In your work on migrant labour issues, have you seen the scale of the humanitarian crisis of economic migration increasing?
Definitely. The impact of economic migration is growing. There is an expansion in numbers. And significantly, it involves more women, particularly from three countries-Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Indonesia, but there is also a tremendous increase in the Indochina delta area-Vietnam, and Cambodia - involving structured labour export policies. Vietnamese women workers, in particular, are being employed in the manufacturing sector in Malaysia.
We have also seen workers from India, the next economic power, but whose women are migrating both internally and overseas. China is the other one. A large number of Chinese women are coming to Malaysia and that's worrying because the economic growth indicators do not reflect what's happening on the ground.
What has been the response of the labour-exporting countries in addressing the roots of the problem? On the one hand you have countries that are becoming the next economic superpowers, and on the other, large numbers of their populations are seeking employment and economic stability outside their countries.
That's really a contradiction. More countries are now structuring their labour export policies. So there is this whole perspective in these countries that one way out of their failed economies is to export their people to work in more developed countries to earn foreign exchange to sustain their economies. They are not revamping or restructuring their economies to improve distributive economic justice.
Instead of this, we have, for example, the Philippines which is very organised and is sharpening the mechanisms to ensure that the people leave the country to look for work. There is a whole labour skills development programme purely to prepare people for export. Indonesia is following suit, and is sending one million workers abroad every year, for the foreign exchange.
International financial institutions are promoting the concept that multilateral labour movement is a tool for development. I think that is disastrous. The root causes of poverty are not addressed at all. The state paradigm is being derailed. If you have foreign direct investment, the concessions to multinational corporations (MNCs) are one-sided. They take up your resources like land and water. The local communities are displaced.
It looks like the disaster is growing in scale and is looming.
Yes, in Tamil Nadu, for example, there are cases of farmers committing suicide because of these policies. Also starvation is returning.
If the neo-liberal agenda is at fault, what paradigm of economic development do we need to adopt?
We must go back to fundamental principles. Wealth has to be shared much more equitably. We need to structure a programme of self-sufficiency for all people, particularly in the area of food sovereignty. You must have the right to land and resources. We have to stop the privatisation of resources. The basic needs of the people must be met by government, not MNCs. The basic needs approach must be the priority, then subsequently using the resources to move into industrial development so that the wealth goes to the people.
Can we tweak the current development model to re-focus on human scale growth or is the formula fundamentally flawed?
It is fundamentally flawed. The paradigm is defined by dominant control by MNCs and therefore it cannot be corrected. The whole agenda is capital accumulation by a few, particularly by the MNCs, no matter where they are. If that is the basic objective, all kinds of initiatives will not move the agenda. To give an example, there are the bilateral agreements which have come about because the WTO is not working. These free trade agreements are coming with a lot of conditions, such as that profits must be assured for the investors. And if any of the agreed profits are not up to the target, the state has to compensate the investor, which means you cannot have, for example, increase in wages, as that may affect profits. What kind of agreement is that, which at the end of the day exploits the people?
The upcoming conference is aimed at galvanising the victims of maldevelopment to organise themselves. What next, after the awakening of rural women?
What is important is that we want to revive the rural women's movement because the women are the most affected because of their gender. And so, that is behind the move towards an Asian Rural Women's Movement. What happened at (the UN's 4th World Conference on Women in) Beijing, and after that the annual conferences, where the focus on reproductive rights actually choked the growth of the women's movement globally. What we want to do is revive the movement, where women's capacity to make decisions is enhanced, where women's right to self-determination is strengthened.
What we hope to do is increase solidarity with movements that are engaged in cross-cutting issues, to create a new solidarity among women's groups against the common enemies. For example, the whole aspect of migration and rural destruction is now disconnected. We are only talking about consequences and victimisation. We want to stop the victim approach and become proactive, addressing and reconstructing the rural economy, and that is where the battle is, and that is where we should join hands. As individuals, rural women will only be picking up the pieces of the rich. That is the agenda which we hope to develop. So that people involved in trafficking in women, migration, land rights, violence against women; and are now having their own agendas-can come together so we hope they will have a common agenda to network.
What are the three most important things that need to be changed about the status of Asian rural women today?
I think women's right to land and other resources, and food sovereignty is a very important agenda. And second is the whole aspect of fundamentalism and patriarchal norms and values which have set women back in their development, and which is accompanied by the intense violence against women. The third is militarisation and war, which is having a tremendously strong impact on women's lives in the region: from Sri Lanka, to Iraq, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Burma.
What strategy do you have your hopes based on for a new future for rural women, e.g. nurturing grassroots leaders, ideological change, economic empowerment or something else?
It is important for women to become more organised and to be decision makers. It starts from the community, from leadership in the panchayat (village) and local council, becoming politicians. In certain countries women have moved forward, and in others they have had setbacks. I think that is very important. And for that you need political education and political consciousness for women at all levels.
Secondly, it is developing more and more self-reliant economic programmes, but they must be able to make decisions, not become Third World slaves for TNCs.
The third aspect is that the whole "personal is political" area in self-determination, and therefore resisting the forms of violence at different levels, from what is experienced in the home, through to militarisation. The women need to make themselves self-reliant. Our strategy is now resisting any forms of violence, especially state violence, which is not very visible in the women's agenda currently.
