Postcolonial feminist social work

Anne C. Deepak

In this chapter, postcolonial feminist social work is introduced as a conceptual tool for analysis and as a framework for engagement and action. It will be used to analyze neoliberal discourse and initiatives that aim to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment in the global South through financial inclusion and labor force participation. This analysis will demonstrate that this discourse is undergirded by an assumption that patriarchal culture, laws and practices in the global South are the primary cause of women’s inequality and lack of empowerment rather than the gendered consequences of global inequality and neoliberal economic policies that compromise the health, power, wellbeing, and equality of women in the global North and South.

Alternative solutions, drawn from the collective experiences and leadership of women of the global South will be discussed, including trade union organizing, economic cooperatives, and multi-stakeholder partnerships in which the agenda is grounded in social protections and labor rights and governance structures are inclusive and transparent.

Postcolonial feminist social work

Postcolonial feminist social work integrates postcolonial feminist theory’ with the social work values of social justice and self-determination (Deepak, 2014) in order to provide a conceptual lens for analysis and a framework for engagement and action. It foregrounds the gendered impact of global inequality as it has been produced and maintained through colonialism and economic dimensions of globalization (Deepak, 2011), which contribute to and sustain interlocking forms of global and local oppression. The social and technological dimensions of globalization can be used to facilitate communication to build on pre-existing partnerships and movements led by women of the global South to create local and transnational partnerships to fight against these inequalities.

Postcolonial feminist theory rejects colonial and development discourse that characterizes women from the global South as passive victims of timeless, oppressive cultural and religious traditions in need of being rescued by White men, and sometimes women, on a civilizing mission (Spivak, 1995; Syed and Ali, 2011, as cited in Deepak, 2011). It also rejects nationalist discourse that creates an ideal middle-class woman who is demure, spiritual, devoted to nation and family in opposition to the Western woman, constructed as selfish, promiscuous, brazen and materialistic (Chatterjee, 1993, as cited in Deepak, 2011; Deepak, 2014). Postcolonial feminist theory includes a rejection of nationalist discourse that positions women in the global South as willing participants in oppressive patriarchal practices (Spivak, 1995), often defended as cultural in origin (Deepak, 2011, 2014).

Postcolonial feminist theory highlights multiple sites of oppression, including but not limited to, colonialism, nationalism, fundamentalism, casteism, classism, colorism, heterosexism, racism, patriarchies and global economic structures, while affirming the agency of women in the global South and marginalized women in the global North. This agency is recognized as partial and limited just as in the case of women in the global North (Deepak, 2012, 2014).

As a method of engagement in critical social work, this perspective enables an analysis and roadmap for action informed by the following questions: (1) How does globalization and global inequality play a role in this issue? (2) How does discourse about women of the global South shape responses to this issue? (3) How do women (and men) collectively resist these forms of oppression and create and utilize alternative pathways to meet their needs? and (4) How are social workers implicated in these systems of oppression and how can we act as allies in supporting and amplifying the collective responses led by women of the global South and transnational solidarities with women in the global North? Before applying the analysis and framework for action, a background on the current initiatives and discourse will be reviewed.

Women’s empowerment and gender equality initiatives

In the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SDG 5 is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. The 2030 Agenda endorses the private sector as the key development actor, and through it, multi-stakeholder partnerships with the private sector playing a major role, are being promoted by governments and the UN (DAWN, 2017).

Promoting gender equality is generally recognized as an integral component of poverty reduction and development (de Hann, 2017) and has been embraced by a variety of stakeholders including US-based transnational corporations and their foundations, philanthropies, international and national bodies, traditional development institutions, and public-private-partnerships (PPPs) who support development initiatives addressing these issues in the global South (Moeller, 2018). There is general agreement amongst these groups that the systemic barriers to women’s empowerment and gender equality stem from “adverse social norms; discriminatory laws and lack of legal protection; the failure to recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid household work and care; and a lack of access to financial, digital and property assets” (UNHLP, 2016: 2). These powerful stakeholders also believe that gender equality and empowerment can best be achieved through increasing women’s labor force participation and financial inclusion, meaning the access to, and use of, formal financial services (Lemmon and Vogelstein, 2017) such as bank accounts, loans, and insurance (Klapper and Hess, 2016).

