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Paying Homage: Shahra Razavi on the life and work of feminist economist Lourdes Benería

6 Jul 2012


“The contemporary context of systemic crisis makes it imperative that we recover feminism’s emancipatory vision in a new form fit for the challenges of a new era.” – Shahra Razavi speaking at the annual IAFFE conference, 2012
For many within the international development arena, Lourdes Benería’s name is associated with the notion of "accounting for women’s work" (also the title of a publication she originally wrote for UNRISD in 1991, later published in World Development). Her critique of the arbitrary boundaries that distinguish "economic" from "non-economic" activities in the system of national accounts (SNA) went a long way to inform the 1993 revisions to SNA rules. Yet while these rules now recognize the production of all goods, regardless of market criteria, they still exclude the unpaid provision of domestic and reproductive/care services, which constitute an important part of women’s work.

In an address to the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) in Barcelona in June, UNRISD research coordinator Shahra Razavi spoke on Lourdes Benería’s work and contributions as a feminist economist and UNRISD alumna.

Razavi said of Benería’s work, "what is striking is not only the progression of her thinking over time, in part reflecting development concerns of different epochs, but also the consistency in producing work that is not only empirically grounded and conceptually informed, but also contributing to a feminist critique that is systemic -- and connected to a broader critique of capitalism with all its 'national varieties' and historical shifts and turns".

Benería’s work, which began in the 1970s, continues to shed light on questions of data collection and reporting, and the related issue of biases in definition setting. But it is perhaps her analyses of the social and gendered constructions of labour markets that have been most valuable. "Her strength has been in connecting the micro-level processes to macro-level perspectives, the local to the global, and showing the ambiguities in the formal/informal (legal/illegal) dualisms," Razavi told the audience. Another strength of hers lies in a focus on exposing the ambiguities of "women’s liberation" through work in export-oriented global supply chains.

How can the policy environment become more "enabling" for gender equality?

Informed by Benería’s critiques, Razavi suggested that: "The question that national and international policy agencies should be asking themselves is how can the policy environment become more 'enabling' for gender equality? Is it just a question of getting women into 'male jobs' and 'male sectors' (as the World Development Report 2012 seems to suggest)? Isn’t this going to make gender equality a mirage, as other women and disadvantaged ethnic or racial groups fill in the lower echelons of the ladder?

"As long as we have hierarchical systems that tolerate high levels of inequality in wages, that see labour market interventions as ‘distortions’, and that are blind to the unpaid/reproductive sphere, there will always be those at the bottom of the hierarchy who will not earn a living wage, and who will not have access to even the most basic social rights (to old age security, child care, maternity, etc)."

Rather, Razavi said, there is a more fundamental problem with "the systemic and structural ways in which labour is socially valued". As two of Benería’s contemporaries, Diane Elson and Ruth Pearson, have so memorably put it:, "women do not do 'unskilled' jobs because they are the bearers of inferior labour; rather, the jobs they do are 'unskilled' because women enter them already determined as inferior bearers of labour" (Elson and Pearson 1981:94).

Structural adjustment and austerity: Beyond "social safety nets"

As part of a 1994 UNRISD study, Benería worked jointly with Breny Mendoza to explore the impacts of a number of Latin American "social emergency funds" that were put in place in the context of structural adjustment policies. What that study highlighted, and what resonates today, Razavi outlined, is that "these social programmes cannot form the basis of long-term social policy if they fail to touch the broader macroeconomic policy and only pay lip-service to the goals of political and economic democratization (Beneria and Mendoza 1995:73). In other words, there can be no sustainable 'social policy' without a complementary 'economic policy' (another false dichotomy)."

The draconian austerity programmes we are witnessing today, which assume there are no alternatives to budget cuts, are leaving us with the challenge of restoring growth and employment. These are the same challenges faced by many Latin American states during the "lost decade". What we know from that time, and what we are seeing here and now, is that austerity "leaves women to pick up the pieces".

The punitive regulation of poverty and the rise of populist racism

In her concluding remarks, Razavi outlined some of the major contemporary challenges for feminists in the context of a turn to austerity, at least in Europe and North America. On the one hand, states in these regions pursue austerity measures and reduce welfare entitlements. On the other hand, there is evidence of the rise of the "carceral state" - where states use punitive measures to regulate poverty through the police, courts and criminal justice systems. In the United States today, for example, 3.2 per cent of the population are under some form of criminal justice supervision. Prisons and personal debt together serve to further marginalize those social groups already maligned by the inequities of systems of class and race.

A related trend, Razavi outlined, is"the anti-immigration sentiment fuelled by a sense of frustration with high levels of unemployment, stagnant wages, little chance for upward social mobility and the deteriorating quality of public welfare services". "Arguments for gender equality", Razavi continued, "are used to further discredit and demonize immigrant communities who are routinely accused of abusing 'their women'- a situation that makes it difficult for immigrant women’s organizations to voice their concerns about sexism within their own communities (as well as more widely) and work with other feminist organizations."

There is, Razavi concluded, "a lot more work to be done if we are to continue in the path of scholarship that Lourdes Benería has set out for us".


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