Globalization’s assault on the rights of women

By Ninotchka Rosca
International Spokesperson
GABRIELA Purple Rose Campaign

The Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) — the most-oft used reference document on women’s rights — took more than 30 years (1946-1979) to hammer out — indication of how tenacious the compulsion to continue women’s oppression and marginalization can be. Although CEDAW is considered an international treaty, the United States has not ratified it. Such reluctance is not illogical. As the home base of some of the largest transnational corporations, the US is obligated to maintain the quasi-feudal and, in some cases, quasi-slave, status of women, particularly women of color, because a large portion of the new economic order’s profits depends precisely on women’s oppression. Within the US itself, murder is the top cause of workplace deaths for women and 62% of all women murdered are killed by those closest to them.

This should provide, albeit in a casual way, an inkling of women’s status in the supposedly most advanced country in the world; and of the dangers attendant to being female in this new phase of globalization.

The Rights of Women

CEDAW recognizes women’s long-term (30,000 years by some historians’ account, deeming women the first kind of private property) and continuing marginalization. It underscores the need to provide women with equal access to political and public life (including self-organization), education, health and employment. A woman also has the right to a separate identity and biography and therefore, the right to choose her nationality and the nationality of her children. By affirming in various ways that women are human beings, CEDAW mandates that all human rights, including workers’ rights, and all human freedoms apply to them.

In addition to such rights and freedoms, however, a woman has inalienable reproductive rights (to bear or not to bear children, how many and when). Such CEDAW provisions were expanded and strengthened by the declaration of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women that women have sole control over their sexuality. These two — reproduction and sexuality — are the most controversial in the cluster of women’s rights, since patriarchal control over them lies embedded in the origins of the concept of private property.

All nations ratifying CEDAW must undertake measures against the traffick of women — a provision observed more in its neglect than anything else.

Though a milestone, CEDAW is but the latest in the struggle, since time immemorial, waged by women against bondage imposed by the power hierarchies of private property. At one time, it was presumed that, given their separation from the formal economy and the unpaid character of their work, simple integration into production and development would suffice to liberate them. Current experience under globalization, however, proves the reverse. To continue using women as cheap labor, as commodity and as market for nonessential products and services, imperialist globalization actually intensifies their chattel status and even spreads and strengthens sexism.

Overlapping Exploitation

With such countries as the Philippines institutionalizing the sex trafficking of women under a host of “work” euphemisms — guest relations officer, cultural dancer, cultural entertainer, etc. — it becomes difficult to separate the use of women as cheap labor from their use as commodity and certainly, from their use as market for nonessential products and services.

As cheap labor under globalization, concentrations of women can be found in virtual labor camps established in Third World countries and in sweatshops operating in First World countries; and as domestic workers in the Middle East, the richer countries of Asia, and in Europe, Canada and the United States. As commodity in the sex trade, women of poor countries are found practically all over the world, in domestic prostitution or overseas prostitution.

However, distinctions between production work, domestic work and the sex trade easily collapse, because of a) labor market conditions (sudden termination, depressed wages); b) increasing family dependency because of SAP-created artificial poverty; and c) cultural imperialism, which posits what a desirable lifestyle should or shouldn’t be.

Domestic workers in Singapore and Canada, when faced with cash-flow crisis, resort to what’s known as “akyat-barko” (board-ship) — i.e., prostitution. The clients are usually their own countrymen, themselves indentured to work as seamen. Because of strict immigration laws, particularly in Singapore, those who become pregnant from such encounters resort to abortion to keep their legal status as domestic workers.

In Saipan, where 50,000 Chinese women sew in the world’s largest sweatshop, leisure activity is largely geared towards sex tourism, where Filipinas work as prostitutes. This ensures that any woman displaced from the production line would have no recourse except the sex trade. This overlapping exploitation is to the dubious credit of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (IMF/WB). To reorient the economies of underdeveloped countries towards dependency on foreign capital and foreign currency revenues, the IMF/WB created three pillars for “development”: tourism (to earn foreign currency quickly and thus pay WB interests on loans), labor export (to pre-empt unrest) and export processing zones. At the current phase of implementation, all three afflict women the most, visiting near-absolute exploitation upon them.

  1. Up to 70% of workers in the EPZs, also known as maquilas and — the latest euphemism — regional industrial corridors, are women. In Mexico and Central America, where some 3,500 maquilas employ a million workers, women comprise up to 80% of the labor force. Their wages range, from country to country, from US$64 to $129 a month.

