South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in The Nation on Nov. 12 ::

In 1995 when a decisive UN Women’s Conference took place in Beijing, most women didn’t notice another major and worrying event that took place earlier the very same year – the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO), an organization not created by the UN but dreamt up and aggressively pushed through by American companies, mostly giant multinational corporations (TNCs), taking the US government on board in mutual backscratching purpose.

The objective of the WTO was to view the entire world as a single economic unit rather than independent sovereign countries, giving rights to anyone to invest and exploit any country, the freedom to sell to and buy from any country irrespective of the countries’ balance-of-trade and debt status, enjoy priority treatment and greater rights than citizens even if it violated human and constitutional rights, and generally treat any nation as their happy, hunting ground.

This was a lot easier than colonizing countries which required military force and oppression to subdue the natives while colonists looted to their hearts’ content. Under WTO, corporations got country governments to authorize the exploitation. Too many countries became so compromised, bribed and brazen in making their own economies open to free-for-all exploitation, they can no longer be recognized as democracies, whatever they may call themselves.

The TNCs included the corporate food industry, both in food growing and its trade and got governments to view staples as commodities – to be bought and sold to anyone, anywhere, for money. If someone lacked money, they went hungry. Rationing and subsidies for the poor disappeared. That was supposed to be reality, not avoidable criminality.

TNCs included foreign investors in every sector including public institutions where profit was not the primary purpose but to provide essential goods or services such as electricity, gas, oil, water and even municipal services that all citizens had rights to.

WTO included the global pharmaceutical industry that began to dictate medicines and the privatization of the healthcare sector worldwide. Chemical corporations have managed, among other things, to intervene in agriculture and force most governments to uphold exports above domestic food security.

The Beijing Conference took up ’12 critical areas’ of concern that listed Women and Poverty, Women and Health, Women and the Economy, Education and Training of women, Violence against women, Human Rights Of Women, Women and Armed Conflict, Women in Power And Decision-Making, Institutional Mechanism For The Advancement Of Women, Women and the Media, Women and the Environment, and The Girl-Child. It’s the first six that have to be tackled properly to make the rest possible.

A reasonably good list, but leaving out other critical areas such as women and the local and national Commons, women and global corporatization, women and finance, women and the constitution and parliaments, and some very specific special areas of concern, namely women’s right to land and credit/ money for survival and security. Poor landless women, rural or urban, will never be able to realize their rights and needs without access to land.

What did the lists achieve? It enabled researchers, academics and NGOs to focus and flesh out with figures women’s current miserable status, not necessarily with do-able solutions and intensive advocacy. Unfortunately the list was also over-compartmentalized. In many countries and societies, several areas are intertwined and have to be looked at holistically rather than separately as many problems occur to women concurrently. For example, poverty, health, violence, environment, the economy, and human rights needed to be clubbed together to be viewed in their inseparable interlinkages.

One doesn’t have to belabor the poverty of most women. The reasons why and the solutions need to be more drawn out. World Bank did the original damage, first with ill-advised export-orientation of former colonies before people were able to stand on their own feet, and then with the introduction of structural adjustment – deviously pushed by an interim government in Pakistan that did not have the authority to do so, in the early 80s.

What is astounding is that no elected government to date has put a stop to what remains an outrageous violation of human rights – slashing budgets for health, education and other vital areas, using this ‘saved’ money to repay ill-advised, odious interest-bearing loans. It revealed World Bank and IMF long ago to be cut-throat loan sharks, hardly development banks, worse than any commercial bank. There’s no dearth of shocking documentation of the systematic destruction of economies through World Bank/IMF’s interventions, no less criminal than the governments they’ve corrupted. Just because parliamentarians don’t read or don’t want to know, doesn’t mean women do the same.

Among the rural poor, women grow and process, cook and serve most food. But they don’t necessarily get to eat what they grow. And they don’t really get enough of what they need to eat. They may not be paid for their work, or underpaid, and may have to buy part or all of their food. This situation could be entirely or considerably resolved by rights to land, whether through recognized and declared rights to the commons – community lands – in their respective areas, for growing food collectively; or through usufruct rights to land which once existed in South Asia and many other countries.

The moment women have such access to land, non-transferable and unable to be seized by the husband or other male member, multiple purposes are served. Although an acre for every woman would be ideal, even a quarter-acre would do to give her and her family food security, self-employment, secure shelter (since they would be living on it) — provided rights and protections are upheld by the government.

The same could and should apply to urban areas which have been damaged by over-urbanisation and urban sprawl, which have only increased the cost of living rather than over-expanded markets benefiting the consumer. Some countries have already started the planned greening of urban areas, not as a fad, but as necessary for rehabilitating the environment, ensuring food security and housing, creating mass self-employment and commercial opportunity, and mitigating the effects of climate change.

Real-estate speculation and building have become unscrupulous business activities, land being grabbed from once fertile farmland in collusion with local land mafia, government functionaries, politicians and the police, for conversion into plots for sale. In Pakistan it has become an almost completely criminal activity where land and zoning laws and urban citizens rights are flouted at will.

Under WTO, foreign investors are allowed to indulge in elite housing and other urban development. – Land that should be sheltering, growing food and creating jobs for the masses. It’s only the violence in Pakistan that has kept most investors at bay for now. But WTO has given, and servile governments have allowed, the global corporate citizen to have far more and absolute rights over their own citizens.

Finally, as long as women (and men) don’t understand that money is merely a measure with no value of its own, and believe they can safely leave finance in the hands of the “big boys” and predatory global bankers, they’ll continue to be cheated and impoverished on a global scale. Without the constitution spelling out each and every right and rule specifically, such that they cannot be subjected to convenient interpretation by the powers of the day, and as long as people avoid financial literacy, the five-yearly review of the Beijing will simply remain a band-aid exercise clutching at straws.

The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a  rights and advocacy group. ([email protected])