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The Globalization of Trade and Its Effect on Women

05 Dec 2017Essay Samples


It is no secret that millions of women around the world live in poverty. With women making up roughly 70 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion poor, there can be no doubt that poverty is a truly pervasive, and feminine, issue. There are many reasons behind this. Many societies’ attitudes towards women deny them access to the natural resources, credit, and training that they need to run businesses and enhance their well-being. More often than not, women cannot travel as freely as men as they are limited by their relative lack of assets, or faced with familial obligations that prevent their migration. And in an increasingly sophisticated marketplace, women are at a disadvantage when competing with those who have greater access to markets and new technology.

Despite their prevalence, women’s issues have remained at the periphery of academic inquest, especially in economics. Women have been largely absent in economic study, and are completely absent from mainstream economic texts. “Theory in economics is often written with a capital T. Theory means model, and model means ideas expressed in mathematical form. This overemphasis on technique and abstract analysis leaves little room for social distinctions like gender.” While it is true that ‘gender’ economics is a rapidly expanding field, it remains obvious that there is a distinct lack of information on the subject. Economics has largely ignored the fact that the voracious globalization of the world economy is affecting women.

However, empirical analysis is not necessary to appreciate the concept that globalization is increasing the incidence of women’s poverty. Small women-run or dominated businesses simply cannot compete with cheaper imported products brought in by trade liberalization. In Africa, for instance, “many of women’s traditional industries such as food processing and basket making are being wiped out. New employment opportunities have been created in some parts of Asia, but often with low wages and poor working conditions.” Women’s poverty is an increasingly serious issue.

The objective of this paper is to highlight some of the effects of the globalization on women and how they have responded to the situation by a ‘globalization from below’. Globalization refers to the increasing interconnectedness between countries and people in terms of trade, finance, communications, etc, that is largely spurred by international corporations and market forces. Globalization ‘from below’ generally refers to a similar internationalization process, but from a grass-roots or individual/group level. With the advent of technology and communication in particular, members of certain groups are now able to pool their resources and energies in more powerful ways than would previously have been impossible. In a small way, this has boosted their stature in the world. Need a dissertation on economic or technology? Pay someone to write dissertation for you at


Economic science has been dominated by men, and if for no other reason, economic theory can be expected to suffer from a male bias. This bias persists in the face of the obvious fact that there are distinct differences in the position of men and women in the economy, for instance in the “division of labour within the family, the position in the labour market, unequal pay, career possibilities within companies and occupational segregation.” After much debate and reluctance, most economists have now come to at least a fragile consensus that economic theories have indeed given very little attention to subjects that are important for women. But, it seems to be a case of too little too late. In recent years, the position of women has continued to deteriorate on an aggregate scale, and traditional theories are no farther ahead in solving these gender related issues. There is widespread support for change and the evolution of ‘feminine’ economics; but, progress has been slow.

Some progress has been made during the past few decades however. Though gender inequality is still pervasive in many areas of life, there has been general improvement in women’s health and education. “Women’s life expectancy has increased 20 per cent faster than male life expectancy and maternal mortally rates have been nearly halved. In primary and secondary school education, the gender gap was halved in the last 20 years. In developing countries, female enrolment at the tertiary level increased to over 70 per cent of the male rate from less than 50 per cent in the 1970s.”7 Evidently, investment in social development and human capacity building, along with grass roots globalization, have borne results. However, according to the United Nations, the following depressing statistics still remain:

