Income inequalities in emerging economies can exacerbate inequalities between men and women

Blog by Daria Ukhova, Ph.D student, Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences and Inequality policy consultant for Oxfam GB 

Originally posted at 

Why the moral imperatives for women´s empowerment trump economic reasons

What are the effects of inequitable economic growth on gender inequality? Researcher, Daria Ukhova, shares evidence of how income inequalities in emerging economies can exacerbate inequalities between men and women.

Women’s empowerment is not just a fundamentally moral cause, it is also an absolute economic no-brainer‘, said Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s Managing Director, at the Women 20 conference last week. According to IMF calculations, getting more women into well-paid jobs would improve growth and reduce economic inequality. The conference, organised for the first time in the run up to the next G20 summit, reflects a trend of gender equality rising up the agenda. The need to reduce economic inequality to improve economic growth and development is being increasingly recognised by various international and national actors, and women’s empowerment has moved centre stage in these debates.

This increasing recognition of the role of women’s empowerment – especially, in the economic domain – in Even It Up could be considered a positive development. But I would argue that, as feminists, we miss a very important point if we don’t look at the reverse causal relation and ask what impact the inequitable growth actually has on gender relations and gender inequality.

As a feminist economist Diane Elson argues ‘economic growth is a gendered process in which old forms of gender inequality are weakened but new forms of gender inequality emerge‘. Arguably, economic growth accompanied by growing or persistently high economic inequality could produce new more acute forms of gender inequality or make the old forms morph in rather dangerous ways.

Gender inequality in emerging economies

In my current research I focus on a group of emerging economies that Oxfam works in, i.e. BRICSAMIT (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey), to explore the interrelatedness of various forms of gender inequality and economic growth accompanied by growing/persistently high levels of economic inequality. As the most economically and gender unequal countries in the world, emerging economies represent good cases for such analysis.

The literature review and expert interviews I have carried out so far indicate two areas in which the effects of inequitable economic growth on gender inequality could be observed particularly vividly: unpaid care and gender-based violence.

Rapidly declining fertility rates, aging populations and intensified internal migration (caused by massive geographic inequalities) are key features of most of these countries. These trends result in increased care burdens for increasingly economically active women, as the number of elderly relatives per woman is steadily increasing, while grandparents as providers of childcare are becoming less available.

Growth of economic inequality also means that unpaid care is acquiring different meanings for women from different economic groups, with the care burden being redistributed from richer to poorer and migrant women. Reduction in access to publicly funded childcare (e.g. like in Russia and China during market transition) increases the care burden of poorer women even further.

Economic inequality and gender-based violence

The effects of economic inequality on gender-based violence are also clearly traceable across the BRICSAMIT countries. In South Africa in the 2000s, growth of economic inequality has been taking place in parallel with anincrease in gender-based non-intimate and intimate murders, while overall homicide levels have been decreasing. Sexual violence in India is also being increasingly linked by experts to growing socio-economic inequality. In China, sexual harassment at work similarly needs to be analysed in terms of its economic drivers. As one of my Chinese interviewees pointed out:

‘Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious issue. Women want to have a job. If they speak out, they’re afraid to lose the job. It’s very subtle. There are power relations (between managers and staff) being intersected with economic inequality. It is partially linked to economic inequality (… ) But this is also men’s mentality – they think that since they have money, they could do whatever they want.’

While it should be recognised that economic inequality alone clearly can’t account for the phenomenon of sex selective abortion, the experiences of China and India show how increasing economic gaps between families perpetuate and exacerbate culturally-grounded practices of gender discrimination:

‘In the present state of development and income inequality in India, there are many parents who have to some extent a capitalistic attitude. That actually generates two things -son preference and gender bias against females for human capital accumulation.’

Finally, we also need to view the phenomenon of domestic violence in the context of increased economic inequality. As one of the interviewees from China emphasised, the current economic system encourages competitiveness, which often results in increased tensions between partners.

These examples demonstrate the need to move beyond instrumentalist approaches to gender equality and women’s empowerment. They show how gender inequality transforms and morphs under inequitable economic growth in the emerging economies. To paraphrase Christine Lagarde’s argument, women’s empowerment should be not only an economic no brainer, but also a fundamental moral cause in the fight against growing economic inequality.

To see Daria´s full research, please visit the following link

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