The political economy of sexual rights: Implications for global advocacy
Summary of Theme Two: Coercive and punitive economic measures and their impact on sexual and reproductive rights
This summary contains the essence of our panellists' interventions during our 2nd conversation on the the political economy of sexual rights focusing on coercive and punitive economic measures & sexual rights.
This exciting series of conversations hosted by the Sexual Rights Initiative explore how macroeconomics profoundly affects sexual rights and share ideas on effective strategies to address these challenges within social justice activism, including advocacy in UN human rights spaces. By bringing together a diverse group of activists, scholars, and advocates, this virtual conversation series aims to build cross-movement collaboration and global partnerships.
Whether in the form of economic sanctions or through debt and bailouts, which result in privatising public goods and mass poverty, coercive economic strategies continue to be widely used, and just as widely condemned by receiving nations as a form of war. Despite their devastating impact on entire populations, economic coercion often escapes scrutiny because it has been naturalised into international law and trade protocols. Since the creation of the UN, efforts by Global South states to explicitly include economic pressure under the UN Charter's prohibition of the use of force have been resisted by wealthy countries. We want to explore how political and economic ideologies and practices, both historical and contemporary and at national, regional, and international levels, interact with and influence gender and sexual rights.
The use of coercive mechanisms to punish or discipline a state that is considered to be failing on its human rights record has particularly pernicious effects, as it pits groups within the targeted country against each other. The identity politics-driven rationale of this kind of targeted coercion also undermines domestic efforts at cross-movement solidarity.
Instead of paying reparations, countries whose development was funded through colonial exploitation continue to have their unsustainable lifestyles subsidised by the world’s poorest people. In fact, poor countries’ debt payments have hit the highest levels in 25 years; Pakistan’s debt amounts to nearly 50% of government revenue, Sri Lanka’s is 75%, and Ghana’s is projected to be 99% by the end of the year. We want to examine and challenge the disingenuous separation of the economic sphere from the political and the social, which allows the same countries that cause immiseration and starvation through their economic policies to also be the biggest self-appointed “champions” of human rights.
Maria Luisa Peralta, Akáhatá, Argentina
The countries of Central and Latin America have a decades-long history of the dispossession of the wealth of their people through complicit relationships between economic elites, large transnational capital, and international financial institutions, especially the IMF and the World Bank. The dictatorships that devastated practically all the countries in the region were not only military adventures but intended to establish market economies in our countries through the destruction of national industry, alienation of natural resources, and installation of transnational companies that operate without regulations, and the dismantling of public health, education, transportation, and infrastructure services, and their subsequent privatisation – the bases of neoliberal regimes.
Argentina is in a disastrous economic situation, with 140% annual inflation, and an important reason for this is an illegal IMF loan, the largest in the history of not only the country but also of the Fund. Today, 40% of the population is poor, including fully employed people. In the blockade of Venezuela, which began in 2015, the United States and other countries had, until March this year, applied nearly a thousand unilateral coercive measures which have had a devastating impact on the Venezuelan people.
The structural adjustment programmes and the conditions imposed by multilateral credit organisations throughout the region have meant not only the dismantling and privatisation of public services but also, in recent decades, an acceleration of the plundering of natural assets. The demands of the free market and the need to pay foreign debts have led governments to give free rein to extractive industries that maximise their profits, produce very serious environmental damage, and then take their benefits out of the country, both deepening the cycle of impoverishment and contributing to the climate crisis.
These factors lead to a migration crisis; women travel to richer countries under precarious conditions and end up performing poorly paid labour. Care in rich countries is subsidised by poor women in poor countries. When coercive economic measures are applied in the name of democracy, the burden is always greater on people who are already marginalised – working women, lgbti people, and migrants, and these measures increase violence, blame and prejudice against them.
Cuts in public services don’t affect everyone equally; rather, they work along pre-existing moral biases, including gender. During the debate on the abortion law in 2020, in the midst of the debt crisis, those who opposed abortion argued that its legalisation would mean a great cost for the health system, and that the resources were required for more important services – especially as abortion was sought by badly behaved women. The neoliberal government in Peru forcibly sterilised Indigenous people from 1990 to 2000, claiming that this was a solution to poverty. The blockade in Venezuela affects women’s access to contraceptive and reproductive services and materials. However, the example of Cuba shows that the decision to cut resources from health services is always political and ideological, as it continued to fund abortion through decades of blockade.
Global South states can also manipulate their people when they claim that certain rights are promoted by the Global North to weaken southern countries. Thus, we need holistic policies that address particular contexts. We should move away from identity politics; it’s been important for lgbti communities but it also applies to race, citizenship, and class, and it divides social movements and our collective strength. We need to displace the capitalist logic of scarcity in relation to rights and not believe that there aren’t enough resources and rights for all. There can be no hierarchy of rights; we want and can have everything. As feminist and queer movements have been articulating in Argentina, “the debt is owed to us” and therefore we should also have a say in these decisions.
Niyanthini Kadirgamar, Feminist Collective for Economic Justice, Sri Lanka
Last year Sri Lanka went into one of the worst economic crises in its post-independence history because it defaulted on its foreign debt, most of which was owed to financial institutions in the West. The immediate reasons for the crisis were the reduction in government revenues via tax concessions granted to the rich and an ill-formulated ban on chemical fertilisers that maimed the food system, while the country lost foreign exchange earnings during the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine led to a rise in commodity prices. The global economic governance structure is such that Sri Lanka was forced to go to the IMF when it defaulted on foreign loans, which imposed certain conditions before the country could be granted a green light for receiving external funding. Sri Lanka is among about 70 countries in the global south that are under debt distress.
