This study guide explores key themes that help us imagine a feminist future – one that transforms systems towards a more equitable, accountable, and people-powered economy.
This study guide was made collaboratively with the contribution of many younger and older feminists active in movements and the Beijing+25 process. Read about our contributors on the About page. Explore all 7 sections at your own pace!
Welcome to the Feminist Economic Justice study guide.
Economic justice is fundamental to gender equality – because it’s one of the key systems that organizes who benefits and how. So much of the current world is based on patriarchal, white-supremacist and colonial systems that extract resources from certain countries, while benefiting and building wealth in others. When we advocate for greater leadership by girls, women, and gender diverse people – we don’t want to create more exploitative corporate leaders, “girl bosses”, or inclusive sweatshops. Instead, a feminist future must transform systems towards a more equitable, accountable, and people-powered economy.
This study guide starts with video dialogues featuring younger and older feminists followed by key concepts, examples of movements & advocacy, a toolbox and quiz. An e-certificate is available if you ace the quiz!
Note: The Feminist Action Lab is meant to be a starting point, not a comprehensive guide. Content updated June 2021.
What is economic justice and why is a feminist and intergenerational approach important? Gender expert Tanya Khokhar from ICRW and Leanne Sajor, a young feminist activist discuss the history of Beijing+25 and economic justice. To learn more about Tanya and Leanne, visit the About page.
1. Unpaid care work
Feminists have long argued that women and girls’ work have been the backbone of economies. The stereotype of “women’s work” (or tasks expected of women and girls to perform such as fetching water, cleaning house, cooking dinner, caring for children etc.) is easily invisibilized. We rarely acknowledge this type of work and almost never expect payment for it. Feminists have questioned these norms and identified “unpaid care work” as essential, and actually a form of labor exploitation that our current economic system relies on.
All the things that women and girls currently are expected to do – from cleaning to babysitting – is a form of “reproductive labor” or the sum of tasks and services needed for a family (and society) to function and exist. Imagine if women and girls went on strike. The extra time that you would take to clean the house, go shopping, make dinner, take care of your own needs, and then go to work would be a huge burden. In this way, the paid labor economy relies on unpaid care work to function. If women and girls went on strike, it would halt not only our families, but cities, countries, and even the global economy.
Historically, Black, Indigenous and migrant women have been disproportionately exploited for their unpaid labour. Stretching from colonial and slavery periods, the remnants of this can still be seen today where women of color, especially Black women’s work continues to be devalued in labor markets. Marginalized women are often relegated to the lowest paying jobs and faced with choosing between long hours and their personal wellbeing and responsibilities (Frye, 2019). If we want to have just and feminist economies, addressing the unequal playing field and acknowledging unpaid care work must be front and center.
2. Patriarchy & Labor Exploitation
According to feminists, patriarchy is a root cause of economic inequality. It is a system of power where men hold dominant positions in public and private spheres, subordinating women, gender diverse people or even other men who do not fit ideal standards of “masculinity”. While it can seem abstract, patriarchy plays out in very real ways when it comes to economic rights and labor exploitation.
Despite all people having the right to “decent work”, common patriarchal myths about labor cast some jobs as essentially “feminine” or “masculine” (i.e. nursing is a woman’s job, engineering is a man’s job). These stereotypes have real consequences, especially in affecting labor exploitation and power. Take for example the garment industry in Bangladesh where 80% of all workers are women. This is not because women are somehow essentially better at sewing and production, but because of discriminatory job markets that rely on flexible, low-wage labor in order to keep their costs down while maximizing profits.
Highly gendered forms of discrimination also lead to persistence of the gender pay gap, the lack of political will for national childcare programs or policies recognizing care work, ‘glass ceilings‘ and pervasive lack of justice or accountability in cases of GBV, harassment or violence in the workplace. Economic discrimination defines a person’s life on an everyday level, and can also reinforce oppression on a systemic scale. For example, patriarchy discriminates against transgender people often criminalizing and barring them from access to decent and safe jobs. Not just gender, but persistent discrimination based on disability, race, caste, class, age, and many other characteristics continue to create economic inequality and keep particular communities in poverty.
3. Women and Informal Economies
The International Labor Organization (ILO) records that women are overly represented in the informal sector compared to men. Informal work means that women hold more “precarious” positions and lack access to legal protection, benefits, and workers rights like maternity pay, sick leave, 8-hour days etc. Governments continue to crack down on informal economies and squeezing the most precarious workers, partly because of the under-valuing of women’s economic contribution in these fields.
