By Lisa Glass / @lisaaglass
Currently, the value of global gender equality is top of the agenda for many Western governments and organisations such as the UN. The move to empower women and girls on a global scale is obviously in itself a positive step. However, the consequences of Western interventions in the global South need to be properly considered and addressed. In certain situations, the field is opened up for corporations and others with commercial interests to exploit this heightened interest for capitalist gains.
In her talk, “Exporting Girl Power: Nike and the Girl Effect” at the Women’s Library in east London on 18 April 2012, Professor Rosalind Gill, King’s College London, discussed Nike’s “Girl Effect” campaign. The powerful, rhetorical narrative of the campaign is that by educating girls in the global South, they will delay marriage, hence having fewer children, reducing the country’s population and thereby improving the overall economy of their country. The focus on the education and empowerment of young women is a positive message in itself, but at the same time this campaign homogonises and generalises women in the global South. Further, it suggests that the reason for poverty is because women in these countries are oppressed. The real causes of global poverty are clearly much more complex and multi-faceted than that. The role of colonialism and capitalism in causing and perpetuating global poverty are completely overlooked here. The Girl Effect campaign suggests that the need for feminism is displaced to the global South, and that there is no need for it in the West, and furthermore effectively excuses the West from blame for global poverty.
The motivation for Nike and organisations like it is to develop new markets in these countries, Gill suggested. By improving the economies of these countries, they create new markets for their products. Furthermore, certain campaigns such as the UN’s Girl Up encourages girls and women in the West to express their solidarity through acts of consumption by buying branded products. A real feminist solidarity, it can be argued, would operate outside of consumerism and commercialism and would work with women in their own countries, starting from their own priorities, agendas and struggles.
Another issue discussed was the “feminising” of responsibility for survival. Dr Kalpana Wilson, London School of Economics, who also spoke at the Women’s Library event, has worked extensively with women in rural labour movements. She argued that the motivations of certain organisations have little to do with gender equality and that the empowerment of women and girls, and more to do with mobilising the labour of women in the global South, in the interests of global capital. Dr Wilson considered that the promotion of gender equality is linked with broader neoliberal policies. This, she explained, means that women are expected to step in and provide a safety net from poverty by doing more work. Another example of this kind of ethos is the World Bank’s “Gender Equality as Smart Economics” Action Plan, which reconstructs women as entrepreneurs who are able to cope with and overcome poverty. The rhetoric is not about eradicating poverty but teaching the poor to take responsibility and find ways of coping with it.
The message from the session seems to be that, for true equality to be established, it must be contextualised within every country and understood for itself. It cannot be imposed in broad strokes from the outside. Western governments’ and other organisations’ attempts to impose gender equality on the global South is not only misguided but a consequence of the capitalist politics that dominate the Western world.
Lisa Glass is a London-based feminist writer and editor.
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