Women and the crisis of civilisation

As ecosocialists, understanding how the economic and ecological crises work together and reinforce each other has been a preoccupation of this magazine over the last months . In this piece, I attempt to extend this analysis in two other directions.I think that the crisis has not only two facets – a fact that I suspect is not contentious but needs drawing out for both analytical and political reasons. I call this combined crisis of politics, social reality, environment and economy the crisis of civilisation – a term which I think is very apt for the situation we are living and organising in.

Secondly, and more substantively, I begin to look at how this systemic crisis affects women in particular – a task which should and must have a priority for ecosocialists. Women after all are the majority of people on the planet and have and will play a key role in fighting for an alternative to the horrors of late capitalism.

Women were already at the bottom of the pile before the crises started – so it is no surprise that we feel the effects of these disasters most acutely. Women’s subordinate place within the labour market, not withstanding the limited gains made as a result of the women’s movement, remain a reflection of the sexual division of labour and inferior status of women within the patriarchal capitalist family.

The family, together with the education system, continues to reproduce notions that women are inherently inferior to men – or at best that we have different destinies as primary care givers to children and the elderly. This is a particularly important notion for the state to fall back on as it slashes public services.

And make no mistake, what is tested out on women today – in terms of the capitalists attempts to make sure they do not pay for the crisis – will be imposed on the whole of the working class tomorrow. We have already seen many instances of this for example with part-time work.

Women are also an integral part of the resistances that we see taking place to create the other ecosocialist and feminist world that is daily ever more necessary

Women and climate change

Poverty and inequality is the lot of the majority of women in the south and these are the first to be hit by the climate crisis – caused by emissions which are produced mainly in the countries of the north. 80% of 1.3 billion people in the world living under the poverty line are women.

In 2008 the level of global malnutrition grew by 800,000 to reach more than 1 billion people. Diseases such as cholera which had previously been eliminated are now re-occurring as part of this crisis of civilisation.

Women produce 80% of food in the south – so the impact of desertification, loss of water resources etc has a huge impact on their daily lives.

A report published by Oxfam in June 2009, The Winds of Change: Climate change, poverty and the environment in Malawi argues that women are affected most by climate change because they have multiple roles as farmers, providers of food, water and firewood and child carers. It also points out that women in Malawian society have no say in decision making and that climate change exacerbates the existing inequalities. It further argues that there is a danger that deepening poverty will pressure women to sell sex for food and that this will further exacerbate the spread of HIV/AIDS. The spread of HIV/AIDs will further weaken the ability of the population to resist climate chaos.

The fight for women’s access to decent free public education and to health care which includes access to abortion, contraception and sex education, is an essential element of fighting the climate crisis especially in the south. Women are often at the forefront of campaigns to defend and extend these essentials.

The response to the climate crisis by the neo-malthusians who say there are too many people on the planet seeks to further limit women’s right to control our own bodies and has racist implications in that the rate of population growth is greater in the countries of the south.

The first response of ecosocialists should be to fight for the extension of women’s fertility control and for women’s liberation more generally. A view that women’s main function is to produce babies – a view sometimes internalised by young women themselves – must be strongly combatted. Fighting for the eradication of poverty which means that there is less pressure on argricultural communities to provide more people is the other side of this battle
The growing impact of agrobusiness, production of biofuels and the continuing sell-off of land to multinationals for the continued extraction of oil and other resources has and will result in the loss of land and of autonomy for small producers the majority of whom are women, many from indigenous communities.

Indigenous women and women landless farmers play a central role in defending the ecosystem of the forests . The action by Via Campesina women in Brazil, who destroyed the Aracruz Celulosa substitution for eucalyptus, was a victorious example of women playing a leading role in defending the biosphere.

Women and the economic crisis
Neoliberal globalisation has resulted in a vast expansion of insecure jobs with short term contracts and of part time work. The informal economy has spread from the countries of the south to parts of the north and to sectors which were previously part of the formal economy.

The majority of those who work in the informal economy are women and children. Up to 2% of the urban populations of the world make a living from collecting and reselling waste on land fill sites. The majority of these are women and children. The demand from industry for recycled paper especially from China has fallen as a result of the recession so the prices are also falling significantly. This further undermines the ability of those sectors of the population who live this way to survive.
Jobs are lost in the informal sector at the same time as the sector eats up parts of the formal sector. In the south there has been a rapid growth of some export-oriented industries such as textiles which employ large numbers of women. In the Philippines 42,000 jobs in textiles, semiconductor and conductor industries were lost in 1 day – industries where a majority of women work. (Oxfam report, Paying the Price for the Economic Crisis, March 2009).
The export manufacturing sector is of course an area where workers have virtually no union organisation so the majority of women who have lost their jobs in this sector will have received no redundancy pay or social security benefits. .
In terms of job losses in the formal sector, the crisis has so far impacted differently on women in different countries. The motor industry – which, where it exists, has been one of the most sharply hit sectors – is generally male-dominated. In some places, generally those countries where the recession has already bitten deeply, we have already seen a big loss of jobs in the service sector where a majority of workers are women. In those countries where this has not yet happened, the service sector will be next.
It is difficult to find statistics of the rate of unemployment for women and men globally level but it seems that so far the differential rate of unemployment has not increased but it will do as the crisis has more impact on the service sector. Oxfam says the majority of jobs lost in the south are women, while in the US female unemployment rose faster than male in May 2009 (5.6% for women, 4.1% for men )
The sub-prime crisis in the US, the first visible sign of today’s crisis, has taken a higher toll on women – especially women of colour. 32% of women hold sub-prime mortgages vs. 24% of men; and African American and Latino homeowners were 30% more likely to have received sub-prime loans.
And of course poverty rates increase during economic downturns – with the increasing costs of even basic necessities of food, transportation and energy, the number of poor families is growing. And once a family has fallen into it, poverty is difficult to escape. An estimated 60% of families that are in the bottom fifth of income remain there a decade later.
Public services

