By Cecilia NG



When I was asked to speak about about globalisation and women, a major question came to my mind: is globalisation weakening or strengthening patriarchy? In other words, are women, as a result of globalisation, gaining more rights or because they are now more visible in their claim for gender and social equality, the forces of conservatism (in the name of tradition, religion and even love) have reacted, making their struggle an uphill one?

However, before I begin I would like to preface my sharing with the following three points. Firstly, I do not believe that the globalising process is integrating us into homogeneous entities in the spheres of economy, culture, technology and governance, as some would like us to believe – some call this process an euphemism for ultra imperialism. Indeed this very globalising process has led to fragmentation and the emergence of divergent views and identity politics - certainly globalisation is not universal. At the recent global knowledge conference held in Kuala Lumpur, two of the main themes of the conference were the indigenisation of knowledge and sovereignty – a counter discourse to that of globalisation. The forces of economic globalisation might have to contend with other forms of social and cultural resistance, thus making its spread a much more complex process. As Diana Wong (1999) puts it aptly, ‘the challenge of globality today may not lie in the attainment of convergence, but in the recognition and acceptance of difference’.

Secondly, it is important for us to note that women are not a homogeneous category and while united as a gender, they are also divided by class, ethnicity, religion, age, ideology and sexual preferences. We should keep these differences in mind when we talk about ‘globalisation and women’ as indeed, one women’s gain might be another women’s loss – as in the case of the female migrant domestic helper. The third point I would like us to bear in mind is that the discourse on the ‘woman question’ involves both men and women; that is the social and power relations between men and women – gender relations – in all aspects of life, from the family to the economic and political spheres.

But to come back to the original question – has globalisation chiselled away sexist structures, processes and attitudes? What have been or will be the opportunities for women’s empowerment and what are the threats to her continued oppression? I would like to argue that there have certainly been gains in terms of recognising women’s rights as human rights – these gains have been made both as a result of and in spite of globalisation – through centuries of struggle. Within the last three decades, these struggles have gained momentum due to the international women’s movement and through the various World Conferences on Women, starting from 1975 to the coming Beijing + 5 meeting in New York. Indeed these global meetings have attempted to put forth a global governance on women’s position and rights and in this way have served to pressure national governments to adapt their stances. As a result, women’s groups at the national level, including those in Malaysia, have used these global forums to also pressure from below. As Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out, ‘women’s assertion of active agency is a significant expression of democratic upsurge in developing countries and shall remain one of the largest contributions for the 20th century’ (cited in Agnihotri, 1999:7)

The 1995 Beijing Platform of Action acknowledged the following gains of the women’s movement:

  • Women’s rights are recognised as human rights.
  • Violence against women are legitimate issues which violate women’s dignity.
  • Women’s housework is recognised as having value and worthy of separate accounting.

Despite these gains, it is also clear that as we move into the 21st century – the century of the so-called borderless world, the development model which is being promoted globally is producing increasing inequality and environmental degradation (See various UNDP Human Development Reports 1996 - 1999). The richest 20 per cent of the world command 85 per cent of the world’s income, while the poorest 40 per cent own only 1.4 per cent of that same income. When measuring the gender-related development index (GDI), the 1997 Report discloses quite unabashedly that ‘no society treats its women as well as its men’.

What are some of the global statistics for women? Out of the 1.3 billion poor people in the world, 70 per cent are women, the majority of whom are illiterate with no access to basic amenities like safe drinking water. Two-thirds of the 130 million children worldwide who are not in school are girls. Between 75 and 80 per cent of the world’s 27 million refugees are women and children. Women hold 10.5 per cent of the seats in the world’s parliament. The majority of women earn an average about three-fourths of the pay of males for the same work. In most countries, women work about twice the unpaid time men do. One in every four households in the world is now headed by a woman. Worldwide 20 to 50 per cent of women experience some degree of domestic violence during marriage. The primary victims of today’s armed conflicts are civilian women and children, not soldiers, with rape becoming more evident as a weapon of war (United Nations Department of Public Information, 1997).

Let me elaborate on several of these issues in relation to opportunities and threats for women in this era of globalisation. Due to the limited time availabe, I would like to highlight five main concerns: feminisation of employment, migration and the family, violence against women, commoditisation of women and privatisation.

