Women's Burden: Counter-geographies of Globalization and the Feminization of Survival(1).


"... households and whole communities are increasingly dependant on women fir their survival. [G]overnments too are dependent on their earnings as well as enterprises where profit making exists at the margins of the `licit' economy."

The last decade has seen a growing presence of women in a variety of cross-border circuits that have become a source for livelihood, profit-making and the accrual of foreign currency. These circuits are enormously diverse but share one feature: they are profit- or revenue-making circuits developed on the backs of the truly disadvantaged. They include the illegal trafficking in people for the sex industry and for various types of formal and informal labor markets. They also include cross-border migrations, both documented and not, which have provided an important source of convertible currency for governments in home countries. The formation and strengthening of these circuits is largely a consequence of broader structural conditions. Among the key actors emerging in these particular circuits are the women themselves in search of work, but also, and increasingly so, illegal traffickers and contractors as well as the governments of home countries.

I conceptualize these circuits as counter-geographies of globalization. They overlap with some of the major dynamics that compose globalization: the formation of global markets, the intensification of transnational and trans-local networks and the development of communication technologies, which easily escape conventional surveillance practices. The strengthening and, in some cases, formation of new global circuits is made possible by the existence of a global economic system and the associated development of various institutional supports for cross-border money flows and markets.(2) These counter-geographies are dynamic; to some extent they are part of the shadow economy, but they also use some of the institutional infrastructure of the formal economy.(3)

This article maps some of the key features of these counter-geographies, particularly those involving foreign-born women. I focus on the possibility of systemic links between the growth of these alternative circuits for survival, profit-making and hard-currency earnings, on the one hand, and major conditions in developing countries that are associated with economic globalization, on the other. Among these conditions are growth in unemployment, the closing of a large number of typically small and medium-sized enterprises oriented to national rather than export markets, and high, and often increasing government debt. While these economies are frequently grouped under the label "developing," they are in some cases struggling, stagnant, even shrinking. In the interests of brevity, I will use the term "developing" as shorthand for all these situations.


The various global circuits that incorporate growing numbers of women have strengthened at the same time as economic globalization has had a significant impact on developing economies. They have had to implement new policies and accommodate new conditions associated with globalization: Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), opening their economies to foreign firms, the elimination of multiple state subsidies, and, it seems almost inevitably, financial crises and the accompanying programs of the IMF. It is now clear that in most of the countries involved, these conditions have created enormous costs for certain sectors of the economy and population and have not fundamentally reduced government debt.

Among these costs are the growth in unemployment, the closure of many firms in often traditional sectors oriented to the local or national market, the promotion of export-oriented cash crops which have increasingly replaced survival agriculture and food production for local or national markets and, finally, the heavy, ongoing burden of government debt in most of these economies.

Are there systemic links between these two sets of developments? That is, are there links between the growing presence of women from developing economies in the variety of global circuits described above and the rise in unemployment and debt in those same economies? One way of articulating this in substantive terms is to posit that l)the shrinking opportunities for male employment in many of these countries, along with 2) the shrinking opportunities for more traditional forms of profit making in these same countries as they increasingly accept foreign firms in a widening range of economic sectors and are pressured to develop export industries, and 3)the fall in government revenues in many of these countries, partly linked to these conditions and to the burden of debt servicing, have 4)all contributed to raise the importance of finding alternative means for making a living, making a profit and securing government revenue.

The evidence for any of these conditions is incomplete. Yet, there is a growing consensus among experts about the first three points listed above. I will go further and contend that these three conditions are expanding into a new political-economic reality for a growing number of developing economies and that it is in this context that the fourth point listed above emerges. I also suggest that these conditions have emerged in the lives of a growing number of women from developing economies. Much of the difficulty in understanding the role of women in development, as I discuss in the next section, is attributable to the fact that articulation of these conditions is often not self-evident.

My primary analytic effort is to uncover the systemic connections between low income individuals, who are often represented as a burden rather than a resource, and what are emerging as significant sources for profit and government revenue enhancement, partly in the shadow economy. Prostitution, labor migration and illegal trafficking in women and children for the sex industry are growing in importance as profit-making activities. The remittances sent by emigrants, as well as the organized export of workers are increasingly important sources of revenues for some governments. Women are by far the majority group in prostitution and in trafficking for the sex industry, and they are becoming a majority group in migration for labor. The employment or use of foreign-born women covers an increasingly broad range of economic sectors, some in highly regulated industries, such as nursing, and some illegal and illicit, such as prostitution.

These circuits could be considered as indicators of the (albeit partial) feminization of survival, because it is increasingly on the backs of women that these forms of making a living, earning a profit and securing government revenue are realized. Thus, I use the notion of feminization of survival to refer to the fact that households and whole communities are increasingly dependent on women for their survival. It is important to emphasize that governments too are dependent on their earnings as well as enterprises where profit making exists at the margins of the "licit" economy. Finally, in using the term circuits, I want to underline the fact that there is a degree of institutionalization in these dynamics and that they are not simply aggregates of individual actions.(4)

What I have described above is indeed a conceptual landscape. The data is inadequate to prove the argument as such. There are, however, partial bodies of data to document some of these developments. Further, it is possible to juxtapose several data sets, each gathered separately, to document some of the interconnections presented above. There is also older literature on women and developing country debt. It focused on the implementation of first-generation Structural Adjustment Programs in several developing countries in the wake of the 1980s debt crisis. This literature has documented the disproportionate burden these programs placed on women.(5) There is currently a new literature on a second generation of programs, which is more directly linked to the global economy of the 1990s, some of which is cited later on in this article. These sources of information do not amount to a full empirical specification of the actual dynamics hypothesized here, but they do allow us to document parts of it.


There is by now fairly long-standing research and theory addressing the role of women in international economic processes. Much of the earlier research literature aimed to balance the excessive focus on men in international economic development. In mainstream development literature, these processes have often, perhaps unwittingly, been represented as gender neutral.(6)

Globalization has produced yet another set of dynamics in which women are playing a critical role. It is necessary to view these current developments as part of a long process in history that has revealed women's role in crucial economic processes. And, once again, in terms of their articulation in the mainstream global economy, the new economic literature on current globalization proceeds as if this new economic phase is gender neutral, thereby rendering these gender dynamics invisible. This set of dynamics can be found in the alternative cross-border circuits described above in which the role of women, and especially the condition of being a migrant woman, is critical.(7)

We can identify two older phases in the study of gender in the recent history of economic internationalization. Both relate to processes that continue today. A third phase is focused on more recent transformations, often involving an elaboration of the categories and findings of the previous two phases.

The first phase of development literature generally covered the installation of cash crops and wage labor, typically by foreign firms, and its dependence on the household production and subsistence farming of women as a subsidy for the wage labor of...

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