  2. Domestic worker contracts make up as high as 70% of contracts in the international labor market and domestic workers form a large segment of the world’s migrant population. Housework being historically defined as women’s work, they form the bulk of this worker category. The WHO confirmed that as of the year 2000, women were the majority of the world’s foreign-born population, crossing national boundaries in the search of economic — and often, physical and psychological — survival.

  3. Tourism merged with organized prostitution — a feature of military subculture — to create sex tourism. While it is difficult to obtain statistics on prostitution, a human rights organization estimated that some 20 million people, 25% of them minors, are in the sex trade. Ninety per cent of these are women; and 90% are women of the Third World. An estimated 200,000 Filipinas are in the overseas sex trade even as another 500,000 serve in the domestic sex trade. Nearly a hundred per cent of those in the sex trade are from the underclass.

    The global sex trade is estimated to make between US$7-$12 billion in revenues per annum, independent of the earnings of “legitimate” business like airlines and hotels. That a European trafficker using four women can expect to earn US$150,000 per year shows the horrendous rate of exploitation.

    Sex service is often expected by male employers of domestic workers. There are too-many documented cases of women killing their rapist-employer to even debate this point. Corollarily, trafficked women are often used for household work by their traffickers, particularly in Europe.

  4. Globalization’s monoculture is marked by contradictory views on women, which nevertheless complement one another. First, through production hierarchies which keep women from supervisory and managerial positions, globalization reinforces the reactionary idea that women’s labor is inferior and only supplemental to male labor. Second, by dispossessing women of knowledge through GATT provisions on intellectual property rights, globalization deprives them of potential, power and standing in their community. Third, by funneling women into the international labor market, globalization posits the view that women are “disposable” objects. Fourth, by using heightened sexuality for advertising, globalization creates women as both commodity (for entertainment consumption) and market for the acquisition and consumption of nonessentials. Thus young women in the Third World are known to prostitute themselves for a pager while those in the First World do so for breast augmentation. The latter, a hitherto high-end medical service, has been made “affordable” at US$36 per week on the installment plan.

  5. At the same time, by making women’s labor central to family survival, globalization reinforces such feudal values as filial piety, allegiance to authority, self-denial, etc. Never in the history of humankind have women assumed so much of the responsibility for family/clan/nation survival, in a world so hostile to it. Women are constantly conditioned — “heroes of the economy,” etc. — to sacrifice themselves for others in a monoculture whose greatest rewards are reserved for selfishness.

Dim Hopes for Fulfillment and Dignity

In a world dominated by some 40,000 transnational corporations owning 250,000 foreign affiliates employing, in turn, some 36 million people, CEDAW’s hopes for women’s development — their attainment of fulfillment, self-respect and dignity — seem futile. The ten top transnational corporations now account for 28% of global economic activity, with revenues equal to the combined economies of 180 countries.

Corporations being, as Noam Chomsky put it, the most totalitarian institution ever devised by human beings, their global-spanning and nearly uncontrolled power adversely impacts the women of the world, exacerbating feudal, patriarchal and sexist values. Gender bias and racism are used to justify and render acceptable the near-absolute exploitation of women as labor, as commodity and as market.

On a global scale, the crucible of women’s rights is turning out to be the struggle over the issue of women’s sexuality. Globalization has unleashed an unrelenting attack on women’s control over this aspect of their being. Nothing speaks of capitalism’s view of women’s sexuality than the sex trade, which uses that sexuality and aberrations of it for profit.

This view affects, not only those in the sex trade but even women in production. In Honduran maquilas and Philippine EPZs, corporations require women to accept Depro Provera injections or take birth control pills, or undergo tubal ligation under threat of job suspension and/or termination, and via cash bonus inducements. Such routine violations of women’s reproductive rights go hand-in-hand with loss of control over their sexuality. Unwritten rules in the maquilas and EPZs as “get laid or laid off,” virginity and pregnancy tests, “do the boss a good turn and he’ll do you one,” etc., are expressions of that loss of control.

A Transfer of Gender Oppression

Both First World and Third World women are cheated by globalization. Instead of resolving issues of gender inequality within First World countries, globalization resorts to imported labor to fill in the need for the sustenance and replenishment of labor even as pressure from falling real wages forces women to work outside the home. That more women graduate from colleges and universities than men, that women are paid US$0.30 less per dollar of men’s wages, that women readily accept low-paying and dead-end jobs (“pink ghettoes,” as they are called in the US) — all make women’s labor attractive to corporations.