Issue 1: Feminisation of Employment

In order to respond to increasing and intense global competititon, corporations are creating various strategies to meet the challenges of their own survival. One of the major strategies deals with labour, and takes three main forms – labour flexibility, the casualisation of labour and the feminisation of labour. Concretely, dual labour processes are occurring – one which leads to a fragmentation of the labour process resulting in low-skilled and repetitive work, whereby there is a shift and/or combination of regular work with various forms of non-regular, flexible employment e.g. part-time, temporary, sub-contracted and home-based workers. The other process is the upgrading of workers’ skills in multi-task jobs using information communication technology (ICTs) resulting in an increasing demand for multi-skilled workers with hardware/software as well as business skills. The majority of the workers in the first category are women while those in the second are men, although more and more women are now being employed in ICT-led sectors.

The export boom in Southeast and East Asia in the last quarter of the 20th century was fuelled by the contribution of women in the export-related activities and through the remittances made by migrant women workers. In Malaysia, we know that electrical and electronic products comprise about 60 per cent of the total manufactured exports, with the industry generating about one-third of manufacturing employment in the country. Many of us forget that the majority of those employed, particularly at the operator level are Malay women. As noted above, this trend towards the feminisation of paid employment in Asian countries was driven by the need of employers, usually MNCs, for cheaper and more flexible sources of labour. Global capitalism makes use of existing patriarchal ideology whereby women are perceived to be more subservient to (male) managerial authority, less prone to organise or being organised into unions, more willing to accept poorer working conditions and easier to dismiss using life-cycle criteria as marriage and child-birth (Ghosh, 1999).

However such a process is also double-edged. On the one hand the globalisation of trade and the economy has definitely opened up economic and income opportunities for women resulting in her improved status in the household and an increase in her position in society as well as her self-esteem. It has opened up choices for women in both the manufacturing and services sectors and for those in the higher-valued industries, it has also meant an increase in her skills. My research with Maznah Mohamed and TAN Beng Hui (forthcoming) on women electronics workers in two MNCs found that they are confident, have a great sense of pride in their company and a positive perception of themselves as part of the company they work in. With the expansion of ICTs, information processing work can now be globally distributed leading to new modes of working, such as telework, teletrade and e-commerce. Women as off-shore data entry workers, software programmers and systems analysts are finding novel employment opportunities in this digital age. In my own study of software companies in Malaysia, 30 per cent of the software personnel were women.

However, on the other hand, we know that the majority of the women workers work under inferior working conditions and often on shifts with serious implications on their social and physical health. Those in the lower end labour-intensive consumer electronics industries suffer from health problems ranging from extreme fatigue and general health problems due to chemical hazards and job stress.

The current crisis has more serious implications for women than for men, not least because more women than men are hired in those export-led industries being affected, and more women than men are in the unskilled and low-skilled jobs, but also because women are also strongly affected by the loss of their incomes within the household. The retrenchment data for the Malaysian electronics sector (this data is for companies which reported retrenchment from January 1998 till May 1999) revealed that 26 per cent of their employees were retrenched during the 17 month period. The majority were local workers with women comprising 65 per cent of those retrenched. Most of the retrenchment came from the foreign-owned companies with their workers forming 75 per cent of the total retrenched. According to Ghosh (1999) there is a real possibility that the long march towards equality for women in the region, particularly for poor women, may be halted or even reversed by the current economic turmoil.

This is because poor women all over Asia, and in Malaysia, are at the bottom of a vertical sub-contracting process which squeezes profits at each level. These women, located in the urban slums, in small towns, estates, rural villages and migrant workers will be the most exploited as they are often low-skilled, possess less formal education, are unorganised and hence more vulnerable. They will not enjoy the opportunities offered to their ‘sisters’ who have command of information technology. In such a situation those who fall by the wayside are the older production workers, both men and women. Generational gaps will occur within and across genders in terms of the new and dynamic forms of knowledge-based employment.

Issue 2: Migration, Breakdown of the Extended Family and Kinship Network

Like globalisation, migration is not a new phenomenon. Terms like berjelai and merantau point that the notion of ‘movement’ is part of our local vocabulary. However at that time, rural households were held by kinship structures and reciprocal labour networks (berderau, gotong royong, bekerjasama) which ensured the cohesion of the community, including female-headed families. However, today as a result of the Green Revolution, these socio-economic networks have been replaced by cash and commodity relations, endangering these structures so crucial for social cohesion. In the rural areas, with the commercialisation of agriculture and the migration of husbands and daughters to the cities, poverty has now a female face. In indigenous communities, the taking away of their customary land to make way for the building of dams and commercial crops, has led to a denigration of the status of indigenous women, who once owned land and in which the planting of padi (padi pun or spirit) was related to their high status in the community.

