By Christine Ahn and Kavita Ramdas
As Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the world’s most powerful financial institution, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), spends a few nights in Rikers Island prison awaiting a hearing, the world is learning a lot about his history of treating women as expendable sex objects. Strauss-Kahn has been charged with rape and forced imprisonment of a 32-year-old Guinean hotel worker at a $3,000-a-night luxury hotel in New York.
While the media dissects the attempted rape of a young African woman and begins to dig out more information about Strauss-Kahn’s past indiscretions, we couldn’t help but see this situation through the feminist lens of the “personal is political.”
For many in the developing world, the IMF and its draconian policies of structural adjustment have systematically “raped” the earth and the poor and violated the human rights of women. It appears that the personal disregard and disrespect for women demonstrated by the man at the highest levels of leadership within the IMF is quite consistent with the gender bias inherent in the IMF’s institutional policies and practice.
Systematic Violation of Women’s Human Rights
The IMF and the World Bank were established in the aftermath of World War II to promote international trade and monetary cooperation by giving governments loans in times of severe budget crises. Although 184 countries make up the IMF’s membership, only five countries—France, Germany, Japan, Britain, and the United States—control 50 percent of the votes, which are allocated according to each country’s contribution.
The IMF has earned its villainous reputation in the Global South because in exchange for loans, governments must accept a range of austerity measures known as structural adjustment programs (SAPs). A typical IMF package encourages export promotion over local production for local consumption. It also pushes for lower tariffs and cuts in government programs such as welfare and education. Instead of reducing poverty, the trillion dollars of loans issued by the IMF have deepened poverty, especially for women who make up 70 percent of the world’s poor.
IMF-mandated government cutbacks in social welfare spending have often been achieved by cutting public sector jobs, which disproportionately impact women. Women hold most of the lower-skilled public sector jobs, and they are often the first to be cut. Also, as social programs like caregiving are slashed, women are expected to take on additional domestic responsibilities that further limit their access to education or other jobs.
In exchange for borrowing $5.8 billion from the IMF and World Bank, Tanzania agreed to impose fees for health services, which led to fewer women seeking hospital deliveries or post-natal care and naturally, higher rates of maternal death. In Zambia, the imposition of SAPs led to a significant drop in girls’ enrollment in schools and a spike in “survival or subsistence sex” as a way for young women to continue their educations.
But IMF’s austerity measures don’t just apply to poor African countries. In 1997, South Korea received $57 billion in loans in exchange for IMF conditionalities that forced the government to introduce “labor market flexibility,” which outlined steps for the government to compress wages, fire “surplus workers,” and cut government spending on programs and infrastructure. When the financial crisis hit, seven Korean women were laid off for every one Korean man. In a sick twist, the Korean government launched a "get your husband energized" campaign encouraging women to support depressed male partners while they cooked, cleaned, and cared for everyone.
Nearly 15 years later, the scenario is grim for South Korean workers, especially women. Of all OECD countries, Koreans work the longest hours: 90% of men and 77% of women work over 40 hours a week. According to economist Martin Hart-Landsberg, in 2000, 40 percent of Korean workers were irregular workers; by 2008, 60 percent worked in the informal economy. The Korean Women Working Academy reports that today 70 percent of Korean women workers are temporary laborers.
Selling Mother Earth
IMF policies have also raped the earth by dictating that governments privatize the natural resources most people depend on for their survival: water, land, forests, and fisheries. SAPs have also forced developing countries to stop growing staple foods for domestic consumption and instead focus on growing cash crops, like cut flowers and coffee for export to volatile global markets. These policies have destroyed the livelihoods of small-scale subsistence farmers, the majority of whom are women.
“IMF adjustment programs forced poor countries to abandon policies that protected their farmers and their agricultural production and markets,” says Henk Hobbelink of GRAIN, an international organization that promotes sustainable agriculture and biodiversity. "As a result, many countries became dependent on food imports, as local farmers could not compete with the subsidized products from the North. This is one of the main factors in the current food crisis, for which the IMF is directly to blame."
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), IMF loans have paved the way for the privatization of the country’s mines by transnational corporations and local elites, which has forcibly displaced thousands of Congolese people in a context where women and girls experience obscenely high levels of sexual slavery and rape in the eastern provinces. According to Gender Action, the World Bank and IMF have made loans to the DRC to restructure the mining sector, which translates into laying off tens of thousands of workers, including women and girls who depend on the mining operations for their livelihoods. Furthermore, as the land becomes mined and privatized, women and girls responsible for gathering water and firewood must walk even further, making them more susceptible to violent crimes.
We Are Over It
Women’s rights activists around the globe are consistently dumbfounded by how such violations of women’s bodies are routinely dismissed as minor transgressions. Strauss-Kahn, one of the world’s most powerful politicians whose decisions affected millions across the globe, was known for being a “womanizer” who often forced himself on younger, junior women in subordinate positions where they were vulnerable to his far greater power, influence, and clout. Yet none of his colleagues or fellow Socialist Party members took these reports seriously, colluding in a consensus shared even by his wife that the violation of women’s bodily integrity is not in any sense a genuine violation of human rights.
Why else would the world tolerate the unearthly news that 48 Congolese women are raped every hour with deadening inaction? Eve Ensler speaks for us all when she writes, “I am over a world that could allow, has allowed, continues to allow 400,000 women, 2,300 women, or one woman to be raped anywhere, anytime of any day in the Congo. The women of Congo are over it too.”
We live in a world where millions of women don’t speak their truth, don’t tell their dark stories, don’t reveal their horror lived every day just because they were born women. They don’t do it for the same reasons that the women in the Congo articulate – they are tired of not being heard. They are tired of men like Strauss-Kahn, powerful and in suits, believing that they can rape a black woman in a hotel room, just because they feel like it. They are tired of the police not believing them or arresting them for being sex workers. They are tired of hospitals not having rape kits. They are tired of reporting rape and being charged for adultery in Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
For each one of them, and for those of us who have spent many years investing in the tenacity of women’s movements across the globe, the courage and gumption of the young Guinean immigrant shines like the torch held by Lady Liberty herself. This young woman makes you believe we can change this reality. She refused to be intimidated. She stood up for herself. She fought to free herself—twice—from the violent grip of the man attacking her. She didn’t care who he was—she knew she was violated and she reported it straight to the hotel staff, who went straight to the New York police, who went straight to JFK to pluck Strauss-Kahn from his first-class Air France seat.
In a world where it often feels as though wealth and power can buy anything, the courage of a young woman and the people who stood by her took our breath away. These stubborn, ethical acts of working class people in New York City reminded us that women have the right to say “no.” It reminded us that “no” does not mean “yes” as the Yale fraternities would have us believe, and, most importantly that no one, regardless of their position or their gender, should be above the law. A wise woman judge further drove home the point about how critically important it is to value women’s bodies when she denied Strauss-Kahn bail citing his long history of abusing women.
Strauss-Kahn sits in his Rikers Island cell. It would be a great thing if his trial succeeds in ending the world’s tolerance for those who discriminate and abuse women. We cannot tolerate it one second longer. We cannot tolerate it at the personal level, we must refuse to condone it at the professional level, and we must challenge it every time it we see it in the policies of global institutions like the International Monetary Fund.
This article was originally published in Foreign Policy in Focus.