My residence in Scotland the last 10 years has made me realise that irrespective of country, community problems are the same, only described by context relevant terms and analogies. Being Kenyan, I in my wildest dreams could never have imagined that poverty would make up part of Europe’s fabric. Through experience, mainly influenced by my daughter’s involvement with a food bank in Glasgow, this view has been altered. In responding to food shortages for families due to the recession and the resultant job losses and unfavourable government welfare policies, the woman in her, like many other women around the world have done and continue to do, took it upon herself to sort out the problem using the only means available to her. She fasted for 7 days; a whole 7 days without food, only water and tea.
Initially, I thought she would last a maximum of 4 days and then give up. I watched keenly and waited…
Come day 5, I was very concerned; she looked weak, tired and complained about a lack of sleep and concentration in class.
By day 6 she had lost 10 pounds. I wanted her to give up and had my phone on standby, expecting a call from the emergency services.
No, she did not give up – she completed her challenge: a whole 7 days without food, only water and tea. Her appeal raised a good amount of money, to put food on the plates of people she did not even know! Her voluntary involvement with the food bank brings home stories of deprivation that make me reel with anger. I wonder how the seventh richest country in the world could watch its citizens lose their dignity in such a way. This remains the story of women around the world. Irrespective of country, women work endless hours under difficult circumstances determined to care and provide for their families. Yet, despite their arduous work, their lack of employment, their flexible working patterns, their limited chances for promotion mean that their work is unseen, as far economics is concerned. As a result, women, at their retirement remain at the welfare of the state and make up the majority of the poor.
My attendance at the recent STUC’s Women’s Economic Weekend was an eye opener. After watching the film “Who’s Counting” by Marilyn Waring which explores sex, lies and global economics, I realised that our economy was dependent on detrimental stimuli. Through very simple lenses, Marilyn demystifies the economics jargon that governs us all. She highlights that although economics is derived from a Greek word that means care and management of a household, the global meaning of economics is far from it. The only things that matter in the current economic system are goods and activities of monetary value. This means that whilst unpaid work (usually performed by women) is ignored, activities that may be environmentally and socially detrimental are considered productive because they contribute to the so called GDP and are rewarded handsomely.
So when we hear about a growing economy and expect an improvement in the well-being of our communities, we are in for a rude shock. Issues that matter to women like levels and distribution of poverty, poor primary health care, failing education systems and environmental degradation do not count towards the so called GDP. Instead, the wealth of a nation is considerably dependent on how well the nation can defend itself, including how much of its fixed capital investments are tied up in armament and how good its arms export industry is. It annoys me to think that because war contributes to economic growth and development, killing people or preparing to kill them is valuable while women’s work and the misery caused by war are insignificant.
There are many things for women to celebrate about this International Women’s day, but there is still more work to be done. From the information given at the weekend, including the fact that economics is nearly an all man’s club, it dawned on me that women were blindly led into the recession and that despite this, the recession hurt women the most! Very few women understand economic jargon, yet with the pittance that comes their way, they provide care and run households with the best efficiency and effectiveness imaginable, using a common sense approach. On the other hand, those in power continue to make economics more and more abstract, inaccessible to the lay, spending billions of pounds/dollars conquering the moon and other planets, developing more and more sophisticated armament, ensuring war at all times to market their toys, destroying the planet. Russia’s current military presence in Ukraine scares the life out of me, yet it is good evidence of how our life chances and the well-being of our planet hang on a thread, in the hands of a few men. How can Britain continue flexing its muscles in the international arena when its citizens are starving?
During my recent visit to the Scottish Parliament through CRER’s Political Shadowing Scheme, the question was raised about the rising number of people using food banks and the inability of food banks to provide for everyone in need. I question the existence of a food bank policy in a developed nation in the 21st century, which spells doom for third world countries. Indeed, the generosity of Scottish citizens is commendable, but it is that picture of outstretched hands that disturbs me; the constraining of the less fortunate, the deprived, to extending their trembling hands. Solutions should lie in striving to ensure that these hands, whether of individuals or entire peoples, need be extended less and less in supplication.
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that if more women were involved in formulating economic policy, we would have a different economics. Instead of engineering war, the money would be spent on ensuring enough food, clean water, sanitation and education for all people in the world. Most of all women would get paid for the long hours they spend caring and managing households, ensuring the security of future generations. We need to take it upon ourselves, like we have done in the past, to make sure that our views are on the negotiating table. If we cannot become mainstream economists, we need to become more politically active; casting our votes at elections, attending political party meetings and asking those questions that will ensure that economics becomes more transparent and is for and about the people.
Since writing this article Professor Alisa McKay, who's presentation I referenced in this article, passed away on Wednesday 5th March 2014. Ailsa was Professor of Economics at Glasgow Caledonian University and United Nations adviser.
Ailsa was a leading figure in making the case for women in the labour market, helping to shape government policy in this area. Through her work, she encouraged women to get more involved in discussions on the economy. Despite being unwell, she, in conjunction with the STUC Women’s Committee, organised and gave a strong presentation at the recent Women’s Weekend School (28 February – 2 March 2014), which I attended as indicated in my article.
Ailsa, you have left a big void and we thank you for all the strides you have made towards economic equality for women. Although you have left us, your voice remains with all Women.