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Women and their Struggle for Empowerment

Maureen B. Loste1

The societal context of Asian women

Picture Asia, its human and natural resources, and you see its vulnerability to the forces of nature, to the forces of predators and plunderers - the colonialists-turned-capitalists. Picture Asia and you see enclaves of extreme luxury and enclaves of destruction and death.

But Asians know they live in countries rich in human and natural resources. Still they remain impoverished because majority of them do not have access to these resources. They fall prey to the imperialists who connive with the local elite to further squeeze profits from the remaining resources. The Asian economies largely depend on loans and foreign investments succumbing to indebtedness. The majority of the populace bears the brunt of paying the loans. The grim reality of poverty and unemployment push many Asians to work in more affluent societies.

Situation of women in Asia

Picture Asia and you see women in millions toiling under the harshest conditions to earn a living for their and their family’s survival. You see them as workers in factories, in agricultural plantations and in outsourcing centers, as overseas workers, domestic helpers, entertainers in developed countries, as scavengers in huge dumpsites. Under globalization, regular jobs are becoming more scarce, particularly for women.

In the June 2003 Research Conference on Globalization and Women, sponsored by the Asia Pacific Research Network, the deplorable situation of Asian women is vividly described, to wit:

Women are the preferred workers under globalization. Shaped by patriarchal cultures that regard women as secondary citizens, women in Asia are molded towards subservience, patience and docility, the qualities required for ‘good workers’. Using the patriarchal notion that ‘women’s place is in the home’ and that their earnings are merely supplementary to the income of their husbands, TNCs2 continue to depress their wages and employ them as temporary workers.

In many Asian countries, women compose the bulk of the reserved labor force. More women than men are not counted as part of the country’s labor force though they engage in various odd jobs – selling cooked food and a variety of other wares in front of their houses, occasionally taking on laundry or cleaning jobs for their more affluent neighbors or helping friends to do some networking in order to sell products of TNCs. The proportion of unemployed to employed among women in the country’s labor force is likewise higher when compared to that of men. TNCs take advantage of this situation by offering women lower wages for longer working hours and very disadvantageous flexible labor arrangements. At the same time globalization is aggravating the economic crisis making women more vulnerable to sexual abuse usually associated with such arrangements. To keep much needed jobs, many women victims of sexual harassment keep silent. Others accept the existence of sexual abuse as part of the risk of their jobs.

As globalization policies continue and the economic crisis becomes deeper, more and more women, including those in the next generation, will become victims of the TNCs’ drive for megaprofits.

The mad drive for fast super-profits has created an industry known as human trafficking, the third largest criminal industry in the world today, after arms and drug dealing. Most victims – women and children – come from the depressed Third World countries, especially from Asia.

Perspective of women’s movements

In a publication written by South Asian women, picture the reality of where the women’s movement is now.

From our perspective, several forces seem to have eroded the gains made by women's movements over the past three decades. In the South Asian context, the most significant of them are: the increase in poverty as a result of accelerated global economic integration (‘globalization’), the expansion of war and militarism, the rise of various fundamentalist movements which, in combination with the other factors, are re-creating and re-asserting traditional feudal and patriarchal social relations. This is very evident in the South Asian context in the manner in which fundamentalists are re-asserting notions of masculinity and femininity, as well as chastity and modesty, and most of all, in how ethnic and religious identities are centrally constructed around the roles of women, in order to protect the power and privilege of men, particularly of the dominant classes and castes.

Perspectives from the Church

In the face of these grim realities, the following challenges are presented. First, from the WCC Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women (1988-1998), these are some of the challenges:

• Churches, which have developed sociologically as communities led by and embodying the concerns of men, are called to understand that women are not one among many priorities on a long list, nor simply a cause to defend.

• Churches are called to understand that women and men are persons created in God's image and to God's glory and thus that the community of women and men - a new community of all persons across gender, racial, ethnic class and economic lines in partnership and solidarity with each other is of the essence of the church and its mission today.

• Christ came to give life for all. We need to develop and practice a theology of justice, empowerment of and solidarity with women. We believe that churches, theologians, theological schools and faculties have the duty to rethink theology, theological teaching and pastoral formation in the light of this challenge.

• Violence against women: violence against women finds theological justification in the teachings of the church. We call on the church, with the full participation of women theologians, to deconstruct and reconstruct such basic, biblical and doctrinal teachings so as to usher in liberational paradigms and perspectives.

Second is from the Conference, “Gathering the Voices of the Silenced”, a conference of Catholic Asian women theologians, in November 2002, under the theme, “Ecclesia of Women in Asia (EWA): Voices of the Silenced”. According to that conference, the aim of theology done by women in Asia is to transform ourselves, society and the Church into an ‘ekklesia’ – a democratic gathering of free citizens who share in the life and the equality of the reign of God. Catholic women were called to accountability for the silence of women in church life and equipped at the conference with analytical tools and theological resources for continuing women’s claim to voice and authority within the church in Asia.

The theological issues that surfaced from these discussions ranged from where poverty and the diverse religiosities of Asia meet to form a distinct theological voice in Asia, to how women theologians meet the crisis/challenge of fundamentalism both within the church and without. The connection of fundamentalism with the escalating violence against women became painfully clear. More significantly, the conference was characterized by a seriousness in the search to claim the Catholic women’s voices, their role and authority within the Church.

Participation of churchwomen in the women’s movement

Experience proves that by sustaining the interest of churchwomen in people’s issues through conscientization, advocacy and mobilization, they are bound to become closer with the wider network of the women’s movement. Their empowerment can only be achieved by linking with the wider equally empowered community.

NOTES :

1 Maureen B. Loste is coordinator of the Regional Ecumenical Council in the Cordillera, Baguio City, Philippines. She presented this paper at the People’s Forum.

2 TNCs stand for transnational corporations.


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