  • Women earn 1/10 of the world’s income, own less than 1/10 of the world's property and hold 1 per cent of chief executive positions world wide.
  • While progress has been made in terms of women's access to education, women still comprise two-thirds of people who cannot read or write. Women still represent 60 per cent of more than 1 billion adults who have no access to basic education. Girls constitute the majority of the 130 million children with no access to primary school; world wide, girls currently attend school 55 per cent as much as boys do.
  • A fifth of the world's people today live in absolute poverty, and much of it has a female face. Women are 70 per cent of the world's 1.3 billion absolute poor. Women within poor countries and communities are more impoverished than men. In African countries, for example, women account for more than 60 per cent of the agricultural labour force, contribute up to 80 per cent of the total food production and receive less than 10 per cent of the credit to small farmers and 1 per cent of the total credit to agriculture.
  • In many ecologically fragile zones, especially those in war-torn areas and in communities undergoing economic and social disintegration, women and children comprise 75 per cent of affected and displaced people.
  • Only 10 per cent of parliamentary seats and 6 per cent of cabinet positions are occupied by women.

Globalization and Women’s Poverty 

Though the extant body of evidence is obviously slender, it is unmistakably clear that the recession of the 1980s and its cutback of state welfare programmes impacted more severely on women than on men. In many countries female wage labour has been displaced by certain forms of ‘agrotechnology’ without new forms of employment being generated. Further, new opportunities for the creation of women’s employment have primarily fallen in the low-waged, casual segment of the labour market, “such that increased employment does not lead to increased quality of life.” This is not to argue that increases in aggregate poverty through a weakening or loss of the household resource base, or whatever reason, have not been unpleasant for both women and men. This is not in dispute. However, it does argue that women experience poverty differently than men do.

According to the United Nations, one of the main reasons is because women have more limited access to scarce and valued resources than men. “Women, in many societies, have fewer entitlements not just to economic resources but also to the physical, legal, social, and cultural entitlements that are the basis of well-being and a sense of self-worth: less food, less health care, less education, less leisure and lower economic returns for their labour. Women have less command over labour, both their own and that of men. In crisis situations, women’s assets are often sold before men’s assets.” Furthermore, and also more applicable in many developed countries, is that there is a clear tendency for female headed homes to be poor, “especially those maintained entirely by female earnings and those with dependent children, due to the gender inequalities that disadvantage women in the labour market.”

Additionally, poor economic conditions have proven to weaken, if not completely disintegrate, many countries welfare systems. “With the breakdown of systems of reciprocity and support, women’s burden become even heavier than men’s, because women have to struggle not just to keep themselves alive but also to ensure the survival of those dependent on their care and nurture-the young, the old, the sick and the disabled.” In most cases where a working woman is able to transfer her domestic workload, it is shifted to other women - usually those who are older, dependent, or even poorer. It remains a fact that in most countries the burden of housework, child care and other dimensions of the domestic workload are the sole responsibility of women rather than the shared responsibility of both men and women. While this is slowly starting to change in the Western world, the process is obviously far from complete. The first signs of gender equality have not even surfaced in the less-developed world.

Finally, there is a clear argument to be made that poverty is inter-generational and transferred along gender lines. More often than not, a family’s scarce resources will be passed on to sons so that they can escape from the ‘poverty trap’. Daughters, in contrast, are “deprived of these scarce resources, held back from school, and expected to be the family’s secondary nurturers, assisting in the care of siblings and other needy members of the family.” Here lies the dreaded poverty cycle. Females born into poverty will mature into women who remain in poverty, and the cycle again perpetuates itself. This cycle also results in the transmission of gender injustice. In many of the world’s developing countries, “females rights to life and her own person are not assured. Female children born into poverty are more likely to suffer early deaths--either through deliberate infanticide or through less deliberate, but, no less fatal deprivation of food, clothes and health care. If a female child is allowed to live, she is often vulnerable to abuse, condemned to remain illiterate, or reduced to being a family resource to be sold into bondage, whether as child-bride, prostitute or debt-slave. These tendencies are exacerbated in times of internal crisis (such as the illness or death of the main breadwinner), or external crisis (such as the rising prices of basic food stuff and other necessities, or environmental disasters including floods and earthquakes).”

