The globalization of structural adjustment programmes: Lessons from feminists and women in the Global South

In their recently launched magazine ’European Women’s Voice: Women’s Economic Independence in Times of Austerity’, the European Women’s Lobby has included an article by WIDE+ members Patricia Muñoz Cabrera and Virginia López Calvo. The piece is available on page 35, and we reproduce it below in full.

As has been demonstrated, structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) imposed by international financial institutions (IFIs) on Global South economies and governments’ development agendas have been implemented for more than five decades, with a devastating impact on women and men on the ground.

Feminists activists and scholars of the global South have also noted that the growth-driven conditionality characterising the new wave of SAPs is leading to a disempowering shift in global governance. This disempowering shift has resulted in a weakening of governments’ ability to enforce labour rights, implement policies to promote social and gender equity, and environmental sustainability, and redistribute wealth in an equitable way. Other policies pushed through SAPs, such as privatisation of social services and charging fees for public services like primary education and health care have tended to hit women hardest (Mutume, 2001).

In this context, the new wave of SAPs must be understood as another mechanism through which neoliberal capitalism is attempting to maximise profit by all means and regardless of the social and environmental impact. For example, most recently, Jamaica, Ghana and the Ivory Coast have been imposed austerity measures as a condition of financial support, with most of the cuts taking place between 2010-2012 (Lethbridge 2012:5).

Worryingly, conditionality-driven austerity is expanding throughout the global South. In the so-called Arab Spring countries, the new generation of SAPs has led to wage cuts and to the reduction of public spending in social services. There, the shrinking of the State has affected women in particular. Their vulnerable position in labour markets (a considerable number of women are found in highly informal, casual low-skilled and poorly paid jobs) has led to enhanced precariousness for them. Women have been also bearing the burden of conditionality-driven austerity packages: prices for food and fuel have increased, along with reliance on family networks for social protection. Due to women’s socially assigned role as care giver, their household workload has also increased.

Similarly, in Ghana, two generations of SAPs, from Poverty Reduction programs during the 1980s and 1990s (PRSPs) to what is (locally known as the Economic Recovery ProgrammeERP) have meant the imposition of flat consumption taxes such as VAT, and changes in the patterns and levels of state expenditure. Ghana’s ERP achieved some measure of economic growth, infrastructural rehabilitation and some institutional reforms. However, the reforms have been accompanied by labour retrenchment, the informalisation of work (where women are usually overrepresented), the removal of subsidies and the institution of user fees in basic services including water, electricity, education and health (Lethbridge 2012:5).

In Honduras, the new wave of structural adjustment policies in the past four years has brought about additional reductions in subsidies, wage cuts and pension reforms. Honduran academics had already described these measures as of ‘little Honduran character’ back in the 90s, in the first wave of adjustment programmes negotiated with the World Bank (Noé Pino, n.d.). These adjustment packages led to reforms in national legislation, which aimed at promoting exports and foreign direct investment, the new engines of growth in the country (as opposed to stimulating internal markets). The implementation of austerity packages resulting from SAPs required the restriction of trade union activity. Forced devaluation of the Honduran currency made imports more expensive, thus increasing inflation, which, Honduran academics argue, clearly favoured economic elites (business class, and particularly the exports sector).

In addition to legal and economic reforms, SAPs have also reshaped the political and policy landscape in the global South. In recent years, the Honduran Congress has implemented various decrees which contravene international labour standards, abolishing rights including minimum wage, maternity rights, payment of bonuses and certain entitlements to social security. Currently, the government is discussing a new Social Security bill which will privatise social services. Honduran women groups are concerned that this will affect gains made by workers on incapacity benefits and pensions.

Despite abundant evidence that SAPs run counter to women’s rights and are detrimental to the achievement of gender-just sustainable development goals, governments have not reviewed their macro-economic policies in the light of rigorous gender and intersectional analysis (of multiple discriminations against women) resulting from the impact of external conditionality.

At the micro level, evidence shows that external conditionality can exacerbate gender tensions between men and women, in particular in countries undergoing systemic transformation, as is the case with Small Pacific Island Countries (SPICs).

In this region, SAPs-led policies have failed to consider the transition from bartering to cash based economies and the role of customary laws and traditions on gender interactions between men and women.  In Melanesia countries in particular, self-sufficiency is ensured by barter rather than cash-based transactions. In rural and some urban contexts, cash incomes are not the main means to sustain families and communities. As the International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA, a women’s network based in Australia, points out “subsistence agriculture, gifting, barter and voluntary activities underpin economies in Melanesia.”