Organizations and bodies such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have produced analyses that demonstrate the connection between increased women’s labor force participation and the economic growth that follows (Lemmon and Vogelstein, 2017: 10). In addition, there is research that shows that when women make more money they are “significantly more likely than their male counterparts to reinvest high proportions of earned income into the health, nutrition, and education of their children” (Lemmon and Vogelstein, 2017: 8). These investments lead to long-term poverty reduction, thus “women’s employment is a critical tool for sustainable development” (Lemmon and Vogelstein, 2017: 8). Empowering women economically is also good for business, in that it offers an avenue to expand markets and produce new consumers (Moeller, 2018). In short, women’s economic empowerment through labor force participation and financial inclusion is understood as good for women, good for families, good for business, good for sustainable development and good for the GDP of the country’ the woman lives in.

Women’s labor force participation

Formal labor

Globally, women’s labor force participation rate is at 48.5 percent in 2018 and is 26.5 percentage points below the rate of their male counterparts (ILO, 2018a). Women are less likely than men to participate in the labor force, but when they do participate they are more likely to be employed in jobs that “fall outside the scope of labor legislation, social security regulations and relevant collective agreements” (ILO, 2018a: 5). In addition, data indicates that working poverty is widespread among both men and women, vulnerable employment is more severe for women in developing countries, and that informal work remains pervasive among women in the global South (ILO, 2018b).

Informal economy

Informal work is characterized by low pay and vulnerable employment without access to social protection. More than 60 percent of the world’s employed population are employed in the informal economy; this work is a greater source for employment for men (63 percent) than for women (58 percent) (ILO, 2018b). Incomes for men and women are lower in the informal economy as compared to the formal economy, but the gender gap in income is greater than in the formal economy. Women work in the informal economy in public spaces alongside men in construction, street trade and waste picking, but are overrepresented in home-based work and domestic work. About 91 percent of women in the informal economy are illiterate or have finished only primary education (ILO, 2018b).

Unpaid care

The unpaid care duties women perform through childcare and care of the sick, elderly and disabled, along with cooking, cleaning, and, for some women collecting firewood and water, impacts their ability to engage in paid formal and informal work, resulting in lower earnings and a greater likelihood of being in vulnerable forms of work (Biirgisser and Nissan, 2017). Globally, women perform three times more unpaid care duties than men, according to UNDP 2015 estimates. Low-income families bear a greater burden by this unequal distribution, because they have fewer resources to pay for care and have less access to services and infrastructure that can help lessen the burden of care (O’Neill, Vargas and Chopra, 2017).

Financial inclusion

In a report by the World Bank’s Development Research Group Finance and Private Sector Development Team, the authors state that “the gender gap in financial access exacerbates economic inequality and reinforces women’s economic subordination” (Klapper and Hess, 2016: 2) asserting that financial transactions outside of formal financial services can be dangerous and inefficient, because money can be stolen by relatives when women keep cash savings at home and, by paying monthly bills in cash, women often bear the burden of traveling long distances to pay them. The authors point to a body of research that shows the potential of financial inclusion to drive development and strengthen women’s economic standing that underpins the policy consensus of the World Bank and emerging world governments to expand financial access; the World Bank seeks to achieve universal financial access by 2020.

Globally, account ownership is almost universal in high-income OECD countries, but there is a gender gap in the global South in the access and use of formal financial services, the size of which varies by country. The percentage of men and women who use formal savings accounts in banks is only 22 per cent while others keep their savings with a relative or a semi-formal savings group. The most popular option used by savers in developing countries is by buying livestock or gold or saving money at home (Klapper and Hess, 2016).

Borrowers in developing regions for the most part do not use formal financial services, but when they do, there are no major differences between men and women.

Instead they borrow from friends, relatives, or informal lenders. In regions where formal borrowing is common, about 10 percent of women borrow from a formal financial institution, while about 14 percent of men do (Klapper and Hess, 2016: 6). Throughout the global South, people most often borrow money for health and medical purposes, while education and business are the second most popular reasons (Klapper and Hess, 2016). Men and women who are not using financial services cite poverty as the reason, and in some regions, the reason is a lack of trust in financial institutions after bank failures. A fifth of women in the developing world say they do not have the necessary documentation to open a bank account. Other barriers to women’s financial inclusion are discriminatory laws that restrict women’s legal rights to work or own property and cultural norms that discourage women’s independence (Klapper and Hess, 2016).

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