The International Alliance of Women and the Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights co-hosted a side-event on the financial crisis, recession and human rights on 13 March 2014, during the session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW58).
Radhika Balakrishnan, executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, spoke on the financialisation of the economy and the causes behind the financial crisis in her presentation. Finance has become a more important source of revenue than the production of goods, even for manufacturing industries like General Motors. GM earns more by lending money to car-buyers than by selling cars. According to Balakrishnan research into the gendered and racial aspects of the subprime crisis has revealed that the banks’ targeted vulnerable groups, such as ethnic minorities and women. Afro-american women in particular were sold loans that they were not able to pay back. These loans were split up, repacked and resold. The result was that the banks no longer carried the risk. This is possible because the act that previuosly separated banks from the financial market was abolished (Glass Steagall Act).
The UN is increasingly leaning on the corporate sector. This is also the case for the work on women’s rights. Balakrishnan emphasized the role of states and argued that the states need to be held to account to the human rights. Among them is the duty to protect, which also should iv´clude protection against the market and against economic crises caused by the banks. Today the state protects banks and corporations rather than people.
Balakrishnan missed macro-economic policy and financial regulation in this session of the Commission on the Status of Women, and in the future path for women’s rights within the UN. Financial regulation is a feminist issue, Balakrishnan concluded.
Joanna Manganara, sociologist, former civil servant in the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs and President of the International Alliance of Women, presented research on the consequences of the recession on women in Europe. A wide body of research shows that women suffer disproportionately from the austerity policies in Europe, both as employees and as care-givers. In a number of countries women’s labour market participation has been reduced. As a result of cuts in the public sector women lose their jobs as well as services which are necessary for women to take paid work, as well as shifting the care burden form the publicsecotr to unpaid care in the home. Some groups are particularly hit, such as lone mothers and single, elder women. Violence against women has increased during the recession, while spending cuts have led to a decrease in help and services available to the victims of violence.
Margunn Bjørnholt, director of Policy and Social Research AS and board member of IAW, spoke on Norway’s role in the financial crisis in view of human rights. Norway is a strong protagonist for human rights internationally and in the UN. Norway was hardly affected by the financial crisis, partly as a result of successfull counter-cyclical economic policies after the crisis. Through its role as an investor, in particular through its sovereign wealth fund, which is based on the revenue from the Norwegian oil industry, Norway gained from the crisis, and was partly responsible for it through investments in the banks and financial institutions that caused the crisis. In 2007 the Norwegian sovereign weath fund invested in a number of the financial institutíons that were involved in the subprime crisis, among them Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Bank of America, Freddie Mac, and other main culprits in causing the crisis.
As a creditor Norway shares responsibility for the debt management in the Euro-zone, imposing harsh conditions on other European countries, which have had a devastating effect, in particular on women. Despite the adoption of ethical guidelines in 2004, and despite the fact that the fund has acted on them and has withdrawn from some companies and some industries, such as tobacco, the fund’s investments, including its recent engagement in real estate continue to receive criticism. Referring to Radhika Balakrishnan and Diane Elson’s framework for evaluating macro-economic policy according to the human rights, Bjørnholt raised the question of regulation and accountability at a more general level: asking how should a sovereign wealth fund be viewed and how should it be held to account? Do the human rights obligations apply for a state acting as a company in the global economy?