In SPIC countries, SAPs have overlooked the important fact that cultural norms affect women and men’s status in the economy, determining who has access to and control over productive assets, whose voice will be heard in political and policy decision-making processes, and who will benefit from the promised economic prosperity and who will not. Moreover customary laws deny women access to land tenure. In some countries, patrilineal inheritance has even been given legislative status (Waring 2010:4), overlooking the fact that in the “traditional land ownership model, women could own and cultivate the land” (Hakena 2014: 62).

Pacific women have warned against the devastating impact of structural adjustment during the 1980s and 1990s, which led to public sector rationalisation measures, marketisation of social services such as health and education, and governments’ retreat to create space for private sector investment in these areas. For Pacific women this meant additional burdens, as they had to assume the responsibility of caring for the aged and infirm. This increased domestic pressure within families and placed additional labour and economic burdens upon women (George et al, n/d: 1). They have also warned that given the region’s high level of indebtedness and dependency on foreign markets, the development paradigm promoted by SAPs in the small Pacific Islands will not respond to the region’s urgent needs for gender-just sustainable development, all of which require long term public investment.

In the Global South, the new wave of SAPs has also contributed to the expansion of corporate-led trade and investment in particular, in the area of extractive industries. Evidence from the field shows that the expansion of extractivism in the global South has exacerbated social conflict and contributed to new forms of violence against women and girls on the ground. One of these forms of violence is the loss of ownership and control over resources, such as fertile land, water and energy. These resources are key for women to ensure sustainable livelihoods for themselves and their families and their loss cannot be replaced or compensated for financially (GAIA, 2014: 10).

To women, the threats resulting from corporate-driven extraction of natural resources range from destruction of the local environment, and sexual and economic violence, to serious consequences for human health, including their reproductive health. Dangers have been amply noted, as is the case with the gold extraction in the highlands of Guatemala, extraction of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the Philippines, in Colombia and Papua New Guinea. In these countries and many more, extractivism has been fuelled by projects and programmes promoted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and has contributed to  increasing violence and legal impunity. Even when extractivism produces economic growth for a specific region, as the expansion of the mega-mining industry in the North of Chile shows, it is often done to feed a development model that is over-consumerist, highly depredatory of ecosystems, and extremely dangerous to human health (Aedo et al., 2004: 17-17).

WoMin, an African network working to empower women miners, has demonstrated that extractivism is inherently violent; and the violence it produces is most palpably registered by poor women who are often pushed to mining sites in an attempt to escape poverty and unemployment. In sub-Saharan Africa, the impact of growth-driven extractivism is disproportionately borne by peasant women, who are responsible for domestic food and water production, in addition to providing care for their households, families and communities (WoMin, 2013).

Responses by women and feminists in the Global South: what is the transformative potential of their proposals?

When structural adjustment policies were imposed, many women in the global South were already living in conditions of poverty and multiple discriminations, and under political regimes with limited civil and political liberties which increased their disempowerment. Despite multiple constraints, they are building and implementing alternatives for economic and gender justice on the ground. As the following section shows, their struggles to resist austerity and to propose alternatives are not only commendable but, most importantly, worth learning from.

The transformative potential of women’s proposals to SAPs vary in scope and nature. Some experiences focus on achieving alternative economic empowerment within the current neoliberal economic model; others seek to ensure that the current growth model also delivers sustainability and protects human rights. A third strand proposes anti-systemic economic alternatives with a clear rejection of the current model of capital accumulation.

Women organising to defend lost rights

A common strategy to address the loss of bargaining and purchasing power of women workers in a wider context of deepened gender disparities caused by SAPs, are women-led trade unions.

Sikhula Sonke in South Africa is a case in point. It grew out of the Women on Farms Project that has been educating and mobilising women agricultural workers in the Western Cape since the early 1990s. Adjustment measures in South Africa have meant poor or non-existent provision of basic services such as electricity services, housing and piped water facilities for millions. Following the introduction of cost-recovery policies for public services and the massive job losses caused by trade liberalisation, Sikhula Sonke and other civil society organisations initiated the ‘No Land! No Vote!‘ campaign to express a vote of no confidence in the range of political parties on offer in the 2004 general elections. Sikhula Sonke’s role has been crucial in bringing the voices and views of women farm workers to this coalition and more generally to South African social movements, and to position high in their agenda issues such as violence against women at work and elsewhere.

Like Sikhula Sonke, the Collective of Honduran Women (CODEMUH), has mobilised thousands of women workers in maquila (textile) factories that flourished following the establishment of Export Processing Zones. CODEMUH has stood up to the various negative effects old and new SAPs have had over the population, and particularly over women, since 1989. Their coordination of efforts of women workers has been successful in achieving recognition amongst maquila factory owners and policy-makers of widespread occupational health problems in the industry and has achieved hundreds of job relocations for affected women.  However, challenges ahead are ever-growing as trade is increasingly liberalised: a recent shift in working patterns has been imposed in the maquila industry that now obliges workers to do 4 consecutive shifts of 12 hours, followed by 4 days of rest, is illustrative of such challenges.