It seems quite logical to hypothesize from this evidence that the current process of globalization has further exacerbated the impoverishment of women. Globalization has spurred trade de-regulation, rapid technological changes, changes in industrial production, transitions to a market economy, structural adjustment programmes, and increased the power of global financial markets. It is easy to see how women, particularly those in developing countries, could be disadvantaged by these forces. Indeed, it is quite clear that the processes of global economic restructuring produce uneven results even within the developed world. Obviously, some sectors of society have enjoyed the benefits of rapid growth. We are familiar with this situation in the Western world. Yet, our experiences mark the exception to the rule. Most of the world has experienced stagnation or even a deterioration in living standards. Globalization has “created new patterns of wealth and poverty. It has simultaneously provided new opportunities and intensified existing inequalities or even created new ones.” It has had clear genderdifferentiated consequences, largely “due to the constraints of the gender hierarchy imposed on women's ownership of assets, educational and employment opportunities, and physical and social mobility.”

Ominously, there is a growing body of evidence that forecasts that existing inequalities will be further deepened ongoing globalization. Globalization is quickly revealing itself as a “development context where integration into the global market directs development, where there is accelerating technological change, where national economies are destabilized by transnational processes and where the ecological crisis facing humanity is at its worst.” Based on the severity of these transitions to date, it has consequently been argued that “many of the gains made over the last twenty years may not be sustained in the next decade: women work longer hours, maintaining households on reduced resources; there are threats of increased transmission of inter-generational poverty along gender lines as girls are deprived of scarce household resources, held back from school, and expected to be the family’s secondary nurturers.” In such an environment, it is difficult to see how women could make a meaningful contribution to the international economy and help increase market efficiency.

Grass-roots Globalization

Women from around the world have taken note of the bad situation at hand and come up with a few possible solutions to the situation. It has been argued that any “policies and programmes to reduce poverty need to be sensitive to gender issues within and among households. Within households, efforts to provide the fulfilment of basic needs must take into account the intrahouse dynamics which affect use of income and decisions over resource allocation along gender lines.” Policies focused on the abstract category of ‘women’, without considering their current responsibilities within the household and how these are going to be substituted for, run the risk of merely shifting certain burdens among the group. That is, “when new demands are made on women’s time something has to give and that something is, more often than not, another woman’s time. Very often macro-level data on poverty conceals these differences and overlooks reality at the micro-level.”

Several international organizations have proposed that what women need on an aggregate level is economic and political empowerment. On an economic level, this means that women must be given “control over money and assets, and access to the opportunities they need for success. When women control their livelihoods the whole family benefits. Studies have shown that when women have their own income or have control over household income more money is spent on food and children’s education.” This is certainly an ambitious objective. How can this be accomplished? To date, traditional approaches to economic development have done little to help. The reasons for this are, at this point, obvious. In fact, it can reasonably be argued that traditional approaches may have actually agitated the situation: “the number of rural women living in absolute poverty has risen by 50 percent over the last two decades (as opposed to 30 percent for men).” Objectives such as UNIFEM appear to be a step in the right direction. Within the United Nations framework, it strives to find innovative ways to “help women lift themselves and their families out of poverty. In order to understand the effects of globalization on women, UNIFEM is bringing together organizations, decision makers and the private sector to share knowledge and ideas. Trade meetings, studies and activities supported by UNIFEM are looking at the impact of new trade policies and developing strategies to ensure that women can live sustainably under these policies.” By also soliciting new markets for women’s traditional products; e.g., organic fruits and vegetables in Ecuador, Shea butter in Burkina Faso and silk in India, women have hope of a better future in the international marketplace.

However, this appears to be a very short term solution as it provides little or no return to human capital. From a development perspective, the solution lies in enhancing the skills and technology available to women. There is a strong correlation between education and use of contraceptives/reasoned child birth, so education for women is of utmost importance. This is essential if women hope to compete effectively in a global market. Training in technical skills, management and negotiation techniques should be three additional objectives in both the developed and developing economies. By acting on an aggregate (grass-roots) level, women can hope to compete more effectively as groups than as individuals. As argued by UNIFEM, “economic empowerment means more than helping women find jobs. It means improving the power relationships in a woman’s home, in her community and in the marketplace so that she can take advantage of growing international markets. It means changing policies and legislation so that women can benefit from economic development. It means making sure that women are prepared to compete in the new economy.”