The crisis has been long in the making; Sri Lanka was the first country in South Asia to liberalise its economy and move into an export oriented economy, in the late 1970s. This allowed global capital to capture agricultural land and dispossess farmers, including women farmers; rural industry, which was protected by the government, was liberalised, causing more unemployment in the rural sector, again mostly among women. From the 1980s onwards, we see migration from rural areas to urban centres to work in the export oriented industries, while others were going abroad as domestic workers. So, the economy is now structured around three main foreign exchange generating sectors – garment exports, migrant labour remittances, and tea plantations; women form the majority of the labour force in these sectors and work under harrowing conditions as very cheap labour.
Sri Lanka continues to plead for support from the IMF, which is being portrayed as the saviour, and both consent and coercion coexist in this situation. These economic changes also have a social impact. Women end up doing a lot more care work at home and the risks in a collapsing market are also shouldered by women. The resulting disruption in household hierarchies lead to increase in violence. The trickling down of risk is also differentiated by existing axes of marginalisation in society, along religious, ethnic, and sexual orientation and gender identity lines.
The ideological impact of these changes must be understood historically. The liberalisation of the market was also accompanied by an ethnic conflict; the political economy took a backseat and ethno-nationalist politics dominated for decades. There is increasing consent for neoliberal policies, among a section of the polity and rights activists. Sri Lanka continues to have state funded universal free education and healthcare. The real challenge now is to safeguard these universal services and push back against the ‘targeted’ approach recommended by international financial institutions, that determines who is deserving of what services. Another dilemma among some activists is whether to engage with an unelected government that portrays itself as liberal in terms of gender and lgbt rights even as it fully embraces the neoliberal agenda.
Economic policies are not gender and class neutral, though they are presented as such. We have to demystify those economic policies and challenge the idea that it’s only the preserve of experts. We demand universal social security and a functional food system. We believe we can forge a different path only if we are rid of an IMF led global economic governance structure that forces countries in the global South into a cycle of debt.
Nana Abuelsoud, EIPR, Egypt
Panic over ‘overpopulation’ has been a recurring priority on every presidential agenda in Egypt since the 1950s. Historically, populations have either been seen as a potential for economic development, or as an economic burden, with China currently serving as a role model in population policies. The current presidency sees the population as a national threat and as the reason for the economic crisis, which is being fueled by currency devaluation and weakened access to education and health services and exacerbated by Covid and the Ukraine war. There is a concerted push from the government to limit the size of families even though fertility rates are going down, especially among low income families. They end up with more than two children because they don’t have access to services. One in five children in Egypt is either unwanted or unplanned, and thirty percent of women stop using contraceptives in the first year of usage, usually because of their side effects, but the government is unwilling to address these structural issues.
People who don’t make enough money to support their families are considered to be undeserving of subsidies and their poverty is used to justify austerity measures. In 2015, a cash transfer programme was accompanied by awareness programmes that sought to influence and increase contraceptive uptake. In 2018, a presidential programme called “Two is enough” offered incentives, including better employment opportunities and subsidised education, to people who did not have more than two children. The government claimed it wasn’t coercive but the conditional rewards are a form of punishment for those who have more than two children. Social protection regulations were also recently changed so that families cannot add a third child to their subsidy subscription – a measure that makes low-income families even poorer. The logic appears to be that if you can afford to have a third child, you don’t need subsidies for education, health, or even in public sector employment.
This year, the government offered a further incentive: women will receive a lump sum payment of about 30 dollars a year calculated from the age of 21 if they make it to 45 years with two or fewer children. Contraceptives are not always effective or safe and abortion is criminalised, yet in the context of an economic freefall, the promise of this payment seems attractive to women seeking a way out of dire poverty.
The eugenicist nature of these programmes becomes evident when we realise that they are all targeted at the same economically deprived groups. There’s also a general acceptance of neoliberal policies within the state apparatus and in society. In 2021, the parliament discussed whether to deny the right to marry (and thus to legitimately have sex) to a range of people deemed unfit to reproduce; if the discussion had proceeded, the list would have included people with disabilities, chronic depression, and people living with hiv and with diabetes.
Civil society and feminists treat female genital mutilation and early childhood marriage as stand-alone issues, as if they are not a part of the economic pact. An exclusively sexual rights and liberation approach that doesn’t address the fact that these practices offer a mode of survival to women and girls with very few choices is misguided and bound to fail. State efforts to curb early marriage of girls are also motivated by a desire to control population growth, by delaying pregnancy and childbirth, not out of a concern for the wellbeing of women and girls. We cannot look at SRHR without looking at economic systems that treat people as capital; in effect, the poor have to choose between having sex (and marrying) and having enough food. This logic is also cheered on by many left groups.
Instead of creating hierarchies of rights – social, economic, political, sexual – we need to expand our commitment to the causes we’re fighting for, to understand that sexual rights are part of a whole. Geopolitical tensions only make matters worse; for example, the UN Commission on Population and Development this year was unable to reach an agreement on education because a few northern states were adamant about the inclusion of comprehensive sexuality education, when people in many countries don’t have access to any education, leave alone a say in the curriculum. These are the same states who reject recommendations around climate justice or foreign debt. Bodily autonomy shouldn’t just mean sexual and reproductive autonomy; it also means that we have more control over our time, that we can relax and have a slow day without thinking we’ll lose our livelihood just because we’re not running against the clock.