No. 64, December 2016

No. 64
(December 2016):

Why The Poor Do Not Count

The Great Regression
Women under the Shadow of Neoliberalism and Imperialist War

-- Niloufer Bhagwat (email: nilouferin1[at]

The following is a slightly revised version of an address to the 18th Congress of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, which took place in April 2014. Since that time, the Narendra Modi government has taken office in India, and all the regressive trends mentioned in this paper have intensified.

The reality today
The explicit political struggle for women’s human rights has been waged for more than a century and a half. In 1848, a conference of women at Seneca Falls in New York announced a ‘Declaration of Sentiments, Grievances and Resolutions’, pronouncing: “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men and women are created equal”. The 1917 Russian Revolution, national liberation movements of Asia, Africa and the Americas, the 1949 revolution in China, were all path-breaking for humanity, and within that for women, too.

However, in more recent times, with neoliberal capitalism achieving worldwide sway, not only has the improvement in women’s situation worldwide stalled, but in some ways it is experiencing a Great Regression.

Out of one billion people today who are considered the poorest of the poor, 70 per cent are women. This was termed the ‘feminization of poverty’ at the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995. In many parts of the world women still earn wages and salaries 30 per cent to 40 per cent lower than men, for the same work.

Whereas women of the financially privileged classes, upper middle classes and middle classes benefited from the women’s movement for greater equality, and there is far more social freedom in certain regions than in centuries past, yet the most wretched conditions remain for masses of women living and working in poverty reinforced by patriarchy. There is even regression in regions facing devastating wars of aggression; in countries where religion continues to be misinterpreted, and in societies on which ‘austerity’ was imposed following the financial collapse of 2008. Traditional unequal power relations within family and society everywhere are reinforced by neo-liberal policy, the “dominant ideas and practices that support global capitalism, as a pro-corporate, market centered rationality … no matter what the human and planetary costs”.1
The female gender, like the rest of society, is divided into distinct classes and   sociological categories. For example, indigenous or tribal women are affected severely, along with other peasant women, by environmental degradation which restricts access to clean water, food and fuel, including from mining and hazardous energy sourcing operations. Even in advanced countries, like the United States, Canada, and Australia, and in developing countries like India, among other countries, indigenous women are on the periphery of society. By contrast, in Latin America they have emerged in recent years at the forefront of political and environmental struggles. Women of all marginalized social groups and  classes, such as indigenous people, dalits (communities in India historically  treated as social outcasts to exploit their bonded labor), women of some minority communities, and women classified as agricultural workers, peasantry, working class, in particular in the unorganized sector, to which majority of  working class women belong, face ‘double injustice’, on account of patriarchy and class.

Worldwide “epidemic” of violence against women  
One in three women worldwide face some violence on a daily basis leading to injury or death.2 Even in  the European Union, one third of women have suffered physical or sexual violence; and worldwide, 38 per cent of women killed by violence, have been killed by their own partners. This is apart from the brutal violence involved in the trafficking in women, for which poverty and displacement in society are the root cause. Trafficking of persons is considered the third largest global organized crime (after the clandestine arms trade and drugs). Eighty per cent of trafficking worldwide is for sexual exploitation.  
The 57th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March 2013 highlighted that “violence against women and girls is rooted in historical and structural inequality in power relations between men and women, and persists in every country of the world as a pervasive violation of the enjoyment of human rights.”3 The World Health Organization reinforced this assessment in its 2005 report, concluding that:

“Until recently most governments had considered violence against women to be a relatively minor social problem. To-day….. Violence against women is recognized as a global concern….. It exists as a continuum from violence perpetrated by an individual partner to violence as a weapon of war … …..gender based inequity is usually exacerbated during situations of extreme violence such as armed conflict……modern war is wreaking havoc on the lives of women and girls and on the health and educational services that are key to the family and community survival and development .”4