Women organising to visibilize women’s agendas for a gender just economy

In Nicaragua, feminists weren’t caught by surprise by the latest wave of SAPs as women have endured such measures since the early 90s. Between 2005 and 2008 a broad coalition of 14 women’s organisations working on economic rights came together to reflect, dialogue and propose concrete solutions to the lack of gender mainstreaming in the country’s economic policies. The result was a study: ‘Nicaraguan Women’s Economic Agenda’, a tool for collective advocacy that seeks to shed light on women’s role in economic growth as well as on the policies required for their integration in the labour market and for the realisation of their economic rights and of gender equality in the economy. Gender discrimination, it is argued in the Agenda, is at the core of the different impacts that so-called ‘stabilizing’ macro-economic policies (including SAPs) have on women and men.

More recently a similar effort has been carried out at regional scale. Fourteen women’s organisations across the Central American region and two mixed trade unions have come together in 2014 to pool their expertise of resisting adjustment measures, such as the flexibilization of the labour market, that deepen gender discrimination as women are overrepresented in flexible, highly precarious work. The final report, ‘Women’s Agenda for the Rights of Maquila Workers’ argues that sustainable economic growth is only possible if the gender gap in labour market is bridged. It also denounces sexual harassment and violence against women at the workplace and demands that maternity leave subsidies are provided.

Women proposing a gender just and caring economy

Some feminist groups and scholars are demanding a radical change that brings about a new economy, one that not only applies gender analysis and integrates women, but that is also aligned to the principles of a just, and caring economy. Magdalena León, from the Latin-American Network ‘Women Transforming the Economy’ sees an attempt to commercialize with the care economy behind the International Monetary Fund claims that the State should take the responsibility for it (Dossier IV Congreso Economia Feminista, 2013).

To them, a gender just caring economy means an economy which puts people first; an economy which is not only about full employment, but also examines the root causes of women’s subordinated status in markets (labour, financial, agricultural); an economy that understands the interrelation between production and reproduction, and incorporates women’s contribution to both on equal terms with men, and without any form of discrimination. Put shortly, women from the global South are implementing grounded alternatives for a gender just economy that highlight values such as reciprocity, complementarity and solidarity; all this within a broader canvas that embraces caring for nature and preserving our global commons.

In Guatemala, grassroots women have responded to the burden originating from SAPs through two effective strategies: a women’s defined use and management of water and a Politics School of Women. These strategies were urgently needed after SAPs-led water privatisation deprived women of their right to adequate water for production and social reproduction needs. For example, San Pedro Carchá, a bountiful, tropical land with rainfall through 9 to 10 months a year, saw its river, the Cahabón, walled up following its privatization. As a result, the Q’eqchie women had to walk up to 4 hours a day to fetch 2,5 litres of water from a deep well they have to climb down to, putting their lives at risk. A Politics School of Women has been organised there, where women become educated and leaders of their own communities. The School has managed the construction of 500 cisterns (8000 litres) for households to harvest rainwater using eco-friendly materials. This initiative does not only save women the walk, the risk and the time to collect water – thus freeing them to carry out other activities; it has also politically empowered hundreds who now lead various aspects of community management and even advocacy work. Their initiative also speaks to various environmental justice principles such as circular economy and demonstrates that gender just alternatives to  SAPs driven economic development are feasible (WIDE, 2011).

Sharing and caring: women’s vision of a transformative economy

As a response to the impact of SAPs, women have been working and mobilising to transform local economies in ways that are empowering to women, contribute to community well-being and to environmental protection.

In Colombia, community enterprises were set up to strengthen rural economies following alternative models to that of micro-entrepreneurship. Women in community enterprises such as ‘An agrarian future for Circasia’ or ‘Ulloa Women’, saw, harvest and produce foodstuffs both for consumption in their households, for selling at the local market or for bartering. Members of the enterprise are very committed to the process and seek also the best quality of life for their partners as well as community development. Moreover, women have been sensitized and their capacity built to be involved in the development process and to secure their own spaces.  These endeavors spam not just agrarian economy activity, but others like mining and textiles too. Their activities go beyond income-generation and economic empowerment for women, aiming also at improving and strengthening community’s social fabric and economic relations, thus weaving an alternative to individualism and consumerism. In addition, locally and regionally there have been changes in discriminatory practices and attitudes towards women, with men’s ideas and attitudes  about masculinities shifting towards more equality-based ones. Clearly, they are achieving transformational shifts both locally, regionally and nationally.