To enable such women to engage in production, globalization created the imported domestic worker, now one of the largest segments of the world’s migrant population. The unstated principle is: no matter how poor a woman is, there’s still a poorer woman elsewhere who’ll do grunt work cheap.

Canada’s Live-in Caregiver Program, designed to preempt demands by Canadian women for costly national daycare, is probably the most notorious of such program. Its racist and sexist provisions keep Filipina registered nurses at domestic work, even in the midst of an acute shortage of medical professionals even as they depress wages for domestic workers.

In the US, undocumented migrant women comprise the majority of domestic workers. Most are from Latin America and the Caribbean, but the number of Filipinas is sharply increasing. Despite a palpable shortage of labor for this kind of work, immigration agencies refuse to recognize domestic work as a category for work visas. The only recourse for legalization of residency is through sponsorship by hiring families. This can take up to seven years to process, effectively keeping the woman under work bondage for so long.

Both countries take advantage of the au pair system which allows European students to work as domestics. Given board and lodging and low wages, such young women are also indentured, largely to the agency financing their travel. Several cases of child deaths have underscored the danger of hiring women unprepared for the hardship of domestic work. This also underscored the efficacy of hiring women of color. As a New York matron said, she preferred Filipinas because they had a “slave mentality.”

Capital’s Assault on Women’s Bodies

Prostitution and sex trafficking should be seen in the context of capital’s relentless search for markets and profits. As Marx and Engels wrote in 1848, its need for constant expansion would compel it to chase markets “over the whole surface of the globe” and that, ultimately, it would “compel all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt its own mode of production.” It would, in sum, “create a world after its own image.”

Creating “world after its own image” is nowhere as palpable as in the sex trade. In an attempt to render prostitution and sex trafficking acceptable, imperialism is currently shredding culture, tradition and religion — ironically, the very excuses used to deny women their rights; warping even the very idea of human rights and freedoms, and creating an artificial clash between the collective and individual rights of women, all in the name of profit maximization.

Globalization establishes for the sex trade a daisy-chain of economic operations. At one end, it ensures an endless supply of poor women with no alternative except to sell their bodies; in the middle, it creates the sex market through tourism spots, and at the other end, it constructs the elaborate pimping system which pumps up demand for commercial sex. In short, it creates supply, demand and market, reaping profits at every step of the process.

Supply is ensured through IMF/WB policies which entrench and intensify artificial poverty in Third World countries. Through the WTO and GATT, the food self-sufficiency of Third World countries has been so eroded that cash has become a requirement for food. GABRIELA’s study on the impact of SAPs showed that women ate less to give the male members and children of the family more food. At the bottom line, women are impacted most grievously by SAPs, given their conditioning to self-denial and self-sacrifice. When survival becomes critical, women accept even the most heinous proposition to ensure the family’s well-being. Globalization then uses the most noble impulses of these women against them.

Sex tourism is so lucrative that airlines and hotels barely advertise their services in commercial sex “hot spots.” The number of tourists worldwide has climbed from 260 million in 1980 to 590 million in 1996, showing the results of IMF/WB’s recommendation that tourism development be used as a “quick-fix scheme” for cash-strapped economies. The male-female ratio among tourists has also climbed steadily in favor of the former.

In addition to creating the tourist market, the sex trade represents a market for drugs — both legal and illegal — and medical technology. The existence of incurable STDs, which require lifetime medication, has been a boon to drug companies. Despite the fact that Thai women in the sex trade tested 36% positive for HIV, closing down sex tourism was not even considered. Instead, a “100% condom use” campaign was launched — again to increase corporate profit — and deemed successful when it brought HIV infection down to 28%. In contrast, bath houses in New York City were shut down as soon as they were identified as loci of infection.

Exoticizing women of color is part of the elaborate pimping system maintained by globalization for the sex trade. Pimping has become so complex that it ranges from Internet activity, cultural “entertainment” products, pornography to drugs. Viagra, which in the beginning was marketed by septuagenarians, now uses young male models in its advertising. It has earned hundreds of millions of dollars for Pfizer, a company also under attack in Africa for the astronomical costs of anti-HIV medicine. Viagra and “erectile dysfunction” drugs were covered by US medical insurance companies while, until a few months ago and only after intense campaigns by women, birth control pills weren’t.

