Web Features

Slaves to the System: From sweatshops to the sex trade, globalization is a girl?s issue.

June 1st, 2004     by Nicole Cohen     Issue 1: Issue 1: The Premiere issue     Comments

Alina works on an assembly line in a factory in a small town in the Philippines. She spends 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, sewing pockets onto blue jeans that will be sold in North America. She sews about one pocket every 10 seconds – almost 4,000 pockets a day. Alina, who is 17 years old, often works 48- or 72-hour shifts, and earns about $5 Canadian a day. And while teenagers in Canada worry about handing in homework assignments, Alina must present a bloody tampon to her supervisor each month as proof she is not pregnant.

Girls such as Alina are part of the global economic system. As multinational corporations have grown over the past 25 years, they have moved production facilities to places such as the Philippines, Mexico and China, where labour is cheap and impoverished women are desperate for jobs.

Alina could be any one of the millions of girls and women in poor countries in the Global South who reflect the face of globalization. There are 63 million young girls in developing countries not enrolled in school, and millions of child labourers in the developing world under the age of 18, most of whom are female. Globalization is a girls’ issue – and not just in the sweatshops.

Consider the booming global sex trade. In Thailand alone, there are about one million young women between the ages of 15 and 34 selling sex. The majority of these women were kidnapped, sold by their impoverished parents, or forced by government policies to find work. In most cases they are expected to send money back to support their families, and sometimes their government.

Writer Denise Brennan describes these women as “local agents caught up in a web of global economic relations,” which implies that there is more to their situation than meets the eye. Girls and women have not just found themselves in unfortunate situations. They do not grow up dreaming of working on an assembly line in a sweatshop. Their lives have been affected by the complex interplay of governments, international trade organizations and assumptions about gender – all under the name globalization.

It seems like everyone’s got globalization on the brain.

The G-word is tossed around on the nightly news and embedded in newspaper articles about almost everything. Sometimes it’s a buzzword used by men in suits, other times it’s painted on the signs of protestors at demonstrations around the world. Globalization is a hot topic for governments, environmentalists, activists, farmers, bankers, fashionistas and CEOs. But what does it mean?

Generally speaking, globalization means we live in a more connected world. It means that, thanks to technology, we can exchange information, ideas and cultural trends with people on the other side of the globe, and we can do it at lightning speed. Globalization is the reason you can eat at McDonald’s in Singapore and drink Starbucks coffee in Tokyo. It’s what makes Indian saris a hot fashion trend one week, and protest gear the next. And for some – especially for those cashing in on co-opting culture – that’s a good thing.

But there’s more to globalization than cultural trends. Globalization comes from the idea of free-market capitalism – that the market should be left alone to do its thing. The idea is that if the whole world opens its markets to trade and competition, economies will be more efficient and wealth will spread around the world.

It hasn’t taken long for a growing number of people to realize that globalization isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The more we learn about the issues, the more concerned we are becoming with the negative effects of global capitalism.

Globalization has increased existing inequalities: between rich and poor, men and women, the advanced industrial countries of the Global North and developing countries of the Global South. Working conditions around the world are deteriorating, health and safety standards are dropping, and the environment is suffering. And as the real story of globalization emerges, it becomes increasingly clear that it most negatively affects girls and women.

Since the 1980s, poor countries have been forced by international financial institutions to implement structural adjustment programs (otherwise known as SAPs) in order to receive loans. Among other things, SAPs mean countries have to open their markets to foreign investment, leaving local farmers unable to compete with the multinational corporations that set up shop in their backyards. SAPs have also led to the privatization of countries’ natural resources (such as water) and social services (such as health and education), which means they are not available to the public and you have to have money to access them. This has been disastrous for the poor, and especially for poor women and children.

Thanks to SAPs enforced on the Philippines by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, land traditionally used to produce food for local people to eat, such as rice and corn, has been converted into cash crops for export overseas. While there may be a demand for exotic flowers and pineapples in North America and Europe, these crops do not feed the families who produce them. Farming costs have risen, family farms have collapsed, and people have been pushed off their land.

This displacement has been toughest for women, who are the first to suffer when hard times hit. Infant mortality rates have risen for girls, who are often underfed compared to boys. Girls are kept home from school to help their families, which limits their opportunities in life. When government food aid shrinks, women have to adjust their lifestyles to feed their children. When health care is drained, women take on the burden of caring for their parents, partners and kids. Yet, in the international economic system, this type of work is not considered productive or valuable, and they do not receive a penny for it.

When SAPs push families off their farmland, it is the daughters who are sent to work in sweatshops in cities or sold into the sex trade. These are young, rural girls who face a high risk of mental and physical abuse. Girls working as prostitutes regularly face the risks of rape and sexually transmitted diseases. Vulnerable and afraid, they are kept trapped in debt by pimps and brothels, to whom they are forced to pay fees, sometimes just for “bad behaviour.”

The millions of girls between the ages of 14 and 25 employed in sweatshops live and work in similarly repressive conditions. They put in long hours for shockingly low pay and face health and safety hazards. The work of these young women (sweatshop workers are overwhelmingly female) is valued only because it comes at a low cost. Health benefits or maternity leave cost money, so pregnancy will not be tolerated, even though pregnant women are most in need of employment. Some factory supervisors even hand out birth control pills to make sure women can be physically and mentally pushed to their limits before they get too old and slow to work.

Girls and women have become the new labour supply of the global economy. The globalized world relies on patriarchal notions of what it means to be a girl, and what constitutes women’s work: cooking, cleaning, sewing and sex. Fathers and husbands have long dominated wives and daughters, and in many peasant economies, girls are seen to have little value, which limits their life opportunities. Even in countries such as Canada, many women are trapped in jobs that usually receive little recognition and low pay: service jobs, childcare and housework.

There are hundreds of reasons to be concerned about globalization; the plight of girls such as Alina is just one of them. But the suffering of girls under globalization has been kept relatively quiet.

As feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe writes, “…When any government or international organization assumes that women and girls are somehow less valuable, less responsible, less fully citizens than boys and men, officials of those governments and international organizations are apt to treat threats to women and girls as trivial, as not worthy of serious attention.” Enloe has long argued that we would learn more about the international economic system – and its failings – if we paid attention to where women and girls fit into the global picture.

Young women in North America need to be informed, speak out and get involved. There’s no easy answer or solution to the mess that globalization has gotten us into, but as young women we have the power to change the world we live in. Start by reading up on the subject (see suggested reading) and go from there.

Maybe you want to hit the streets – demand more accountability from multinational corporations, and insist that girls and women have a say in international politics. Or make a zine on issues you’re concerned about and distribute it at your school. Check out groups such as Taking IT Global that can link you up to youth around the world, or Stir It Up that organizes conferences and events around high school activism. There are many organizations fighting for change, and trying to prove that we can live in a more just and peaceful world. So do your research, join up and speak out.

You can make a difference.


« Letter from the editors (Issue 1)

The big launch! »