A real life example of the precarity that women workers face is the 1996 introduction of Zimbabwe’s Statutory Instrument no. 64. When this law was passed, it suddenly banned the importing of basic commodities like beans, water, and bread without government-issued licenses. This caused a massive disruption in cross-border trading, a sector that employed over one third of the female population (because of systemic discrimination and lack of access to formal sector jobs) in Zimbabwe! Most traders, especially women, did not have the money required to buy licenses and were faced with a loss of livelihood. The ban resulted in popular demonstrations and later sparked nation-wide protests against the political handling of unemployment and workers rights.
4. Land Ownership and Gender
According to the UN FAO, women own less than 20% of land worldwide. With women’s land ownership strikingly low, their power to make decisions about land, income, inheritance benefits also remain low. Women’s independent access to land is restricted because of barriers like lack of access to capital, loans and financial services as well as customary and inheritance laws that favour men and boys. Land ownership is seen as one of the key factors in generating generational wealth, long-term financial security, food security among many other benefits. Campaigns like Stand For Her Land are committed to improving women’s access to land and closing the gap between existing legislation and implementation in more equitable land rights and access.
5. Gender and Development Justice
While there are many forms of feminism, many feminists actively critique the dominant economics model today called “neoliberal capitalism”. Neoliberalism, for short, is a political and economic system that supports deregulation, free-markets and cutting spending on social welfare. Social welfare is broadly the public goods and services such as public housing, public healthcare, public universities, subsidies and protection for groups like workers, farmers, women who undertake care work that the state provides for its people. It is complementary with many of the fundamental rights enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The impact of “austerity”, or cutting social welfare programs, is an economic policy of neoliberalism that has had huge impacts on gender, but also many other sectors of development such as exacerbating climate change, weakening unions and workers rights, even increasing GBV and gender inequality.
There are many ways of articulating a feminist economic justice framework that can critically look at neoliberalism and also provide people-centered alternatives and visions! Here is a helpful video created by the feminist organization APWLD that explores how neoliberal development and gender intersect, as part of their “Development Justice” campaign.
6. The Myth of Overpopulation
Questioning the dominant form of economics is not common in most universities, policy spaces or economic institutions. Feminists economists disrupt this norm and ask questions like: How did wealthy countries become wealthy? What economic agendas persist to keep poorer nations poor? What economic ideologies exploit or undermine the rights of women and gender diverse people?
One pervasive and damaging economic theory has to do with the myth of overpopulation. For example, historically family planning programs were rooted in “population control” arguments – or the belief that the main driver of poverty was overpopulation (as opposed to addressing inequality like access to economic opportunities, welfare and rights). This was part of ‘Malthusian economics’, first written by the British economist Thomas Malthus in 1798. The persistence of overpopulation arguments has trickled into national and international development. Early family planning, for example, had elements of racist and classist targeting through national and international development programs that focused on limiting the birthrates of predominantly working poor Asians, South Americans and Africans (or Black, indigenous and communities of color in the US and Europe) as essential to national development goals. These policies often violated women’s bodily autonomy and consent, especially of those most marginalized in society.
Malthusian ideas can be complementary to neoliberal ideas – where the responsibility or blame for poverty is put on individuals rather than systems. Under this economic thinking, the accountability of corporations and monopolies, for example, who often drive carbon emissions, privatize the commons*, extract or deplete natural resources – are not to blame. Instead, birth rates of largely poor and communities of color are “scapegoated” (Betsy Hartmann 2012).
*Read more about the theory of the commons in the Feminist Climate Justice study guide.
7. The Rise and ‘Fall’ of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs)
By now we know that colonialism was a process by which wealthy nations extracted labor and resources from poorer regions of the world to accumulate wealth. Influential development economist Ha-Joon Chang describes how this accumulation of wealth and power enabled European countries to rapidly industrialize and set the terms of trade that helped protect and grow their own national industries.
Throughout the 20th century, newly liberated post-colonial nations were wealthy in raw materials and natural resources. In many respects, they should have had an economic advantage in the new global economy! What emerged instead was what Ha-Joon Chang describes as wealthy nations “kicking-away the ladder” of development and promoting instead, “free-market” economics. Under free-market economics, post-colonial countries were forced to open up their markets, forests, mines, seas and budding industries, instead of protecting them like their European counterparts (Chang 2002). This ushered in a new era of exploitation, privatization, debt and wide-spread inequality that can sometimes be attributed to a set of economic principles called the Washington Consensus.