Although avoided in this paper in the interests of brevity, something must be said of the link between the global environmental crisis and women’s welfare. Certainly, the degradation of nature has a negative impact on all of the world’s population, but it especially strikes those who are most vulnerable. Women, in particular, are affected by the crisis of resource depletion in developing countries. “As community care-givers and resource managers, women’s daily lives are undermined by environmental degradation and the contamination of the raw materials they handle. Their problems and those of the environment are interrelated as both are marginalized by existing development policies.” Women are the ones who often feel the immediate effects of environmental degradation and community disintegration because of their responsibility for social reproduction and livelihoods. Women provide the primary subsistence in much of the developing world. On a regular basis, these women face the “challenge of maintaining sustainable livelihoods for themselves, their families and their communities as their resource base of fuel, water, and food becomes increasingly depleted.”

Thus, if sustainable development is an objective of globalization, it cannot be achieved if the livelihoods of local communities are at risk. This reveals the contradiction between shorterterm economic needs and longer-term ecological imperatives. “On the one hand, shorter-term economic needs have to be met without destroying long-term concerns for sustainability. On the other hand, longer-term ecological imperatives have to be addressed without neglecting the immediate livelihood needs of local communities. There is thus an urgent need to balance economic viability with ecological sustainability in an increasingly globalized world economy, where the social crisis of poverty converges with the environmental crisis.”


It has been demonstrated in this paper that women do play a crucial role in the maintenance of livelihoods, cultural continuity, and community cohesiveness. It is well known that these processes are at the foundation of societies. However, women’s unique perspectives and requirements have been overshadowed in macroeconomic analyses and by economics at large. While it has been impossible to provide precise empirical evidence, the findings here do suggest that women’s perspectives need to be integrated into the formulation of new modes of sustainability that would be viable and relevant in the modern world system; i.e., globalization. In other words, “ there is a need to make visible women’s knowledge, particularly in relation to the maintenance of sustainable livelihoods for communities under threat and to the search for alternatives.” Further, it must be recognized that women’s empowerment is crucial to effective population policies, which is a fundamental requirement if globalization is to be successful. This is where grass-roots globalization has come into play. At the 1995 World Summit on Social Development, these efforts were recognized. It is now widespread knowledge that gender equality is a prerequisite for the achievement of productive employment, social integration and poverty eradication. Yet, if the advantages of globalization are to be appreciated on a ‘global’ scale, more action must be taken.

In sum, then, as globalization is driven by the forces of markets, it is almost inevitable that it has further disadvantaged those that are already disadvantaged around the globe. Most of the world’s women, with no specialized skills recognized by macroeconomic measures, have little to offer world markets and thus clearly fall into this group. Given the crucial ecological and social role they play, however, the empowerment of women must be an objective of globalization, if increased aggregate welfare and efficient markets are objectives. Grass-roots globalization still has a long way to go.


  • Acker, J., Doing Comparable Worth: Gender, Class and Pay Equity (Templeton University Press, Philadelphia, 1989)
  • Dijkstra, G., Plantenga, J., Gender and Economics (Routledge, London, 1997)
  • Heyzer, N., ‘A Women’s Development Agenda for the 21 st Century: UNIFEM’s Commitment to the World’s Women’., (1997, gopher://
  • Kennedy, Paul., Preparing for the twentieth century (Fontana Press, New York, 1994)
  • The World Bank., World Development Report 1996: From Plan to Market (Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • The World Bank., World Development Report 1997: The State in a Changing World (Oxford University Press, 1997)
  • UNIFEM., ‘Economic Empowerment: Strengthening Women’s Economic Capacity’ (United Nations, 1997, 

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