We need a lot of organising, and there has to be a consolidation of women's movements and more political consciousness. Right now there is a kind of inclination towards service-oriented movements. That is needed, but that is not the war cry of the resistance movement.
Are the international institutions, including the UN and World Bank, helping or hindering by perpetuating exploitative structures through funding and institution building?
It's a huge problem in terms of getting the whole donor agenda aligned to the people's interests. The UN has been revamped, not because of the people's agenda but in favour of the northern countries and in favour of capital. If you look at UNIFEM, it was the women's rights entity in the United Nations and it had its own independent decision making and own quota of funding. Now it is subsumed into the UNDP, which means that it has become very small, therefore its voice has shrunk. In this revamping, the women's agenda is dropped. That's very worrying.
Secondly, we see the World Bank that says it is now more independent. It is developing, for example, microfinance programmes for women as an agenda that does not really empower women. Although they talk about self-reliance, despite what the women produce they remain in a cycle of poverty because the structured economy is not revamped. Microfinancing is a survival mechanism for women and that's what the World Bank is promoting. So you try and "survive". That's why they are promoting remittance as a tool of development. We try and "survive" as a foreigner in another country and send money back so that your country "survives". That's a growing area and that's what is worrying. Therefore, they are just promoting the neoliberal agenda, not liberating women.
What about other sectors like social entrepreneurs, policy makers or the media?
That is really very, very broad. For practical reasons, for certain levels of advocacy that we can go to, certain policy makers have been supportive of our alliance. Very often, the policy makers are the ones that are practising the neoliberal policy agenda and are an opposing party. It is becoming a very difficult area because it is a conflicting point of view. In West Bengal, where the Communist Party is in power, it is giving land to Tata industries, and people have been shot and forcibly removed from their land. That is an instance of how difficult it is to move forward when the state is a party to the aggression against the people.
Who are your best allies for change to happen?
The struggle is rooted in the community, so it's really the groups at the grassroots level that are our allies. And then, there are some NGOs that link up women in the community. Regional organisations that have the capacity to mobilise at the regional level to bring the various movements together and form alliances: the Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP); Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), ARROW, CARAM Asia, these are groups that are seeing themselves as building alliances at all levels.
Could you share some examples of successful social reform for women's empowerment that can be replicated in the worst affected countries?
If you look at Nepal, there is a whole political reform process that has gone on. The women have contributed very constructively to rewriting the constitution, getting rid of the whole patriarchal, religious norms that were embedded in their institutions of the monarchy, religion and so forth. I think the women had been successful in changing their status and ensuring equality for women in all ways. That was very inspiring. Then women were intimately involved in making sure that food sovereignty was put into the constitution and that is a very good example for us. So now there is a whole discussion by women peasants and women leaders as to the direction that is being taken in the implementation of policies, to ensure that they do not become a pawn of the powers that be.
In Mongolia for example, after being conscientised by some women's groups the women's movement is resisting the form of globalisation that is transforming its rural economy. And they have asserted the rights of rural women, for example, the herders-who include a large number of women-and the need to protect their land and livelihoods. They have started working on those aspects.
In India, there has been very strong resistance of oppressive practices and women's groups are asserting themselves to make the state accountable. For instance, sex workers who have been profiled and abused have organised themselves to stop the discrimination they face in housing, and now have the right to housing. And then there have been groups that organised resistance against the exploitation of women by religious institutions, for example Adivasi women that were often in the temples and become prostitutes at the end of the day. And there is a movement now that has come forward to demand justice and protection against religious fundamentalism.
These are examples of women's resistance coming through, examples that are really wonderful! ###
The issues raised in this interview will be part of the RIGHTS, EMPOWERMENT AND LIBERATION: ASIAN RURAL WOMEN'S CONFERENCE to be held in Arakonam, Tamil Nadu, India from MARCH 6-8, 2008. More than a thousand rural and indigenous women from various sectors of peasants, agricultural workers, fisherfolk, Dalits, pastoralists, informal workers, child labourers and minorities from all over Asia will gather in a vast field at the venue to strengthen the rural and indigenous women's movement and to build the leadership of women.
Hosted by the Tamil Nadu Women's Forum (TNWF), the Tamil Nadu Dalit Women's Forum (TNDWF) and the Society of Rural Development (SRED), the conference aims to build perspectives, engender unity and solidarity among women and with other movements. It will also strive to forge new visions and new thinking about feminism, liberation, emancipation and the women's perspective on national liberation and food sovereignty, leading to strategies and collective action. The Conference is co-organised by a mix of national and regional groups including Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Asia and the Pacific, who are strong advocates of women's rights and working with rural and indigenous women communities on issues of trade, food and agriculture, labour, reproductive health, and women's rights.
The three-day event will feature speak-outs and testimonies from rural and indigenous women sectors in Asia, symposiums and forums on rural women's issues, an organic food festival, film and other cultural presentations from various countries, and other solidarity actions.
Culminating on International Women's Day, the conference will be followed by a two-hour women's caravan led by rural and indigenous women weaving through streets and fields and a public assembly of 10,000 grassroots women leaders.
Contacts for Media co-organiser /
Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP):
Jennifer Mourin, in Malaysia (up till February 28, 2008) at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tel. in India: +91 978 78 12095
Marjo Busto Quinto, PAN AP staff in India:
Email: email@example.com / or firstname.lastname@example.org
Tel. in India: +91 9791866484 (Arakkonam) calls only.