Rahila Gupta

Taxing lives, trading women

Tax havens and international trade deals are feminist issues. At this year’s AWID conference in Brazil, activists from across the globe are discussing strategies for engaging with these systems.

This article is part of 50.50’s in-depth coverage of the 2016 AWID Forum being held on 8th -11th September in Bahia, Brazil.

Opening plenary of the 2016 AWID Forum, Bahia, Brazil.


We are in a transitionary moment, trapped inside a crumbling neo-liberal system, deep inequalities and uneven austerity without a route map out of this chaos.  That feminists need to engage with these systemic issues is a recurrent theme at this year’s AWID conference.

Not all the speakers at the AWID Forum this year share the analysis that neoliberalism is unravelling. They point to the obscene levels of wealth concentration in the hands of a small minority (one statistic quoted is that 62 people own the same amount of wealth as half the world’s population) and that the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis has led to the enrichment of the 1% at the expense of the 99%. At one session, ‘Trading Away Feminist Futures’, Celita Eccher of DAWN argued that this moment of concentration of capital is the worst in history, and that the chameleon-like nature of the system has made it more difficult to defeat than we had realised. She despairs that our political message does not reach those in thrall to consumerism.  The view was echoed by Kate Lappin of Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APFWLD), who sees this as a particular moment where the strength of capital is defining the role of nation states and the global political order, leading to inequality, climate change and loss of democracy.

On the other hand, Anita Nayar of Regions Refocus pointed out that, since the crisis, the neoliberal economic model is being challenged like never before. She believes that feminists and other political activists should take credit for at least pushing governments into accepting the reality of the financial and climate crisis. However, feminists in general have been slow to grasp the nettle and engage with economics. The very complexity and lack of transparency of financial markets and banking systems makes it very difficult to engage.

Havens of inequality

DAWN has tried to demystify some of these connections. A report on Curbing Illicit Financial Flows and dismantling secrecy jurisdictions to advance women’s human rights explains how tax policies have a different impact on women and men because of their unequal positions in the workforce, as consumers, producers, as asset owners, and as carers within and outside households. The report looks at the less explored international dimensions of gender and taxation, in particular, the way in which trafficking profits are laundered: “Among the international crimes generating IFFs (Illicit Financial Flows) is that of human trafficking, which impacts heavily on women. The proceeds of such exploitation appear to be laundered using the same structures, mechanisms, jurisdictions and enablers as those of tax evasion and avoidance.”

Kate Lappin of APWLD estimates that offshore banking and tax havens are hoarding $33trillion. This scale of evasion leaves governments short of money and therefore unable to fulfil their obligations to gender equality: “When the State does not mobilize sufficient resources, and has budget shortfalls therefore providing insufficient and low quality services (i.e. education, health, sanitation, public transport, social infrastructure, care services), gender inequalities are perpetuated or even exacerbated.”

There is a view that the appropriate response to market-imposed inequalities is to spread the culture of entrepreneurship to women, particularly in Africa, which can be summarised as ‘everything will be okay if we all become entrepreneurs’.Awino Okech warns us not to be co-opted into this argument. This is simply an attempt to head off challenge; women are the next imagined market. This capital-driven economic argument is not really addressing structural injustice and inequality, which is shaping lack of women’s access to public, economic, legal, and political spaces whilst financial resources for feminist organisations are shrinking. Global capital makes us “run around like in a hamster wheel”.

Gender and trade ‘agreements’

Trade agreements also feature at the conference.  The session ‘Trading Lives, Trading Women’ focussed on the downside of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). We in Europe have been alerted to the downsides of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) through effective campaigning, which has highlighted the way in which transnational companies can hold governments to account in court if they stand in the way of privatisation, especially in the NHS. If TTIP goes through as it stands, corporations would be able to sue governments if their policies inhibited thecorporation’s growth. The argument about the impact on women of such trade deals has not been widely made by feminists here. However women from the Pacific Rim countries such as the Philippines see the TPPA, also carried out in secret, as very much a feminist issue. It has been dubbed The Profit over People Agreement by GABRIELA, the Philippines women’s organisation.

Trading Feminist Futures’. Moderator: Noelene Nabulivou. Speakers: Lice Cokanasiga, Kate Lappin, Celita Eccher, Anita Nayar.

The Trans-Pacific partnership between USA and a dozen countries is a ‘free’ trade agreement that will affect 40 percent of the global economy and comes at a price: such agreements tend to export jobs and depress wages. The NAFTA agreement led to a loss of nearly a quarter of a million jobs, the impact falling mostly on low-income workers, two thirds of whom, in the USA, are women. For US women this means no health insurance and other benefits; it also has a disproportionate impact on ‘women of colour’.

Kate Lappin argues that to describe these arrangements as trade agreements is misleading when they are a disguised attempt to force government to legislate in favour of corporations and in the interests of capital. Under NAFTA, 25 countries have been sued for tax policies alone. Many more countries have been sued in total for their environmental regulations, access to water regulations and a host of other issues. The secrecy ensures that there are no reliable figures but campaigners estimate that at least 62 countries have been sued. They have even been sued for charging heads of corporations who have already been convicted of corruption by a supra-body – an arbitration system that is separate from the country’s courts. Time and again, speakers gave examples of how investor rights are trumping human rights, which is why feminist movements should be part of opposing corporatocracy.

Free Trade agreements have been mis-sold as development. Obama’s keenness to have the TPPA in his bag was to make sure that China didn’t encroach on his patch because the TPPA “allows America – and not countries like China – to write the rules of the road in the 21st century”.

At the opening plenary here in Brazil, Miriam Miranda of OFRANEH from Honduras asks passionately, “Why do we keep insisting on a development model which destroys nature, destroys our social fabric, destroys entire communities and denies our identities, and appropriates the common goods of nature which belong to each of us. It’s an unsustainable model, it’s collective suicide.” There is a growing need to further extend the feminist analytical tool of intersectionality beyond the more familiar race, class, gender paradigm to the intersections between women’s lives and unfair trade, finance, corporate power, aid and development practices. The AWID Forum recognises this, but there is still much work to be done.

All images by Rahila Gupta.

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