Feminism and Economic Justice

Feminism is closely linked to economic justice; both are against discrimination, exploitation and marginalisation. Economic justice cannot be achieved in a patriarchal society, where women face numerous political, economic, social and cultural constraints.

This article focuses on the intersection between feminism and economic justice in the area of labour. The higher unemployment, marginalisation and exclusion rates are, the less chances to achieve economic justice would exist and the more threatened by higher poverty rates society would be. Patriarchal culture is dominant in the Arab region, limiting women’s access to many services. As such, women are more likely to live in poverty. So much so that the phenomenon has been called "the feminisation of poverty."

Using feminism as an analysis tool, the article will examine the impact of this unequal relationship and its consequences, namely discrimination and gender-based violence, and how feminism could contribute to economic justice.

Feminist economics as an analysis tool

Feminist economics focus on measuring time and effort women put into domestic work and factoring their value into GDP. In Arab countries, women carry out unpaid labour 4.7 times more than men—the highest rate in the world according to UN Women. Patriarchal and capitalist societies overlook the fact that without caring work carried out by women, the economy would be halted. They regard caring as marginal work, unworthy of remuneration—work that does not require intellectual skills or abilities; rather, a few personal qualities such as kindness, compassion and patience. It is men who carry out paid labour, which gives them privileges including control of women within dynamics that keep men the decision makers.

Feminist economics expose the explitation and stereotyping to which women are subjected in the labour market by patriarchal societies and capitalist economic policies. In such a context, women’s productive role is limited to caring labour (education, nursing, domestic work and selling food). They are excluded from certain professions under the pretext of family responsibilities or lack of physical or mental ability. As such, women are either constrained by the patriarchy or exploited and abused in the labour market.

Decent work

In 1999, the International Labour Organization (ILO) placed the “decent work” concept at the heart of its policies and constitutional objectives. Decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives and their hopes for opportunities, rights, family stability, personal development, justice, gender equality, and their ability to express their concerns. The ILO seeks to fill the gaps through innovative programmes for decent work, which have four pillars, namely 1) creating job opportunities; 2) developing institutions, social protection and standards; 3) work rights; and 4) social dialogue. The programmes are aligned with the ILO’s declaration on social justice, which calls for a more just globalisation that respects the main objective to enhance social justice.

However, the gap between women’s position in the labour market and decent work standards is growing exponentially. Unemployment rates among women are increasing compared to those among men. When they enter the labour market, women are discriminated against, which prevents them from taking up jobs suitable for their qualifications and expertise, because of their gender. Moreover, men dominate decision making positions in every sector. The pay gap increases to their advantage, as well as promotion possibilities. Women also face violence and harassment in the workplace due to the lack of active protection policies when the harasser is in a higher professional rank. This causes significant health and mental harm to violence survivors, negatively affecting their productive ability and leading them to take leaves and minimise their presence in the workplace, or, in some cases, to submit their resignation and leave the labour market altogether.

Women are compelled to take informal jobs in rural and poorer areas, where illiteracy rates are high and women are forcefully married at a very early age. Women choose this type of work because it allows them to work from home and enables them to raise capital in different ways, including loans. However, women face obstacles in this as well. Loan payments accumulate because projects’ activities are redundantly alike, marketing opportunities are scarce, and women’s access to training is extremely limited.

The arguments above show that while women entering the labour market without changing traditional unfair gender roles, whether in the household or in the workplace, helps increase households’ income, which means enhancing purchasing power and quality of life and, eventually, improving development and local economic indexes, it does not give them the right to make economic decision inside and outside the household.

Alternative policies

Feminists realise that the path is not easy. Patriarchal culture is rampant in institutional structures. Decision makers in these institutions are part of the patriarchal society. They do not treat women in the workplace as equal educated qualified colleagues who can carry out the same tasks as men, insisting on their patriarchal vision of gender roles. When decision makers believe in traditional gender roles, which is the case in Arab societies, the workplace turns into a space for patriarchal domination and control, fostering discriminatory practices against women, under the pretext that men deserve higher wages because they support their families, even when this is not the case. One common claim is that men are more suitable for leadership roles because they are more reasonable while women are more emotional, and because such roles require longer hours which women do not have because they are needed in the household for their domestic work.

Despite all this, feminists are claiming more and more space to dismantle this patriarchal rhetoric, start a social dialogue about caring work, and rethink the assignment of social roles in a just manner. Many feminist organisations work with women syndicalists to enable them to express and advocate for themselves, whether within syndicalist organisations or society at large. Additionally, feminists are encouraging and empowering women syndicalists to engage in their syndicates and take leadership roles. This direct engagement and communication between feminist organisations and syndicates helped women syndicalists form a clearer vision of gender justice and its importance, which improves women’s situation, but also is a cornerstone of sustainable development and social justice.

The international community is currently occupied with achieving the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, one of the main goals of which is gender equality. International entities concerned with labour, and national strategies for sustainable development goals highly prioritise gender equality. Thus, the way is paved for feminist organisations and syndicates to form an interim programme to be a starting point towards gender and economic justice, based on the following:

  • Demanding that governments sign and ratify ILO conventions on gender equality, especially the Violence and Harassment Convention (C190) and the Domestic Workers Convention (C189).
  • Setting up and carrying out a national working plan in every Arab country to create a framework which empowers women to participate in economic activities and take leadership roles, creates a safe working environment free from violence and discrimination, develops knowledge and raises awareness about gender and labour, enhances support, and raises societal awareness of gender equality issues in the work place.
  • Reviewing regulations to integrate gender issues, especially those related to economic policies, investment and labour.
  • Empowering women to actively participate in economic decision making and access economic resources.
  • Conducting a more comprehensive survey of the use of time, analysing all types of labour, assigning a just value for unpaid labour, and factoring unremunerated caring work into national GDPs to assign real economic value to domestic work.
  • Holding governments, the business sector and syndicates responsible for reassigning social roles in such a manner as to create a meaningful partnership between men and women, inside and outside the household; for creating equal opportunities; and for empowering women to choose the economic activities in which they want to engage. This should be achieved through legislation and policies that enable balance between men and women, such as creating daycare establishments and giving men and women paternal leaves.

Achieving these demands requires establishing alliances and partnerships between feminist and syndicalist organisations, and governments’ commitment to the sustainable development goals for 2030, especially those related to gender equality. A feminist-syndicalist alliance could limit the negative impact of neoliberal policies which exploit women and subject them to violence and discrimination, by lowering their wages, limiting their work opportunities to caring work, or allowing employers to evade their legal duties towards protecting women’s reproductive role.

Mona Ezzat is an activist with more than 20 years of experience working within the feminist movement in Egypt and across the Arab World.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.


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