Impact of war, occupation and conflict on women    
The report of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the
‘Independent Assessment on  the Impact of Armed Conflict and Women’s Role in Peace –Building’,  titled ‘Women , War and Peace5 disclosed that  UN Peace Keeping Forces and UN personnel were involved in  sexual violence against women in Haiti, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Congo and in Bosnia, and had  been exchanging food for sex in some areas of deployment, exploiting women in war zones .
Can pious wishes for implementation of human rights for women, as a part of the ‘Millennium Development Goals’(unrelated to policies of plutocracies and oligarchies controlling governments) co-exist with the impunity of those planning and waging some of the most barbaric imperialist wars in human history? During these wars crimes of aggression, genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity have been committed in Palestine, Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Yemen, ‘Afpak’, the Horn of Africa,  Mali, Niger, and Central African Republic among other countries; with women killed, raped, facing indescribable levels of violence, deprived of access to basic amenities, with infrastructure of whole countries destroyed, and vicious sectarian, religious or tribal conflicts unleashed by occupying powers, manipulating every cultural or religious diversity. In the Congo, Horn of Africa, in Iraq, Syria and Palestine, in Mali, Niger, and the Central African Republic, among other countries where there are conflicts, millions of women and children are among the refugees. Where are the human rights in these refugee camps?

The specific case studies of Afghanistan and Iraq under war and occupation expose  realities. In Afghanistan, women are “the collateral damage of war”.6 In addition to the loss of all civic  rights, “political  marginalization  and social oppression”, Afghan  women have been killed, tortured, raped, and maimed, suffered miscarriages and seen their infants born with severe and hideous birth defects. It began with an  undeclared war in 1979 to replace the progressive government of the People’s Democratic Party, which supported equal rights for women. Hired Islamist mercenaries were trained by special forces of imperialist governments to lead the attack, like in Syria. This was followed by the 2001 invasion and occupation of the US-UK-led NATO alliance. The alliance used the entire range of destructive weaponry, from  thermobaric  bombs to uranium and depleted uranium weaponry, causing irretrievable genetic damage on exposure, with effects calculated by scientists to last for billions of years. The government  installed by the occupying powers has acquiesced in sexual violence, kidnapping and trafficking of women by warlords. It has hypocritically established a ‘Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’, which issues misogynistic mandates to regulate and restrict the essential movement and conduct of women outside the home. This even as the whole country is awash with heroin for the international drug trade controlled by the occupation forces, laundered into  the world’s leading banks and financial institutions. As a consequence, thousands of  women have become addicts along with men, to escape from the brutality  and devastation of their lives. Though the Constitution of Afghanistan reserves 28 per cent of its seats for Afghan women, this representation is tokenism, with no impact politically on the status of women.

The writer Haifa Zangana, in her report on “The Continuing Deterioration of Human Rights of Women in Iraq” submitted to the European Parliament  on 29th January 2014, describes the abysmal  regression for Iraqi women after the 2003 invasion and occupation (apart from the killing of more than a million men and women and displacement of five million):

“…… The regression in women’s situation is so devastating that she has reached the bottom of human needs, just to survive.
“…….violence in the public sphere….. became so prominent that women have been forced to give up hard earned rights, such as employment, freedom of movement, abolition of polygamy and the right to education and health services, seeking instead protection for themselves and their families .
“The occupation of Iraq left Iraqi women in a terrible state of regression at two… levels. The first level is relevant to women as citizens in an environment which lacks guarantees and protections by a national criminal justice system … in accordance with international standards ……the second level is to do with gender related violence in public which is particularly relevant during occupation, war and armed conflict, often providing the context for sexual abuse, rape and trafficking of women and girls.”

This report records that married women are afraid to become pregnant as new-born babies in some regions are hideously deformed. It quotes Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an environmental toxicologist in the Michigan School of Public Health and author of the book “Pollution and Reproductive Damage”, to the effect that increasing birth defects have been  seen after the war in Fallujah, Mosul, Basra, Najaf, Halabja, Nineveh and Baghdad; “sterility , repeated miscarriages, stillbirths and severe birth defects, some never before described in any medical book, are weighing heavily on Iraqi families .”7

Before the invasion Iraq had the most advanced laws for women in the Arab world, with equal legal rights for women and men; 18 years was the minimum age for marriage for women. On 25th February 2014, the cabinet of the new Iraq, ‘liberated’ by the US, approved a draft law lowering the marriage age for females to 9 years, which if enacted by parliament will constitute legal sanction to pedophilia and prostitution,8 with a terrifying future for the girl child.
Women in countries occupied by NATO powers, though worst affected, are not the only ones suffering . Within the United States, the great global invader, soldiers  affected by post-traumatic stress disorder are battering and even killing spouses and partners. Rape and sexual attacks on women American soldiers in the front lines, and on bases and training institutions in the US, by their colleagues and superiors, is a serious problem.