Similarly, in the Pacific region, indigenous women have organised around an initiative called the “women’s savings clubs”, an alternative micro-model that  challenges the idea of consumerist, individualistic micro-finance schemes promoted by SAPs, and promotes a practice of collective savings for women’s needs as well as for the well-being of their families and community. This model is inspired in their community culture and collective values such as solidarity (caring for oneself and for others’ needs), equity in distribution of produce and surplus, investing in environmentally-friendly technology (such as solar panels), and empowering women through leadership programmes, economic and legal literacy. Their initiative is transformative in the sense that it emphasises women’s agency in local economies as defined by poor women themselves, and not by external financial agents. They also want to push forward community-based economic systems that promote collective participation, equitable distribution of productive assets, and protection of environmental resources (Brisbane 2013).

Relocating grassroots women as transformative agents of knowledge

 At the micro level, women in the global South are responding to the serious consequences of structural adjustments, and in particular, to the disenfranchising impact of corporate-led trade liberalisation through several strategies. One strategy is to develop the skills of their grassroots members so that they can document abuses by transnational companies on women and the environment, and from there make policy recommendations for gender just development that can be scaled up by local authorities. Their research methodologies are participatory, build on women’s empirical knowledge of social, economic and cultural exclusion and empowerment, and are inspired by feminist and social justice principles. Overall, they seek to relocate grassroots women as key agents of knowledge in transformative gender just community development.

For example, two women’s grassroots organisations, the Leitana Women’s Development Agency in Papua New Guinea, and the Cordillera Women’s Education Action Research Center in The Philippines have joined forces with a regional network, the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD). Their strategic goal is to document and scale up grassroots women’s proposals on feminist development justice. To achieve this, they are implementing a feminist participatory action research methodology whose main objectives are to develop women’s capacity and skills to foster knowledge, data, tools and resources for women’s movements; secure space for advocacy to change laws, policies and practices; and create movements and collective pressure for structural change. 


From ‘for women, by women’ responses to alleviate and fight back the erosion of women’s labour rights, to the generation of collective, grassroots advocacy tools to push forward women’s views on economic policy from a gender and intersectional perspective, all the way to proposals that seek to transform the economic system, women and feminists in the Global South are treading paths forward in the face of harsh structural adjustment policies and programmes.

The globalization of structural adjustment programmes requires that feminists and women allies further develop and deepen our global solidarity but also that we coordinate our strategies, that we actively reach out for each other, and understand the common, globalized patterns of the attacks on women’s rights arising from the intersection of patriarchy, racism and capitalism.

Sources cited

Agenda Económica Concertada desde las Mujeres Nicaragüenses, 2010

Brislane, Jo, 2013, Solomon Islands women are investing in equality,

Central America Women’s Network, 2012, Winter Newsletter

Dossier IV Congreso Economía Feminista, 2013, Universidad Pablo de Olavide

Click to access Dossier-congreso.pdf

GAIA 2014, UnderMining Agriculture: How the Extractives Industries Threaten our Food System,

George, Nicole et al, n/d, Gender and Free Trade in the Pacific: Cause for Concern?’sRightsMovement.pdf

Hakena, Helen, 2014, Strengthening the Community and Building an Equal and Peaceful Society, in Muñoz Cabrera et al. eds., ACP Women: Actors of Development, EC/ACP Secretariat: Brussels, pp. 62-63. euacp-publication-women-actors-development

Lethbridge J., 2012, How women are being affected by the global economic crisis and austerity measures, Austerity_on_Women.pdf

Mutume, Gumisai, 2001, Gender Discrimination not Good for Growth,

Noé Pino, Hugo, n.d., El Ajuste Estructural en Honduras, Nueva Suyapa Institute, Public Education Ministry,

Ortiz I. & Cummins M., 2013, Austerity Measures in Developing Countries: Public Expenditure Trends and the Risks to Children and Women

Red Centroamericana en Solidaridad con las Trabajadoras de la Maquila, 2014, Agenda de los Derechos Laborales de Mujeres Trabajadoras de la Industria Maquiladora en Centroamérica

Click to access 2014-Agenda.pdf

Waring, Marilyn, 2103, Economic Crisis and Unpaid Care Work in the Pacific, UNDP: Port Vila, Solomon Islands.

War on Want, 2004, No Land! No House! No Vote!

Women in Development Europe- WIDE, 2011, Alternativas Económicas para la Justicia Social y de Género. Voces y Visiones desde América Latina

Click to access ec-alt-span2011thirdspanish.pdf

WoMin, 2013, Paper 4: Women’s Unseen Contribution to the Extractives Industries: Their Unpaid Labour,

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