At the global level, more than 120 million migrants have left their home countries in search of greener pastures abroad, leading to the warning by the United Nations of the ‘human crisis of our age’. In Asia, migration for economic reasons has denuded poor families leaving children to fare for themselves with either father or mother away in a foreign land. The problems faced by female migrant workers are concerns we have yet to grapple with in any systematic manner.

Migration of males has been a major factor leading to an increasing proportion of female maintained households, the majority belonging to extreme poverty. Thirty to thirty-five per cent of all rural households in India are female-headed households, compared to 25 per cent in Cambodia, 15.7 per cent in Korea and 21.4 per cent in Mongolia (Rasheda Salem, 1995). Malaysia has 600,000 female headed households.

The breakdown of the extended family is more clearly seen in the urban sector. Today, more and more, the nuclear family is the norm, especially in the cities, where the burden is heavier for the working couple who has to deal with stress both at work and in the family. Stress at work is compounded by calls of efficiency, productivity and achievement of quotas, while at the familial level there are daily struggles to catch up with the increasing cost of living, particularly with various public services being privatised. With women finding employment and a new-found freedom, they are asking for traditional gender relations to change. Without proper communication and patriarchal ideology slow to change, tensions within the family increase leading to familial breakdown. Divorce rates are increasing especially in the cities, and society often blames women for marriage break-downs as they have become more aggressive, ‘demanding their own space’. Will there be a backlash for women who have struggled so long for their rights?

Issue 3: Better laws, increased awareness, increasing violence against women: a crisis in masculinity?

There is no doubt that there has been an increased awareness that violence against women is a crime – in fact this awareness coupled with reforms in the relevant laws have been one of the successes of the women’s movement at the global and national level. Yet why is it that violence against women in many countries is not decreasing, despite numerous campaigns by women’s groups? As noted earlier, worldwide 20-50 per cent of women suffer some domestic violence during marriage. Let us look at other statistics.

  • The total number of reported rape cases in Malaysia increased from 879 in 1993 to 1323 in 1997 – a 50% increase (AWAM, 2000). Rape of teen-age girls rose form 604 cases in 1995 to 719 in 1996. Police statistics disclose that in 1996, 67 per cent of rapes were victims below 16 years of age; 85 per cent of these rapes were committed by boyfriends, family members and neighbours (New Sunday Times, February 16, 1997)

  • The reported cases of female domestic violence increased from 466 in 1992 to 5,799 in 1997, a 1000 per cent increase. This number actually shot from 2,291 reported cases in 1996 to 5,799 in 1997 perhaps due to the increased awareness due to the implementation of the DVA.

  • Domestic abuse of women, both physical and mental is on the rise, with Bangladesh reporting an increasing trend in suicides among women

  • Increased cases of dowry related deaths and harassment of young brides are reported in India, Nepal and Bangladesh

  • Prostitution, forced prostitution, trafficking in women and children with associated violence and harassment have become a major concern in the region

  • Widespread sexual violence against women in situations of armed conflicts and civil unrest are reported in Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines

  • Women migrant workers are increasingly becoming victims of sexual violence

How do we explain the above phenomenon? In Malaysia, despite the wide publicity given to the sexual harassment code, our own male Parliamentarians made unwanted sexual innuendos at our female MPs. And it is well known that when both the amendments to the laws on rape and the DVA were proposed, there were loud guffaws from the male MPs.

Feminist accounts in the west have suggested that since the 1970s, gender violence increases when men feel they are losing ground as a sex (Jamieson, 2000). It is also not very clear to what extent the economic crisis has led to an increase of violence against women. Indeed today, 30 per cent or 2.5 billion of the workforce are unemployed or under-employed – many of these are men whose socio-cultural and symbolic role as the bread-winner in the family (in fact this is increasingly untrue but society still treats female labour as secondary) is increasingly being threatened. In Malaysia, 55 per cent of those retrenched during the recent crisis were men. The ability of men to ‘take care of the family’ is thus being chipped away leading, I believe, to a crisis in masculinity.