Impact on women of financial recession, austerity and IMF “shock therapy”.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) emphasizes the correlation between poverty and violence: “violence against women occurs in all social and economic classes…women living in poverty are more likely to experience violence…. Men in difficult economic circumstances… may resort to violence out of frustration or perceived helplessness. At the same time women who experience violence may have fewer reasons to escape violence.”
A recent biannual  report of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) of  March 2014, “Society at a Glance”, refers to the staggering rise of poverty , hunger, unemployment and social distress after the 2008 economic crisis in North America and Europe, the worst since the Great Depression. Most of the G-7 countries, including Japan, are affected. Some governments have been imposing austerity and ‘IMF shock therapy’ to bail out bankers and financial institutions, among other sectors really responsible. It is necessary to recall that ‘economic reforms’ imposed on Russia, upon the capitulation of the erstwhile USSR, resulted in a ‘white slave trade’ of women in economic distress, being trafficked from London to Hong Kong. Structural ‘reforms’  now being  imposed on the Ukraine by the IMF through the EU-Association agreement will adversely affect Ukrainian women of both  Ukrainian and Russian descent, a second time. This economic package is the real crisis in the Ukraine, which is  sought to be camouflaged as a geopolitical problem. On 24th March 2014 a million citizens of Spain marched against austerity; earlier thousands of  women and men opposed  the new abortion laws in Spain, which will once again result in hazardous ‘back alley’ abortions for women,  risking their lives.
Nils Muznieks, Council of Europe Commissioner on Human Rights, in a report of December 4th 2013, “On the  Impact of Economic Crisis on Human Rights”, discloses that:

“Many governments in Europe imposing austerity measures have forgotten their human rights obligation… Structural inequalities and disparities affect women’s enjoyment of human rights which have been worsened by the cumulative effect of severe austerity measures, particularly as regards the right to decent work or adequate standard of living.”

Status of women in India and in Asia abysmal
Globalization and rapid neoliberal ‘development’ of India has resulted in more women of the upper middle class, middle class and lower middle class at work places. But this has not substantially improved the parameters in education, health and status of vast masses of Indian women, and employment of women workers in organized industry  has actually declined.

A recent IMF working paper notes:

“India has one of the lowest female labor force participation (FLFP) rates— typically measured as the share of women that are employed or seeking work as a share of the working-age female population — among emerging markets and developing countries. At around 33 percent at the national level in 2012, India’s FLFP rate is well below the global average of around 50 percent and East Asia average of around 63 percent. India is the second-most populous country in the world with an estimated 1.26 billion persons at end-2014. Accordingly, a FLFP rate of 33 percent implies that only 125 million of the roughly 380 million working-age Indian females are seeking work or are currently employed.... Moreover, India’s gender gap in participation (between males and females) is the one of the widest among G-20 economies at 50 percent. Furthermore, female labor force participation has been on a declining trend in India, in contrast to most other regions, particularly since 2004/05.”9

Aggressive neo-liberal policies in India have disproportionately enriched the corporate sector, upper classes/castes and  middle classes at the higher income end. The resulting social contradictions provided fertile ground for the emergence of fascistic political forces, who had earlier been much less important. These forces have criminalized political and social space, and reinforced feudal traditions. There has been a dramatic increase in violence on women of all classes, including class/caste violence, as well as fascistic pogroms against minorities, including instances of collective rape on women of these sections. Such an extreme situation was not seen in post-1947 India, prior to the ‘economic reforms’.

