In April 2012, feminists and women's rights activits gathered at AWID forum in Istanbul with the same agenda: transforming economic power to advance women’s rights and justice. Below is my communication at the Young Feminist Day organized by AWID before the forum.
Women’s work has some key characters, due to our unequal position within power relationships, which is constitutive of the patriarchal world we live in. Women are more exposed to financial and economic crisis, have more precarious and less paid work than men and labour is still gender-divided.
What about young women? Is it possible to apply the feminist analysis of labour and work without making age distinctions?
Work is far broader than employment, work can be paid or unpaid, it can be counted in national statistics or it can be informal. Our statistical categories fail to capture the participation of women to economy and the reality of labour in countries characterized by a strong informal sector. Age is another factor of vulnerability. Young women face higher unemployment, they are in a critical period of their life, confronted to the continuum of care assignment, and they have to work free to fill the lack of social services due to neoliberal policies
Unequal power relationships: the intersection of age, gender and economic position
Age and economic position contribute to reinforce or either to erase gender inequality. It is rare to read studies which cross the two variables to give a comprehensive intersectional analysis of gender inequalities.
Despite important gains in education among young women, their employment outcomes continue to lag behind those of young men. Globally, in 2010, 56.3% of young men participated in the labour force, against 40.8% of young women (OIT, 2011).
In several parts of the world, there are significant gaps between young men’s and young women’s earnings. For instance, the hourly earnings of young women aged 15 to 24 are only 82% and 84% of men’s in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia and the Pacific, respectively (OIT 2011). In other regions, according to ITUC gender pay gap report, the gender pay gap is hugely increasing after 35 year old: Women under 35 who work full time earn around 90 percent of what their male counterparts earn. But women over age 35 earn only about 75 percent as much as their respective male counterparts (ITUC, 2006). This trend can be easily explained by the maternity leavings and the cautiousness of employers about hiring or giving responsibilities, high level and better paid jobs to women with children.
ITUC report’s figures are based on data from only 63 countries (30 in Europe and 33 across the rest of the world). The gender pay gap is unable to capture female participation in the informal economy, which particularly distorts the pay gap figures in countries where such economies are large, such as in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America. Furthermore, the figures capture only paid work. How can we give a comprehensive panorama of women’s work without counting unpaid reproductive work of women within households?
Private labour and public needs: unpaid work done by young women
In 2010, 83% of domestic paid workers in the world were women. This figure has to be compared with the one about unpaid housework. Women spend 70% of their unpaid time caring for family members, a contribution to the global economy that remains largely unrecognized (UNDP, 2006). Whether paid or not, counted as work or not, reproductive work is done overwhelmingly by women. And that is universal.
The continuum of women’s reproductive role
From childhood, women are prepared to assume their reproductive role. Gender socialization tends to reinforce women in their social function of being responsible for taking care of children, elderly people and the household. Cleaning, cooking, caring for other people are activities which society considers as “naturally feminine” qualities or skills. By socially constructing this “natural” inclination of women to reproductive activities, we make them closer to leisure, which makes us forget that it is work. There are many examples of gender socialization, from young girls’ dolls to feminine magazines.
This overvaluation of women’s aspiration to care activities has to be linked with the so-called “maternal instinct”, which is the third step of the continuum and the more critical, as women’s ability to childbearing is exactly what justifies the assignment of women to reproductive work in the economic sphere. Gender socialization, childbearing and the assignment of women to reproductive work represent a continuum in which youth is a critical step.
Gender socialization of girls is mostly characterized by more participation to housework, beginning at puberty. After puberty, girls have a new role which is helping their mother in housework. The place in the world, the kind of household and the economic situation may put some differences into this general scheme, but it has something universal. When asking a young girl in West Africa about the biggest change in her life after puberty, she says she now has to help on housework. This informal and unpaid activity is made at the expense of other productive or community activities, and can even cause the girl’s dropping out of school. Then, at the age of entering into economic involvement, young girls are disadvantaged by reproductive activities. Economic empowerment activities should clearly begin at this age of life.
The marriage or childbearing perspective can also have a huge impact on young women’s economic activities. For example, we have experienced working with girls in Niger, who were working in urban areas in order to finance their dowry and enable their family to marry them (Bouju 2008, Le Jean 2011).
When talking about labour, we should ask: what for? Are we working in order to get more liberty, or only because we have to conform to socially constructed roles and destinies? Work can definitely be a great tool for young women’s empowerment, but only if it gives liberty and the ability to make free choices.
The continuum of girls’ assignment to care work has a huge impact, as it goes easily to their specialization in domestic work.
At the World day against child work in 2004, the International Labour Organization stated that “domestic work is the first employer of young girls in the world”. Many researchers have analysed this reality. For instance, Mélanie Jacquemin showed that in Abidjan, the most part of domestic work is done by young women under age 20 (Jacquemin, 2012). In West Africa, it is not new. But it complexifies and densifies after the 80s crisis and the structural adjustment policies imposed by the IFIs. The intensification of young girls’ domestic work in developing countries has to be questioned in regard with the impact of neoliberal policies.
The international system of care giving: the impact of neoliberal policies on young women
There is an increasing migration of women from South to North for domestic activities. These massive outflows of women from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and now also increasingly from Africa are the consequence of the lack or insufficiency of public policies in rich countries, which conducted to a privatization of care activities. It gave birth to a new migration pattern of women going abroad to work in domestic area, living their family to other care-givers. This international transfer of reproductive work has been defined as the “global care chain” by Hoschschild (Hoschschild, 2000). It impacts the structure of households in developing countries, as the migrant leaves its children to other women of the family, often a young woman, or to young domestic workers.
The care chain, consequence of the neoliberal economic policies of rich countries, has an impact on young women in developing countries. Moreover, young women in developing countries have also to make up for the lack of public policies caused by decades of structural adjustment imposed by the international financial Institutions.
This is why we now have to transform existing powers and give a new life to welfare states. A lot of policy initiatives have to be taken by governments to facilitate better places for young women in the labour market, improve public services of childcare and care for elderly people, pass anti-discriminatory laws, and value women and girls’ reproductive work.
Domestic work, whether informally paid or unpaid, is and should be considered as economic work.
We are all economic agents, we have power, we have economic power!
Charlotte Soulary, communication at the Young feminist activist Day, AWID Forum, Istanbul, 2012, 18th of April
BOUJU, 2008, Jacky Bouju, « Violence sociale, anomie et discordance normative. La trajectoire migrante. Le cas des « 52 » de la région de Djenné (Mali) », Bulletin de l'APAD
ITUC, 2006, The Global Gender pay gap report
ILO, 2011, Global Employment Trends 2011: the challenge of a jobs recovery
JACQUEMIN, 2012, « Petites bonnes » d’Abidjan, Sociologie des filles en service domestique, L’Harmattan
LE JEAN, 2011, « Comportements sexuels et reproductifs des adolescentes désaffiliées : une enquête de terrain entre anthropologie fondamentale et anthropologie appliquée au développement. Etude de cas auprès de jeunes filles du quartier de Y., Niamey, Niger », Université Aix-Marseille 1, (non publié)
UNDESA, 2011, World Youth Report : Youth Employment: youth perspectives on the pursuit of decent work in changing times
UNDP. 2006. Taking Gender Equality Seriously: Making Progress, Meeting New Challenges