From another angle, very often, the transformation of unequal gender relations touches very intimate cultural and emotional knots in our personal lives – and these are the hardest to acknowledge and change. For men, who are themselves exploited as workers, it is giving up years of macho masculinity, and to learn to say sorry after beating up your wife for years. How do you treat your wife as an equal when you have always been the master of the house? For women, ‘sleeping with the enemy’ makes it all the more difficult to challenge such violent relationships. If globalisation is a project of modernity, leading to changing female roles, patriarchal attitudes are certainly still in the pre-modern, if not primordial stage. The notion of equal partnership as articulated through relations, processes and structures have yet to take root.

Issue 4: Commoditisation of women and sexuality

The market has also affected culture which is increasingly being commercialised and commoditised. The rise of individualism (to be different, to compete with others by having more) and consumerism actually comes hand in hand with globalisation and the need for MNCs to sell their products to accumulate more surplus for themselves. Firms and individuals follow suit in their pursuit of materialism and the creation of status symbols. In the same vein, sexuality and women’s bodies are being commoditised as never before - from pornography, sex-tourism and sex-trafficking to advertisements and beauty schemes which feed on our emotional insecurities and little vanities.

Economic globalisation in the form of ‘market democracy’ has also created the image of the New Asian Women. She is the professional women, entrepreneur, manageress, executive who is articulate, glamorous and assertive. This image is in every women’s magazine, avidly read by the middle class and aspiring working class women who don’t have the means to buy your designer clothes and skin-whitening products. This icon of the fashionable and glamorous energy-filled woman is sharply contrasted with the veiled Muslim woman.

Issue 5: Privatisation and the Rolling Back of the State

Last but not least a brief word on privatisation, a strong arm of globalisation, and its implications for women. Under the guise of free market restructuring, the privatisation of public services has led not only to its reduced availability, but often, to higher prices of such services as well as basic necessities. Because women are still expected to be responsible for child care and family maintenance, they will bear the disproportionate weight of these constraints. Women as home-makers have to balance out the extra costs due to increase of costs in public utilities, and education and health care as a result of cuts in public subsidies. Not only will their double burden be intensified, there will also be mounting pressure to assume multiple roles both as paid and unpaid labour e.g. taking care of the elderly, the retrenched, taking on extra work in the informal sector. Those adversely affected will be poor women who will have decreased or no access to such amenities, or will have to struggle more to gain access to these services for their family.


What conclusions can be made? I would like to mention four main observations.

There have been increased economic opportunities for women but also mounting threats. In the present global re-shaping of labour, studies have shown that as a company goes into labour casualisation, the higher is the number of women employed, and the greater is their vulnerability to exploitative conditions (ISIS, 1999). Labour flexibility has also led to job insecurities for men resulting in erosions to their masculinity. To what extent has this led to increased gender violence and strengthened patriarchy?

While the developmentalist and corporatist state, because of its links with capital, has been unable to qualitatively improve working conditions for women, global and local pressures have led it to make concessions to women, particularly in the passing of laws to improve/protect the position of women. In a sense these laws have not really threatened the economic and political base of the state and those in power, and are thus tolerated. But today, the issue of women, at least at the level of rhetoric, can no longer be discounted.

Nonetheless, these laws while helpful, have not genuinely transformed unequal gender relations nor have they led to more democratic processes and structures in society. Women do not want market democracy but genuine democracy. The call of the Women’s Agenda for Change (1999) for more accountability and democracy will not be accepted by the state.

It is thus important for the women’s movement to link up with other social movements, and for the wider democratic social and political movement to seriously incorporate women’s concerns. However, we must be able to present alternatives to the present trends of commoditisation, individualism and materialism, as well as the forces of conservatism, if indeed we want to engage with globalisation on equal terms and in the context of our own interests.



Agnihotri, Indu (1999) "Globalisation and the State", paper presented at DAWN Asia-Pacific Workshop on Political Restructuring and Social Transformation, 8-11 October, Thailand.

All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) (2000) Draft Report on Rape Research.

Ghosh, Jayati (1999) "Globalisation and Economic Liberalisation", ISIS Women in Action.

Jamieson, Lynn (2000) Lecture Series organised by the Gender Studies Unit, Universiti Malaya.

Maznah Mohamad, Cecilia Ng and Tan Beng Hui (forthcoming) "Globalisation, Industrialisation and Crisis: The Coming of Age of Malaysian Women Workers?" United Nations Human Development Report (1996–1999).

Women’s Development Collective (1999) Women’s Agenda for Change.

Wong, Diana (1999) "Globalisation Reconsidered: Social and Cultural Aspects from an Asian Perspective", unpublished manuscript.