The Washington Consensus, and the free-market approach they promoted, did not occur automatically. It was a political project implemented by a small, powerful group of elite, male, economists called the Chicago School of Economics that overtime shaped policies and institutional power. Throughout the 1970s-1990s, the world’s most powerful International finance institutions (IFIs) like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) were full of free-market thinkers. They gave out massive loans to post-colonial countries with very strict conditionalities aimed at free-market reforms called Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs). Today, the SAPs have been widely disputed and identified as one of the main factors contributing to the global debt crisis and global poverty. SAPs extracted value and profit out of post-colonial countries and disallowed national governments from investing in social systems like healthcare, education, food security, transportation, and many essential services and goods. To read more about the political and economic failures of SAPs, see some of the articles below.
- Feminist Perspectives on Globalization (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
- Structural Adjustment—a Major Cause of Poverty (Global Issues)
- Despite its new rhetoric, the IMF still promotes failed policies (Equality Times)
- Neoliberal Policies Have no Place in the Post-Crash World (The Guardian)
8. Bottom-Up Development & Feminist Movements
Development and human rights today is shaped by globalization and international mechanisms and institutions like the United Nations, international finance institutions (IFIs), and policy platforms like the SDGs, UNFCCC and many more. Governments participate in these global mechanisms which influence their national and international policies. In many cases, these spaces set norms, rules and accountability that can push human rights agendas as well as constraint national sovereignty (like in the example of SAPs or conditional development loans). Many of these systems emerged after World War 2 and were built largely for states, which has surfaced ongoing issues of power and representation by civil society (such as the need for greater meaningful youth participation). Increasingly, the term “multistakeholderism” has taken root where not just states but also corporations, development interests/donors, and civil society interact to shape policy and norms. Given the history and origin of multistakeholder spaces, the interests of private corporations continue to be privileged over the interests of marginalized groups and civil society. It is often the role of civil society and feminist movements to challenge the undemocratic elements of multistakeholder spaces (such as the influence of unelected private actors and corporations).
Parallel to globalization “from the top”, is political globalization “from below” via social and feminist movements. Feminist movements have the advantage of building cross-issue and cross-border solidarity because of shared analysis, interest and the intersectional lens. Movements are fundamentally organized differently than governments and corporations, often relying on greater democratic leadership, decision-making and flexibility. These tools and processes can provide a basis for holding formal political leaders and corporate power to account (Fraser 2009, Gould 2009) while offering alternative visions for people-centered or “bottom-up” development.
Women and girls have been at the forefront of movements to organize the informal and formal sectors.
Snapshots of economic justice movements with women workers at the helm.
- South Africa’s Sikhula Sonke, a Western Cape based independent trade union for farm workers. Sikhula Sonke was organically created to “craft an organisational model that will not only challenge the unfair labour practices applied to women farm workers, but also … address the social and economic development needs of women who live and work on farms ” (White, 2010).
- The Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institution, Hospital and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA) is a domestic workers union which managed to grow its membership to 20 000 over a period of 6 years (Duguid & Weber, 2019 p.12). KUDHEIHA aims to champion the rights and amplify the voices of domestic workers, most of whom are women.
- Global Network of Sex Work Projects which seeks to amplify the voices of sex workers around the globe. Their work has been very important in advocating for sex workers to be represented in international policy gatherings as well as being socially accepted in other formal conferences that have historically excluded sex workers.
- WIEGO is a global network that consists of cooperatives, trade unions and associations of informal workers, governmental and non-governmental practitioners as well as researchers focused on amplifying the voices and agency of the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy. What sets WIEGO apart from other networks and alliances is its inclusion of governmental and non-governmental practitioners which shows the importance of collaboration and co-leadership.