The economic crisis that we face now will not see any let-up in the neo-liberal policies which privatise and starve public services of resources – affecting women both as the majority of workers in this sector and as those most dependent on the services provided.
In countries where abortion is legal (within limited conditions), cuts in public health services are already impacting on women’s access to abortion and contraception. Rape crisis centres have also suffered. These services will be seen by many providers as optional extras, while others will be happy to cut projects that they never supported in the first place under the guise of economic necessity.
There is an increasing privatisation of personal social services in different European countries – France, Sweden, Belgium and Britain at least. Women workers are employed to do house work (cleaning of house and clothes, cooking, childcare and in some cases care of elderly or disabled people) in the homes of professional families (sometimes by the state, sometimes by private companies). They work maybe 5 or more jobs a week with a small number of hours spent at each and almost as much time travelling between jobs as working.
Together with very low hourly wage rates this means poverty for the women working there. And given that “reform” of social security systems mean that in many countries people are forced to take any job or lose benefits, it is harder for workers to refuse to take these jobs, while the bosses are provided with a pool of cheap labour. These types of developments also result in deepening divisions between women where those who have more social and economic power become the employers of those – mainly black and migrant women – who do not.
The crisis of civilisation is also the motor for the growth of reactionary ideas. Religion has an increasing hold on greater sections of the population and fundamentalism within all major religions continues to be a threat. Women’s bodies are usually seen as a key terrain of struggle for all fundamentalists – a struggle in which we are presumed to have no active role but become pure instruments in their deadly power games.

A striking example is the way in which the reactionary elements of the Catholic Church in Ireland used the threat that the Lisbon Treaty of the European Union would force Ireland to legalise abortion to build support for their reactionary opposition to the Treaty – despite the fact that it contains no such provision – thus obliging the EU to give a formal guarantee that adoption of the Treaty would not oblige Ireland to legalise abortion, as it was also obliged to do on the question of preserving Irish neutrality.
In Nicaragua we have had the phenomena of the Sandinistas ditching their political principles on the question of abortion in 2008 – apparently in order to win the election – although there was no real indication that in fact this would increase their votes. Subsequently feminists in Nicaragua have been working with others in the solidarity movement to reverse this attack on women’s rights.
In Afghanistan – one of only three countries in the world where women die earlier than men – we have had the grotesque law being agreed which legalises rape within marriage and allows a man to legally starve his wife if she refused to have sex with him. This is the country where those who have waged war against it since 9/11 have cynically claimed to do so in defence of women’s rights – but where the government they installed are just as reactionary and as in hock to Islamic fundamentalists as their predecessors (who anyway were a creation of US imperialism). In this context, as in many others, women’s lives and bodies are instrumentalised.


The crisis of civilisation is marked by an increase in violence at all levels of society as alienation deepens. War is of course the most obvious and brutal (and brutalising) example of this. War has increasingly become a phenomenon in which it is routine for massive casualties to take place amongst civilian populations – therefore affecting huge numbers of women and children.

Additionally from the time of the wiars in the Balkans we have seen the increasing use of rape as a weapon of war. Evidence of the extent of rape in Bosnia between 1992-95 particlarly by Serb forces forced the recognition of rape as a war crime. According to the Women’s Group Tresnjevka more than 35,000 women and children were held in Serb-run “rape camps” in which Muslim and Croatian women were held captive, raped and deliberately made pregnant. This occurred in the context of a patrilineal society, in which children inherit their father’s ethnicity, hence the “rape camps” aimed at the birth of a new generation of Serb children – and the continuation of ethnic cleansing by another horrific means.

Similar horrors have also been experienced by women in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Their bodies have become battlegrounds because women are seen only as vehicles through which new generations are produced – and in ethnic warfare, preventing the enemy from reproducing equates to the ultimate prize. Against this background, sexual violence has become a deliberate war strategy in the region.
These violent sexual acts directed toward women do not discriminate by age, with girls as young as four months and women as old as 84 suffering the same fate. UN agencies working in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) estimate that approximately 50,000 women were raped in the region between 1996 and 2002, and close to 55% of women have experienced sexual violence during the conflict in South Kivu. An estimated 250,000 women were raped during the Rwandan genocide.
We have also seen the grotesque phenomena of feminocide, which first came to light around the case of Juárez City in the state of Chihuahua in Mexico from the early 1990s – and continues to this day. What became clear as women organised around this issue however, is that the rape and murder of hundreds of just because they are women is not unique to this one Mexican city. Rather this phenomenon is pervasive throughout the national territory of Mexico and in other Latin American countries including Guatemala, Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Chile, Argentina and also in Spain. Feminocide has to be understood as the (il)logical extension of other forms of violence against women, and like other such crimes is carried out by men in a number of different relationships to the women involved.


What I have explored here only scratches the surface of the ways in which the combined crisis that affects every aspect of our lives today affects women. Time and space have not permitted me to develop all the arguments or quote all the examples. And while the brutalisation facing women, together with all sections of the working class and oppressed can seem depressing, there are also many examples of determined resistance by women in communities across the globe.

As ecosocialists we have a supremely ambitious project to create a new world order that replaces the greed and wastefullness which is destroying the planet and humanity. Our chances of doing so without fully involving women as the majority of humanity are non-existent. The future for women without creating a genuine ecosocialst alternative is a futurenot worth contemplating. No ecosocialism without women’s liberation and no womens liberation without ecosocialism.

Terry Conway

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