An Ideological Struggle over the Sex Trade

Because of its injunction to ratifying countries to take measures against the trafficking of women, CEDAW inadvertently presented a challenge to the sex trade, a lucrative component of the global economy. Trafficking, as defined by the UN, is the transport of persons for purposes of prostitution. With the support of countries with de facto legal prostitution, like The Netherlands and Germany, a global campaign was launched to a) separate trafficking from prostitution; and b) create confusion by positing the individual right to choose to be a prostitute against the collective right of women not to be prostituted. By eliminating imperialist globalization from the discussion, the campaign atomized the phenomenon of the global sex trade to the single instance of one woman deciding whether or not to sell herself.

Because the concept of human rights are coaxed within the individualist paradigm, the issue of choice, the exercise of choice, has become central to the debate. It has fooled even some human rights organizations into asserting that the right to be a prostitute is a human right and a woman’s right. Such polemics ignore that precisely, for millions of women, there is no choice, no option and that considerable fraudulent and deceptive force — of circumstance, of conditioning, of “colonizing” the mind and the psyche — is applied to push them into prostitution.

The drive to define “trafficking” as involving force and deception comes from the singular fact that First World countries face a shortage of women for the sex trade: a shortage of white women. In the US, around 70% of prostitutes are women of color; in The Netherlands, 70% of prostitutes in Amsterdam are undocumented migrant women; in Belgium, one of every 20 Filipinas is a trafficked woman. Even in South Korea, Filipinas are rapidly becoming the overwhelming majority in the sex trade. Women of color, migrant women, undocumented migrants — in every country of the First World, they comprise the majority of the sex trade’s commodity. It would seem then that given such options as a developed economy can afford, few women actually choose the sex trade.

Advocates for the legalization of prostitution pull all stops to replace the words prostitute and prostitution with “sex work” and “sex workers.” In this manner, they hope to create a new professional category which would enable traffickers to legally import women for the sex trade in the First World. The justification is that such women choose to enter the sex trade voluntarily and willingly; and that prostitution is an option for poor women.

The Women’s Movement often find such arguments seductive because of their desire to help other women, to remove prejudice against those victimized by the sex trade. But what is missing from the discussion are:

· For women of such impoverished countries as the Philippines, choice or the exercise of choice is not even a factor; and

· By making survival the only virtue for poor women, globalization is in effect making the sex trade the only choice for them.

Forms of Trafficking

  1. The Mail-order Bride System

    A business enterprise which overlaps sex tourism (see below). Women — 16 years old and above — are recruited by word-of-mouth for listing in catalogues and web sites. Recently, some MOB agencies started charging the women US$25 to register. Their names, addresses, personal information and photos are sold in batches of five to ten to male clients who pay $50-$800. Courtship then ensues, through correspondence and phone calls. Some countries require that marriage take place in the woman’s home country. She is then taken to the man’s home country via spousal visa. The average age for the woman is 22 years old; male clients average 45 years old. It’s usually a first marriage for the woman; a second or third marriage for the man. In the 1980s, the MOB system offered women predominantly from the Philippines. However, the success of such agencies of Cherry Blossom inspired diversification and specialization. Some agencies offer only women from Latin America; others, from Asia. Russian and Eastern European women entered the MOB market but for the US at least, majority of women in the catalogues remain Filipinas.

    This is a legal business but with no regulatory measures. Despite its being a multimillion dollar business, many MOB agencies operate from post office boxes or website email addresses. Proprietors, business officers and such are anonymous. Majority are small-scale operations. Nevertheless, one such mom-and-pop operation in Arizona sold some 500 Filipinas, recruited by the male-owner’s young wife whom he subsequently divorced and replaced with an even younger Filipina.

    Immigration papers are the women’s central objective, prelude to their eventually transferring relatives out of the Philippines. The men’s objective, on the other hand, is less specific and relates to their idea of an ideal “wife.” Often, an imported wife functions as caretaker of children from previous marriage(s). Some agencies, particularly in Europe, offer women who are already in the country. Special “perks” to the male include: a 30-day guarantee, “discovery” — i.e., having sex with the woman to check compatibility.