- Bangladeshi Garments Workers Movement: Globalization and free-market economics have played a role in shaping the economies of developing nations like Bangladesh where 4.4 million workers, mostly women, are employed. Deregulation has caused the industry to undermine many basic protections and women’s wages low. Labor exploitation and dangerous working conditions have not deterred Bangladeshi garment workers from organizing and demanding decent work and workers rights. Read about their movement here: –
- Rana Plaza case study (Clean Clothes Campaign)
- Human Rights Watch profile on Kalpona Akter, labor organizer and human rights activist
- Bangladeshi Garment Workers Fight Back (The Nation)
- International Working Women’s Day: What we know as “International Women’s Day” was actually started as a women’s rights protest for economic justice and voting rights by US women in 1907. Initially called “International Working Women’s Day”, the protest inspired the official observation of the day by millions of women (and men) in Europe in 1911 demonstrating for causes such as equal pay and an end to gender discrimination in the labor market. For a comic history of International Working Women’s day visit this article from Vox!
The Beijing Platform For Action & Generation Equality Forum
The Beijing Declaration is a defining document addressing gender equality. In 1995 the Declaration was a result of over 30,000 activists globally coming together and advocating for the rights of women and girls during the Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing China. It produced ‘12 critical areas of concern’ including ‘Women and the Economy’ and became a non-legally binding global policy platform for gender equality that continues to be active today. The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is an annual conference and the official monitoring and implementation body on the Beijing Declaration, governed by UN Women. Though ground breaking, marginalized groups such as LGBTIQ groups, women with disabilities and sex workers were not included in the original drafting and negotiation process and have since been advocating to be included fully as constituencies for the realization of the commitments.
Today, the 2021 Generation Equality Forum (GEF) hosted by the Governments of Mexico and France is a conference aiming to accelerate what was started in 1995. The GEF has 6 major “Action Coalitions” (AC) or a group of government, UN agency, private sector and civil society/feminist organizations leading a 5 year advocacy process on Economic Justice and Rights. Some key tools and the AC on Economic Justice has provided so far include:
- A Blueprint for Action on Economic Justice
- A Global Acceleration Plan for Gender Equality that includes 4 “Game-Changing” Advocacy Targets on Economic Justice
- A Commitment Making Platform to track your government’s, private sector stakeholders and civil society commitments. This platform will also be a way for your organization to sign up as a commitment maker and engage in longer term advocacy with ACs.
Youth Power at the GEF
Power within UN spaces is an active and contested process. Young feminists and youth-led organizations have the right to be equal partners and decision-makers at advocacy spaces like the GEF.
Whether or not the GEF is able to engage youth in meaningful ways will be based on a number of factors including holding donors, states, UN agencies and civil society organizations accountable to intergeneration power sharing, restoring, and resourcing.
In an effort to create more meaningful and youth-led spaces for advocacy, several regional and global youth manifestos and platforms have already been created. We highly encourage Action Lab users to get involved with the following collaborative youth-led initiatives below:
The intersectional feminist organization AWID has long worked on feminist economic justice. Their resource site features research, policy papers, essays and more that center movement and justice based approaches
This new guidance document and policy recommendations from feminist economic justice organizations the Global Alliance for Tax Justice’s (GATJ) Tax and Gender Working Group, Womankind Worldwide and Akina Mama wa Afrika covers a vast range of tax justice knowledge from the architecture, values and principles, visioning and action/advocacy.
An alliance for street vendors formed in Durban, South Africa. It is a great example of self-organising done by informal workers with leadership and membership of women workers.
They organised and protested against harsh working conditions and long working hours for beer promoters. CFSWF is composed of grassroots women thereby showing the formidable power women possess when they come together.
APWLD is the leading network of feminist organisations and individual activists in Asia Pacific. The network actively campaigns for feminist development justice which elaborates a transformative framework aiming to reduce inequalities between countries, between rich and poor and between men and women
While it can seem overwhelming, we can do so many things to demand feminist climate justice for all. Here are some things to keep in mind when planning your actions and activism!
- Do your research!
That means learning more about the feminist agenda in your country from seasoned activists and emerging ones!
- Question and be curious.
Now that you know some principles in feminism (the importance of power, systemic change, intersectionality) you can better identify feminism from ‘gender ideology’ and other conservative movements! Question people who exclude or reinforce binaries! Break your own binaries!
- Organize your community.
Instead of becoming an individual leader on your own, build your collective voice and organize your community! There are many movements to join and learn from – find your allies and get involved!
- Raise your voice & advocate!
You have the right to be at the table and participate meaningfully in local, national and global spaces. Raise your voice and become a feminist advocate!
Are you ready to get involved in global and national feminist movements? Head to our Action study guide to learn more about the GEF and other networks you can join.