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Why a feminist political economy analysis of women’s health and reproductive freedom?

by Maria Tanyag on January 28, 2019

My recent article ‘Invisible labour, invisible bodies’ was the recipient of the 2018 Australian International Political Economy Network (AIPEN) Richard Higgott Journal Article Prize. I am very grateful to the Selection Committee, for those who voted in support of this article, and to all AIPEN members for this recognition. The article was published in International Feminist Journal of Politics and forms part of a larger research project examining women’s bodies as crucial sites for interrogating the various scales wherein social reproductive labour is harnessed to service various economic activities, including nation-building and how the costs and benefits of this servicing remain profoundly unequal before, during and after crises. The research situates the replenishment of women’s health and well-being in everyday life and during times of crisis squarely within the material and ideological reproduction of peace and security in the household, community, state and global levels.

Specifically, I was prompted by the Philippines as a case study due to what I noted as gender contradictions. First, the Philippines has consistently been Asia’s most gender equal country and a regional leader in the Asia Pacific based on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. Yet, reproductive freedoms, particularly access to sexual and reproductive health care services and information, are curtailed. The result has been poor and deteriorating health outcomes distinctly impacting women and girls. In the Philippines, there has not been a significant reduction of maternal deaths for more than two decades. Women dying due to preventable pregnancy or childbirth complications is a clear indicator of prevailing gender inequalities. Globally, “there is no single cause of death and disability for men between the ages of 15 and 44 that is close to the magnitude of maternal death and disability”. Ongoing restrictions to reproductive freedom in the Philippines is also such that while there is a global decline in new HIV cases , these have drastically increased in the country and with young people at high risk. The country reached a surge of new cases in 2017, representing the highest reported percentage increase in a span of ten years for the country. Regionally, the Philippines now has the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the Asia Pacific.

Second, women also directly and indirectly contribute to the country’s economy. Historically and continuously, the Philippines is sustained by labour export predominantly of women and men employed in care-related and service industries. Branded as ‘heroes of the nation’, many Filipino women have made great personal sacrifices to work overseas to send remittances to support their low to middle-income families. The breadth and depth of labour export is such that migrant remittances have been the most stable financial flow in the Philippines and amount to approximately 10 percent of the national gross domestic product (GDP). Yet, these migrant workers are also so routinely exposed to different types of violence. Filipino domestic workers endure precarious work conditions and are at risk of rape and sexual violence, physical abuse or maltreatment and even death from their employers. The abuses suffered by migrant workers are so normalised and ‘expected’ that most recently, President Duterte remarked that ‘rape comes with the territory’ for those working as ‘slaves’ overseas.

If the country is so reliant on care and specifically upon women’s bodies for the reproduction of its national economy, why then is it also where women’s bodily autonomy and well-being are deeply neglected?

In ‘Invisible labour, invisible bodies’, I draw on feminist political economy analysis to demonstrate how restrictions to reproductive freedoms and normalised violence against domestic workers are two interconnected forms of depletion of women’s bodies enabled at the global level. I provide evidence as to how profoundly unjust and insidious the current state of sexual and reproductive health in the Philippines is given precisely the intensification of a ‘feminisation of survival’ fuelled by neoliberal economic policies globally. As I put it, “women and girls are being made responsible for everything else, and yet are denied the means to take better care of their own bodies”.

My article provides three main insights as to why a feminist political economy lens matters for understanding women’s health and well-being. First, the research advances existing political economy scholarship by demonstrating the continuum between the gradual loss of bodily integrity and the structural and symbolic forms of gender-based violence with which women and girls disproportionately contend on a daily basis. My analysis draws from the work of feminist scholars to particularly connect Shirin Rai, Catherine Hoskyns and Dania Thomas’ concept of ‘depletion through social reproduction’, Jacqui True’s the political economy of violence against women; and Juanita Elias and Shirin Rai’s ‘everyday gendered political economy of violence’. Women’s bodies are depleted gradually and in violent ways because of and through the economic devaluing of their labour. My article therefore contributes to the understanding that care needs to be recognised and accounted for not only to value women’s labour, but also to address ways in which certain forms of bodies are rendered disposable and depleted.

Second, my article examines the role of religious fundamentalisms, specifically Catholic fundamentalism, in ideologically legitimising the material structures of a neoliberal economy. I argue that women’s labour is economically devalued and that this devaluing is complemented by cultural and religious ‘technologies of servitude’ that help valorise feminised sacrifice and maternal altruism beginning at the household level. In the Philippines, Catholic fundamentalism abets the depletion of women’s bodies through fashioning compliant and subservient Filipino women who are both ideal care workers overseas and also valued mothers, wives and daughters in Philippine society. Religious fundamentalists help perpetuate the economic invisibility of women’s bodies by restricting access to sexual and reproductive health services which are crucial for ensuring the conditions for bodily autonomy – because they too have a stake in the control of women’s bodies. Doing so ensures that Catholic religious leaders and conservative elites in the country have an enduring influence in Philippine politics and society.

Finally, my focus on reproductive freedoms underscores the need for ongoing political economy research and analysis of gender, sexuality and rising fundamentalisms. By this I mean not just religion-based but also the intersections of various manoeuvres to monopolise decision-making in the name of protecting ‘the family’, tradition, national or group identity. The policy influence of conservative political and economic elites and especially authoritarian or ‘strongman’ rulers have gendered and material impacts. One example is the 2017 reinstatement of the US Global Gag Rule that excludes from receiving aid those groups that provide or support abortion and related services. In reading ‘Invisible labour, invisible bodies’ I want others to pay attention to how reversals and the (re)imposition of restrictions to sexual and reproductive health are increasingly integral measures in the blatant consolidation of authority and resources at national and global levels.

Winners of the AIPEN Richard Higgott Journal Article Prize

2018 – Maria Tanyag, ‘Invisible labor, invisible bodies: how the global political economy affects reproductive freedom in the Philippines’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 19:1 (2017): 39–54. 

2017 – Samanthi J. Gunawardana, ‘“To Finish, We Must Finish”: Everyday Practices of Depletion in Sri Lankan Export-Processing Zones’, Globalizations, 13:6 (2016): 861-75.

2016 – Gareth Bryant, ‘“Fixing” the Climate Crisis: Capital, States and Carbon Offsetting in India’ (co-authored with Siddhartha Dabhi and Steffen Böhm), Environment and Planning A, 47:10 (2015).

2015 – Ainsley Elbra, ‘Interests Need Not be Pursued if They Can be Created: Private Governance in African Gold Mining’, Business and Politics, 16:2 (2014).

Maria Tanyag
Dr Maria Tanyag is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Gender, Peace and Security (GPS) Centre at Monash University. She is a recipient of the 2018 Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) Early Career Research Impact Award. In May 2019, she will commence her new role as lecturer at the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

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