s own body. Not only the academia but also development organizations have become increasingly critical towards these assumptions and their negative impacts on women. UNICEF, for example, states that there is a “weak evidence base between economic opportunities and GBV” [5]. To argue that empowerment lies simply in women’s access to the market is to say that subordination comes from economic exclusion alone. This view is surely limited. GBV programming should not be limited to market exclusion but problematize the institutions and norms which enable such forms of exclusion to happen in the first place.

What are the practical implications of this argument? To put it frankly, it shows that there is no point in giving women cows if men are drinking all the milk [6]. Or in other words, it is crucial not to measure the inclusion of women into economic activities but the benefit such an inclusion bears. It does not make much sense to calculate the amount of resources and opportunities allocated to women but we should attempt to evaluate to what extend these actually empower. Quantitative measurements, such as the number of cows given to women as livelihood support, can be misleading as they often exclude the actual effect upon the power relations. Participation in the labor market cannot be the goal in itself but only one possible way to empower women and mitigate the risk to GBV. Because of that, evaluation cannot be limited to measurements which are merely concerned with clear-cut variables, such as the number of resources given to women. There is no doubt that qualitative measurements are more complicated and hard to put in practice in developing countries. But even if we favor quantitative measurements, we should be clear about their limitations and make the assumptions explicit when we monitor or evaluate a program. 

That international corporations, as carriers of technological and economic development, can become drivers of GBV is well demonstrated by the effect of new medical equipment upon the rural population in India. In India, the trade liberalizations since the 1990s have not only enhanced the women’s participation in the labor market but also their access to medical technologies. Both are usually considered positive as they enable women to make well-informed choices. However, new technologies are never neutral but can reinforce given power relations based on cultural norms. While new reproductive tools, like ultrasound, effectively have lessened the risks of pregnancy, their dissemination has also increased the number of gender-informed abortions. As India has a history of intentional killings of girls after birth, the increased access to reproductive technologies has facilitated sex-selective abortion [7]. Or to put it more frankly, globalization enhanced the access to medical technologies also to those families who do not allow girls to exist. This example reminds us that globalization and universal access to new technologies is not only an inclusive force but also a potential driver of GBV. Development organizations working on sexual and reproductive health (SRH) need to be aware of how new technologies affect local populations and how they change the given power relations between men and women.

Globalization is a strong force that gives raise to new forms of GBV. From human trafficking across national borders to the gendered impact of new technologies, globally acting corporations have a clear impact on the gender relations in developing countries. Economic reforms and new technologies which have shown positive effects in the developed world do not necessarily bear the same results in poorer countries. With weak institutions, a high level of uncertainty and culturally contingent gender-relations, the local realities can differ substantially from the places in which economic models and new technologies are usually developed. In short, the value of external assistance is not given by what is offered but by how it is used.

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