As per the Census of India conducted in 2011, women’s literacy is only 66.45 per cent. If assessed in relation to how many are able to read a pamphlet, a newspaper or a book, the statistic would be lower. The maternal  mortality rate is 200 per 100,000 live births in India, whereas the comparative figures for China are 37, Sri Lanka 35, Bangladesh 240, Nepal 170, and Pakistan at 260.10 South Asia has one of the largest backlogs in the area of human rights. As a result of the lack of empowerment of women, 39 per cent of the 2.93 million persons infected with HIV/AIDS are women.11 
Even as neoliberal policies promised rapid modernisation of India, they created an environment in which the social oppression of women has been strengthened. On the one hand, the advertising, film and media industry stepped up the projection of women as ‘commodities.’ At the same time, powerful caste-based or religious bodies began issuing religious diktats or ‘fatwa’ on the social  conduct of women. In the farming northern belt of India, rich and middle farmers grouped in male-dominated ‘Khap Panchayats’ or caste assemblies, equipped with political connections and police collusion, commenced  imposing  illegal ‘death sentences’ on young people for marrying against their dictates (either inter-caste marriages or in violation of clan laws).

There has been an unprecedented rise in sexual violence. Massive public protests after the brutal ‘Nirbhaya’ gang rape case in Delhi, which also  received international attention, resulted in peremptory steps. The Verma Commission headed by a retired Chief Justice  was appointed to recommend  reform within a time bound period. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, were peremptorily legislated. Since delays in the judicial system encouraged impunity, ‘Fast Track Courts’ were established and deterrent sentences introduced, to reduce the crime rate (which, though lower than in South Africa, Brazil and the United States, among many other countries, is unacceptably high).    
Liberalization and globalization have increased sex-selective abortion, as it “nurtured an ambience which was consumerist, amoral, personal centric and market driven”. Earlier sex-selective abortion was confined to a few highly patriarchal communities in certain regions; however with amniocentesis medical technology now easily accessible to detect the female foetus, its use has spread alarmingly. As per the 1991 population census in India, the sex ratio was 945 girls to 1000 boys; in 2001 the figure dipped to 927 girls for 1000 boys; and in the 2011 census it reached an abysmal low of 914 girls to 1000 boys. The Mumbai ( Bombay) region was the first  in the world to curb sex-selective abortion, by enacting the Pre-natal Diagnostic Technique (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act in 1988, whereas Parliament legislated the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act only in 1994. However the absence of a national campaign until  recently resulted in society waking up late to the harsh reality that increased sexual violence, forced marriages, kidnappings, and  covert polyandry are surfacing in  regions where women are scarce.

In brief:

Neo-liberal policy, with its adjunct of imperialist wars to re-colonize economic space, is catastrophic for women globally, adding to the backlog of the world’s unfulfilled emancipation project for women.

In India, neoliberal economic policy has created an environment in which women face twin attacks from newly empowered medieval cultural institutions as well as the commodification of women.

Without a revolutionary direction, mass movements, and a thrust for a radically different pattern of development, conditions for vast masses of women cannot alter.




1. Harcourt Wendy ,‘The Globalization of the Economy: an International Gender Perspective’, Focus on Gender, Vol 2, No.3, 1994. (back)

2. London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and South Africa Medical Research Council, Report on Violence against Women, released by the WHO, 2014. (back)

3. 57th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, March 2013. (back)

4. World Health Organisation report on Gender, Women and Health, Multicountry Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women, 2005.(back)

5. Elisabeth Rehn & Ellen Johnson, UNIFEM Report on Women, War and Peace: The Independent Experts Assessment on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and Women’s Role in Peace-Building, 2002. (back)

6. Ainab Rahman, “The War for Afghan Women”, South Asia journal, Issue 3-2012. (back)

7. Haifa Zangana , “The Continuing Deterioration of Human Rights in Iraq”, report submitted to European Parliament on 29th January 2014. (back)

8. Felicity Arbuthnot, “US and Britain’s Paedophile Colony”, Fourth Media, 14th March 2014. (back)

9. “Women Workers in India: Why So Few Among So Many?” Sonali Das, Sonali Jain-Chandra, Kalpana Kochhar, and Naresh Kumar, IMF Working Paper, 2015; emphasis added. (back)

10. Index mundi, at, statistical data on world wide maternal mortality figures as on 1st January 2012. (back)

11. India AIDS/HIV statistics. (back)




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