In Rwanda, women have taken charge of running the country since the 1994 genocide. “In the 14 years since the genocide, Rwanda has emerged as a leading example of how empowering women can transform post-conflict economies and fight poverty.” I read this in a recent Guardian Weekly (June 13, 08) and found it very interesting. But after finishing the short piece (written by Anthony Faiola for Washington Post), my question was: what is this piece doing at the very back of the paper (on p. 42) under the header “International Development”? I almost missed the article – I was about to recycle the paper when I noticed it.

Isn’t this big and exciting news that should be at the front of the paper, or at least in an earlier section and under the header “Economy”? The Guardian Weekly is one of the few papers where the Economy section is not undecipherable numbers of stock markets but stories just like this one. Is it because it’s about Africa or because it’s about women? That women in Africa don’t make economic news even if the news are about recovering economy – especially in these times when everywhere else the news are about looming recession and nosediving economies?

It was in that same paper where, in the Finance section, there was an article titled “US economy flashes red.” Why not couple that article with some good news from Africa? Why the success story of Rwandan women and economy doesn’t even make it to “International News”? The section “International Development” sometimes appears to be a token gesture of goodwill; to prove the readers the Guardian Weekly is still a paper with the critical edge. If the paper didn’t have an “International Development” section, would they have published the story about Rwandan women rescuing the country’s economy in another section or would it have remained unpublished? Who is the readership of the “International Development” section? Do economists read it? In short, my question remains: as a person interested in feminist economics, I want to know what makes the “real” economy news?

As far as I’m concerned, “Women take charge in Rwanda” is an important and interesting piece of economy news – plus a welcome change to the usual complaints of oil prices, sub-prime crises and the like. This article tells that “Female entrepreneurs in industries from agribusiness to tourism have been key to efforts to rebuild the nation and fight poverty. Women, far more than men, invest profits in the family, renovate homes, improve nutrition, increase savings and spend on children’s education. This seismic shift in gender economics in Rwanda is altering the way younger generations of males view their mothers and sisters, while offering a powerful lesson for other developing nations.”

It also says that “Officials at Vision Finance, the microloan arm of World Vision International that launched a programme in 2005 in this town [Masaka] of 40,000 people, said most of their borrowers were women. Four out of five of their defaulters were men. “They say that women care more about the family, but I do not know if that is true,” [Jeanine] Mukandayisenga told me. “I think it has more to do with the self-control woman show in hard times. We know how to survive when men despair.””

This is the case not only in Rwanda. “In 1990 a major study on poverty in Brazil, published in the Journal of Human Resources, showed that the effect of money managed by women in poor households was 20 times more likely to be spent on improving conditions in the home than money managed by men. In Bangladesh the Grameen Bank has focused its microloans on women. Microloan programs in Africa, Asia and Latin America have shown similar results.”

So this stuff doesn’t cut it for the economy section? Aren’t there some golden nuggets for both economists and policy wonks dealing with questions of poverty? Are the economy sections even in left-leaning newspapers the last bastion of the master narratives? The best irony of all is that also in that same paper, Guardian Weekly, June 13, 08, there was a “Comment&Debate” piece by George Monbiot — on small farmers being the planet’s best hope!!! (That was on page 24.)

Monbiot claims that Robert Mugabe is right, at least in theory. He writes: “Although the rich world’s governments won’t hear it, the issue of whether or not the world will be fed is partly a function of ownership. This reflects an unexpected discovery, first made in 1962 by the Nobel economist Amartya Sen and since confirmed by dozens of studies. There is an inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of crops they produce per hectare. The smaller they are, the greater the yield. In some cases the difference is enormous. A recent study in Turkey, for example, found that farms of less than one hectare are 20 times as productive as farms of more than 10 hectares. Sen’s observation has been tested in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, Java, the Philippines, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay. It appears to hold almost everywhere.”

The successes of Green Revolution didn’t last very long – a fact that’s often omitted in pro-gene technology geeks and others. Today in India, the Green Revolution results can be seen, among other things, in the alarming rates of farmer suicides. Monbiot asserts that “There are plenty of other reasons for defending small farmers in poor countries. The economic miracles in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan arose from their land reform programmes. … Growth based on small farms tends to be more equitable than growth built around capital-intensive industries. Although their land is used intesively, the total ecological impact of smallholdings is lower.”

Monbiot points out, like others have done before, the prejudice against small farmers. We use the word ‘peasant’ to insult and look down upon others. In our modern imagination, peasant implies backwardness if not primitiveness. But as Monbiot notes, “when you call someone a peasant, you are accusing them of being self-reliant and productive.” And it’s not only the self-styled modern individuals dissing farmers, but organizations such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and OECD who argue that small farms are not productive enough.

Monbiot writes: “Like Mugabe, the donor countries and big international bodies loudly demand that small farmers be supported, while quietly shafting them. Big business is killing small farming.” I would add the media to this conspiracy. In addition, most journalists, including Monbiot, miss the gender analysis in their articles.

At the end I want to include an excerpt from a recent article of mine that addresses the question of subsistence farming from a gendered perspective (you can stop reading here if you like):

“Traditional” economies characterized by a subsistence perspective continue to be opposed by both political and corporate elites for many reasons, including because they exist outside their reach: “land being used for a subsistence livelihood is off the market” (Bedford and Irving-Stephens 2001, 13). Ivan Illich links the emergence of a systematic and rigorous “war against subsistence” to the development paradigm after the Second World War (Illich 1982, cited in Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen 1999, 17).

