NEW YORK, June 6–The economic health of the world’s women came under scrutiny at the United Nation’s Women 2000 Economic Empowerment Forum. The diagnosis: not so good. The prognosis: uncertain.

Seventy Percent of the World’s Poor — and Fighting to Catch Up

Five years after Beijing, women from around the world listened somberly as speakers at the Beijing + Fiver Economic empowerment forum reeled off sad statistics: 70 percent of those living in poverty are female and they are disproportionately victimized by privatization, economic restructuring and the AIDS epidemic.

Even in the affluent United States, women still account for three-fifths of the nation’s poor adults and women here earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to male workers, said Linda Tarr-Whelan, president of the Center For Policy Alternatives, the forum’s sponsor, as well as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

The gap is even more pronounced for women of color, with black women earning only 63 cents and Hispanic women 56 cents for each dollar earned by men.

The bright spots, especially for American women, were in the U.S. Two-thirds of state legislatures have introduced some form of equal pay legislation and one-third are debating methods to expand family leave, according to the center’s report.

Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work institute, told of the progress made by American businesses in developing family-friendly workplace policies and U.S. officials trumpeted the Clinton administration’s achievements, such as passing the Family Leave and Medical Act, and extending low-interest loans and business training to woman entrepreneurs.

AIDS in Africa, Globalization, Cast Shadows

The good news was overshadowed by the circumstances of women in sub-Saharan Africa. Civil conflicts, agricultural failure and the ballooning AIDS epidemic have cut living standards and life expectancy to below 1960s levels, said Lawrence Summers, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

With 23 million Africans infected with the HIV virus and an estimated 11,000 new infections every day, life expectancy could “fall back to the 35 years characteristic of Biblical years.”

He pointed out that women bear the brunt of the impact of AIDS in Africa, especially young women, who are being infected at three to five times the rate of boys.

Ann Zollner, of Women, Law and Development International used the example of trends in the Ukraine to make her point that women workers bear the brunt of globalization and economic restructuring. In the restructuring of the former member of the Soviet Union from 1994 to 1998, 80 percent of the persons who lost jobs were women. Many of these displaced female workers find themselves in the informal sector — pushed into part-time or temporary work, or into low-wage, unregulated work as street vendors, domestic workers and prostitutes.

“The informal sector continues to expand,” warned panelist Nancy Riche, vice president of the Canadian Labour Congress.

Organizing, One Solution, Meets Institutional Barriers

Labor activists on the panel called on women to organize by joining unions.

Linda Chavez Thompson, executive vice-president of the AFL-CIO, declared: “We make up 45 per cent of the global workforce. We can’t have women’s rights without worker’s rights. Too many women have neither.”

Picking up on Chavez-Thompson’s remarks, Gloria Johnson, president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, pointed out that women in unions make 35 percent higher wages and 40 percent higher benefits than women in non-union work.

Those added benefits do not come easily, added panelist Noemi Fulgencio, a food service worker at the Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan. She described how she and her coworkers were allegedly harassed and intimidated by management when they tried to join a local union.

Fulgencio received a standing ovation and after the applause died down, Riche expressed frustration over the continued failure of the international community to protect women organizers.

“We’ve got rights up to here,” she said, ticking off a list of international human rights and labor treaties. “How come, with all these rights, our sister just told us about a right she doesn’t have?”

For more Beijing +5 coverage:
Women’s Human Rights: Time to Make Good on Past Promises