    The scores of women battered, abused and murdered by the agencies’ clientele show the dangers attendant to this process. Because all information remains in the man’s control — his personal information, immigration and marital laws — the woman actually cannot give informed consent. Immigration rules increase both dependency and vulnerability. In the US, the marriage has to last two years before the alien spouse is given permanent residency, unless he/she can prove abuse and battering. Like Cinderella, foreign-born spouses are expected to suffer first before the reward. In Canada, immigration expects a nine-year dependency by the foreign spouse.

    Because no regulatory measures are in place over this business, serial batterers and serial killers use MOB agencies to obtain victims. That custody of children is highly unlikely to be awarded to foreign-born spouses keep the majority of the abused from seeking relief.

    MOB agencies deny they sell women; they contend that they only provide a service. To hide their true essence as slavers, MOB agencies call themselves international matchmaking agencies and other such euphemisms while the women are referred to as foreign-born wives, ostensibly to protect their dignity.

  2. Sex Tourism

    Tour agencies offer “package” vacations which include commercial sex and a smorgasbord of women. Should a man want to marry one of the girls, they also take care of processing her papers, in effect acting as a marriage bureau. One such small agency sends 10-15 men to the Philippines monthly.

  3. Military Prostitution

    Some 25,000 women from the Philippines and South Korea function to replicate the rest-and-recreation privileges of the US military overseas. Bases in the continental US are ringed by “entertainment” establishments featuring strip shows, lap dancing and prostitution. Some of the women were brought in by American GIs paid by criminal syndicates to marry them. Once in the US, the women are divorced and placed under the control of pimps and traffickers.

  4. Direct Prostitution

    Some 50,000 women and children are trafficked into the US for the sex trade. A great number are from Latin America because of the relative ease of bringing them across the border. Eastern European women are also brought into North America though sex slave auctions, kidnapping of women and prostitution take place in Kosovo and Bosnia while prostitution occurs all over Europe. Prostitution dens can be anything: from large shipping containers, house trailers to basements. The women barely see any cash as they are charged for board and lodgings, no matter how execrable these are; clothes, cosmetics and even for showers. They are also required to take birth control pills and injections.

The Purple Rose Campaign

The debate over prostitution and sex trafficking was the exclusive preserve of women from the North, who used testimonies and data from Third World women to bolster their argument for legalization. GABRIELA Philippines, taking note of the terrible impact of this aspect of globalization on Filipinas, smashed North control over by the debate by launching an international campaign against the sex trafficking of Filipinas and their children. Called the Purple Rose Campaign, in acknowledgment of the deliberate exotization of Filipinas and the consequent apartheid visited upon them as sex objects, this broad-based activity is aimed at creating space for and silence so that the voices of those most afflicted by the global sex trade can be heard.

The Campaign advances the analysis that organized prostitution and sex trafficking are creatures of globalization. For Asian women — and likely, for women the world over — prostitution was not the world’s oldest profession. Women were priestesses, healers, leaders of the tribe, long before cash-for-sex traded hands. For the Philippines in particular, prostitution was the result of colonialism; large-scale prostitution and sex trafficking were the result of neocolonialism and globalization.

The Campaign takes the position that the question of choice cannot be a factor in whether a woman becomes or refused to become a prostitute, so long as entities like the IMF/WB, WTO, GATT, etc., are enabled to afflict nations and peoples with continuing poverty. Choice cannot be a factor so long as transnational corporations are enabled to plunder without hindrance nations and people. The Campaign takes the position that legitimizing prostitution and the sex trade would be a surrender to imperialist globalization and its retrograde ally, feudal patriarchy.

What’s to be done?

Despite the dismal configuration of the world today, there are indications of hope. Resistance to globalization has been widespread and dramatic; people are organizing more and more, around small and large issues. Imperialism has been unmasked and continues to be exposed as the beast from Bethlehem. Upon this fertile ground of resistance and struggle, oppressed women the world over find hope for the future.

Many things can be done, short-term and long-term. On the general plane, advancing women’s democratic rights is important to enabling them to push forward their movement towards liberation. A worldwide solidarity of women opposed to prostitution and sex trafficking, and to globalization is necessary to victory. For the Third World, the involvement of women in the national struggle for genuine independence and freedom, for control over the economic, political and social life of the country, is imperative.

The way may be long and difficult, but for those of us from countries to which everything reprehensible has been done, resistance is the essence of self-respect, opposition a matter of our people’s pride and struggle the equal of national dignity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.