Financial crisis threatens women's meagre gains

UNITED NATIONS, (IPS) - The spreading global financial crisis - which has taken a heavy toll of international bankers, investors and speculators - is also having a devastating impact on some of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in society, including women and children.

The crisis will 'push millions into deeper poverty and result in the deaths of thousands of children,' warned a new study released Tuesday by the Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Kevin Watkins, one of the authors of the study, declared: 'Aid donors could clearly do far more to protect the world's poorest people from a crisis manufactured by the world's richest financiers and regulatory failure in rich countries.'

The impact of the crisis on women is also one of the themes of the two-week session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) which began Monday.

Addressing the CSW, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Sha Zukang said: 'Historically, economic recessions have placed a disproportionate burden on women.'

He pointed out that women are more likely than men to be in vulnerable jobs; to be under-employed or without a job; lack social protection; and to have limited access to and control over economic and financial resources.

The most widespread negative impact could be in the Asia-Pacific region which has one of the highest ratios of women of working age. And, among working women, about 65 percent are in vulnerable employment, largely in the region's informal sector.

Many of them have no benefits - such as maternity leave and pensions - or job security, and are at great risk of falling into poverty in economic downturns, according to the Bangkok-based U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

Women's unequal access to decent and productive employment opportunities costs the Asia-Pacific region about 42 to 47 billion dollars a year.

Thelma Kay, director of ESCAP's Social Development Division, told IPS that in many families, household expenditures, such as for food and child-rearing, are managed by women.

'Women dependents are having to care for their entire families on less income, and working women are having to support families with their wages alone, which, on average, are lower often considerably than men's,' Kay said.

On top of that, she said, food prices have spiraled over the last two years, forcing women to make difficult financial choices.

'And where school costs become unbearable, it is the girl-children who are more likely to be taken out of the classroom,' Kay said.

Last week, Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that women and girls are often exposed to greater risk of violence in times of hardship, and that their economic and social rights may also be jeopardised.

'They see their job opportunities shrink, are forced to accept more marginal and ill-paid employment, and forego basic services to secure food and shelter,' she pointed out.

The negative effects of the financial crisis will be felt disproportionally in developing and least developed countries, the poorest of the world's poor, Pillay added.

Rachel Mayanja, U.N. special adviser on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women, told the CSW that the confluence of the global financial crisis - including a projected global economic slowdown, the food and energy crises, the rise in unemployment, instability and hostilities, and violence against women and environmental deterioration - had already seriously impacted progress towards achieving gender equality and women's empowerment.

Those challenges threaten to reverse the progress made since the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

Kay of ESCAP told IPS that in many cases, women are the first to be let go from jobs since they are more likely to be unskilled and are therefore considered more expendable.

Although it is still too early to find broad reliable data, she said, in Indonesia, for example, the financial meltdown has already resulted in more women than men losing jobs in recent months.

'One can also look to the (1996/97) Asian Financial Crisis, when the predominantly female supported export sector was severely impacted,' she said.

Where male-dominated employment is suffering from the current crisis, such as in the case of the construction industry, women are still heavily affected.

She said economic crises also increase the severity of existing pressures on women who are disproportionately among the poor even in good times such as to remain in an abusive relationship, migrate for work, or enter into otherwise risky labour arrangements or even the sex trade.

'We have seen recent media reports of increasing numbers of women in the sex industry and an increasing number of domestic violence incidents against women linked to the financial crisis,' Kay noted.

Asked if the current crisis be a further hindrance to the status of women and gender empowerment in the region, she said: 'Although it is too soon to say, there is indeed a risk that, without proper policy responses, gains in women's empowerment in the region will be set back.'

'On the other hand, we can also take the view that crises may provide opportunities. We can factor gender considerations into the crafting of national stimulus packages and social protection measures.'

'We can further choose to invest in women and girls as smart economics, knowing that such investment is not only good for them, but also for men and boys,' she added