May 2, 2012

In Istanbul, a call for economic justice and equality

Against the backdrop of ancient mosques, 2,400 people from across the globe – mostly women from the East and global South – gathered at the Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID) 12th International Forum in Istanbul, Turkey, for four days to discuss and debate how to transform economic power to advance women's rights and justice. From the opening plenary’s powerhouse of speakers to in-depth sessions designed to deepen understanding of the global economy, the message was clear – the economy is a woman's issue. Current models of economic growth have not resulted in greater freedom or equality for women. In fact, they have hurt women most. Rebecca Grynspan, United Nations Under-Secretary-General, highlighted findings from the recently released World Development Report, which this year focused on Gender and Development. She pointed out that economic growth has not resulted in increased equality, and that current economic crises are deepening inequality. These trends threaten to reverse any gains made in poverty reduction or equality over the past decade. 

While there appears to be consensus that the current economic system is not working, we heard a wide range of suggestions for alternative economic models: from the need to include 'time poverty' indicators alongside income poverty , to the need to integrate paid and unpaid work in the same indicator. There was lots of talk of the 'caring economy' and the need to measure it.  There was also an equally passionate plea from Marilyn Waring, iconic feminist, political economist and past Director of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, to not commodify all aspects of our lives or rely on the central committee approach to come up with an alternative economic model to GDP.

On the first day of the forum, Gita Sen, Adjunct Professor in Public Health at Harvard University, called on feminists to take the time to learn about how the economy functions and to better understand economic policy and its impact on our work and our lives.  "Economics is not brain surgery – it is something we can all understand,” she said. “We cannot leave economic policy to those who do not have our interests at heart. We need to learn it and use it." And so we did. From geopolitics and the global economy to grassroots solutions, an incredibly diverse group of academics, organizers, economists, bureaucrats, non-profit leaders and philanthropists immersed themselves in four days of lively debate and discussion. We examined the role of multilateral development banks and were told powerful stories by frontline activists of successful local organizing. We heard about alternatives that empower women and increase their access to resources, such as lending circles for widows in Indonesia that present an alternative to microcredit, and indigenous organizing against land grabs in Guatemala.

We also heard about the impact of the financial crisis on funding – Official Development Assistance and European and U.S. foundation assets are all down. And according to AWID's latest FundHer Report, although everyone seems to be talking about women and girls – governments and corporations alike –  there is very little funding actually going to women and girls. Very little of what is being allocated is core funding. Organizations are more precarious than ever. The median annual income of the 740 women's organizations that responded to the FundHer survey was a paltry $20,000 U.S., and the 2010 combined income of these 740 organizations amounted to 106 million U.S. – one third of Greenpeace's annual budget. Musimbi Kanyoro, President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, suggested that women collectively take up the call "Nothing about us without us" and that we begin to hold corporations and leaders to account. If they talk about women and girls, then they need to fund women and girls.

Some bright spots were reported. The Dutch government continues to be a model, having invested over 200 million euros in direct funding for women's organizations. Individual giving is up too. The Women Moving Millions Campaign, chaired by a Canadian, has had 150 women pledge at least $1 million to women's organizations.

The conference ended with a spectacular march down the main pedestrian shopping street in Istanbul , a perfect place to highlight the many challenges and contradictions facing women today. In a country with a growing economy, where only 25 per cent of women work outside the home, women and men from across the globe came together and, surrounded by police, laughed and danced and chanted, and demanded economic justice and equality for women.

I was fortunate to attend the conference along with a dozen Crossroads partners, an inspiring group of women from West and Southern Africa who are involved in grassroots economic development initiatives. In a day of debriefing following the conference, partners reported that they felt full, empowered and inspired and that there was a lot more work ahead of us. Indeed!

This post was written by Karen Takacs, Executive Director at Crossroads International, and first published in Crossroad International's blog. We thank Karen for permission to re-publish on CCIC's blog.

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