Therefore, the real war of capital, as pointed out by Illich, is not against the unions but against subsistence. Only by destroying the capacity to subsist, are people brought under the complete control and power of capital (in Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen 1999, 19). A subsistence economy is considered a threat to capital accumulation because it does not comply with the capitalist logic and goals but rather signifies independence, self-sufficiency and self-reliance (cf. Erika Märke in Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen 1999, 21).

The destruction of self-sufficiency and political, social, and economic autonomy of Indigenous peoples is comparable to the disintegration of the subsistence economy of female farmers around the globe. Even in Europe, peasant women controlled many areas of production until well into the twentieth century.

Modern, industrial agriculture and its underlying values of patriarchy and market economy have changed the position of farming and peasant women from “relative independence to housewifely dependence.” By means of government interventions, policies, and other structural changes, “peasant women have increasingly been confined to the four walls of their house, and their work became more and more oriented toward consumption like that of middle-class urban housewives” (Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen 1999, 99).

Subsistence economy has always been largely the domain of women — women’s subsistence and other economic activities form(ed) the foundation of community sustenance. Therefore, the war against subsistence also represents a war against women and their economic, political, and social autonomy in society. Today, the autonomy and independence of women farmers especially in the global South is jeopardized, for example, by corporate attempts to commodify women’s labour, however cheaply. Interestingly, in continents like Africa, where the great majority of farmers and peasants are still women, corporations have not been very successful in establishing Export Processing Zones that rely on semiskilled and “docile” labour (Gibson 2004).

On the one hand, there is a war against subsistence by the capitalist ideology and production. On the other hand, however, accumulation of capital needs the subsistence sector, as argued by Rosa Luxemburg in the early twentieth century. Largely ignored and opposed at the time, Luxemburg’s thesis gains new momentum today when subsistence economies are rapidly disappearing and increasingly made impossible due to environmental degradation and expropriation of “new frontiers” of resources in the few remaining tropical forests (Nash 2001a).

Moreover, the connection between the subsistence sector and capitalist economy is characterized by a gender dynamic that has remained largely unrecognized. For example, women farmers have long subsidized male wage labour. In a similar fashion, Indigenous women’s household production has subsidized the formal market sector.

Kathy M’Closkey shows how, in the early twentieth century, the lives of Diné (Navajo) women weavers were radically altered by the global market (the first wave of free trade) in the form of the commercialization of the Diné textile production. While textile production grew more than 800 percent and the workload tripled, women weavers remained poor. There were several reasons for this outcome, one of them being that Diné women’s weaving was not considered work, and thus they could be paid next to nothing. “Without the weavers’ productivity, the U.S. government may have needed to step in and subsidize the purchases of Diné wool…. Thus thousands of “dark-skinned housewives” effectively subsidized the trading post system on the reservation system” (M’Closkey 2004, 119-120).

Saskia Sassen points out: “It was the “invisible” work of women producing food and other necessities in the subsistence economy that contributed to extremely low wages on commercial plantations and mines, mostly geared to export markets. Women in the so-called subsistence sector thereby contribute, through their largely unmonetized subsistence production, to the financing of the “modernized” sector” (Sassen 2000, 508).

By dismissing subsistence economies as backward and primitive, it is possible to devalue them and make them invisible while at the same time, to exploit them to subsidize and uphold the process of capital accumulation. Subsistence economies continue to exist in many parts of the world, usually alongside the more formal market economy. Although informal subsistence production in these mixed economies is often largely invisible, it continues to be crucial for the survival and well-being of the community. These forms of production are not, therefore, premodern or precapitalist, despite common perceptions and representations that seek to banish them to “noncontemporaneous space of the past” (Gibson-Graham 1996, 245).

For the full article, you can download it here.

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5 thoughts on “women in charge – long live the peasant!

  1. yes, I agree with the 2 earlier comments: this is an excellent read. There are many places for reflection. Thank you. There are many interesting articles on the link with your paper on it. Thank you.

    On another note, as I was reading your article I began to think about how Finnish immigrants who came to Canada turn of the century and especially later in the 50s or so when there was another wave of migration, that the people who came, who were primarily, if not almost exclusively, peasants who had learned to be self-reliant in their methods because of historically being ignored as “primitive” folks not worth the potatoes they planted, that they moved into deep capitalism as they arrived in North America.

    Not that they were all socialists, but it is true that even the tradtionalism or conservatism they practiced still had more of a collective sensibility due to their dependence on survival on the land. But arriving in the (constructed) land of dreams (it was, of course, and is, Indigenous land that was stolen, appropriated and taken over under British design) the hopeful arrivants had to leave behind any sort of collective sensibility and merge into capitalist individualism.

    They did this so well that subsequent generations (e.g. Finnish Canadians my age and younger) BECAME capitalists and individuals through normalization of “modernist” “progress” disguised simply in the rhetoric of becoming “Canadian”. So, the descendents of Finns and those who came here at a young age learned to discard the peasant “backward” pasts of their parents and grandparents in order to blend, to assimilate (into capitalist individualism, into white middle-class norms of existence).

    So, many folks here wonder, where is the younger generation to take up the practice of finnish Canadian identity, (dynamic) traditions, and keep a sense of the past — as peasant, as a struggle — alive? The culprit is capitalism, its individualism, and its community killing, navel-gazing pathology.

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