Global Policy Forum

Women as Consumers and Producers


By Evelyne Hong

Third World Network
Fall 1995

Health is humankind's most basic consumer need and the most precious possession, next perhaps only to life itself. Good health is particularly important to women because lack of it affects them for a variety of reasons. As potential mothers requiring care and attention, women need specialised services related to the reproductive system. As mothers they become responsible for the health of their children and families. And as workers outside and inside the house, they often have to shoulder double burdens; consequently they are overworked, subject to poor working conditions and suffer undue overstrain and mental stress. They are more dependent on the health system than men, and are major consumers of health care due to their many roles.

In recent years many products related to women's health have been found to be dangerous or giving rise to illnesses which in some cases have led to deaths. Many of them have been banned or restricted in the developed countries although they continue to be marketed in the Third World. Third World countries have become convenient dumping grounds for products and medicines peddled by the transnational corporations (TNCs). Most of these products do not meet the safety standards in their countries of origin in the North and many Third World women have become unfortunate guinea pigs and victims. Some of these products include dangerous contraceptives like Depo Provera, the Dalkon Shield and Norplant.

Not only have the TNCs affected the health of Third World women with their marketing of dangerous contraceptives, they have also introduced new food and new tastes at the expense of wholesome traditional nutrition. Many of these foods are hawked by the TNCs as fashionable items of consumption. Across the Third World today can be found a wide array of costly beverages, packed in attractive cans and bottles, canned foods, frozen foods, fast food and processed foods which not only swamp supermarkets, but are also often prominently displayed in the remotest village shop.

The irony is that in most Third World countries, the basic needs of some two-thirds of the population are yet to be satisfied. Yet impoverished families have been persuaded by the sales tactics of TNCs to spend their hard-earned money on junk foods and products which they do not need. Coca Cola is sold in every village shop and even the families of fishermen buy canned fish which is advertised on radio, television and in glossy magazines. Farmers who can hardly make ends meet are known to spend a third of the family income on cigarettes and alcoholic drinks thus siphoning off a valuable portion of their hard-earned money which could be used for family nutrition instead. Bottled drinks and junk food have become essential items not only in the urban but also the rural areas and not only during festivals and celebrations but also in everyday living. In recent years, the American fast food culture has spread to many Third World countries, which are now savouring the delights of hot dogs, pizzas, McDonald's beefburgers, Kentucky Fried Chicken and A & W root beer. In Third World countries when people with limited budgets are influenced by the prevailing culture to switch from traditional and nutritious foods to high-cost low-nutrition foods, there is an adverse effect on their health.

Bottle Feeding of Infants

One outstanding and well-known example of the detrimental influence of introducing new foods to replace traditional practices is the case of infant formula and sweetened condensed milk. Due to aggressive sales promotion by the milk companies, many poor mothers in the Third World have switched from breast-feeding to bottle feeding their babies. Because of this pressure from the milk companies and the prevailing consumer culture, women lose confidence in breast-feeding and themselves as mothers. Breast-feeding is no longer considered modern and a mother is led to believe that she is denying the best for her baby if she does not give the bottle. As a result, breast-feeding rates have been declining in the Third World.

The Tobacco Epidemic

With smoking declining in developed countries, the tobacco industry is shifting its operations to the Third World. Many Asian countries, including Thailand and South Korea, have had to open up to imports of foreign cigarettes in the name of free trade under pressure of Western governments and tobacco companies. As a result, there has been a rise in the number of smokers, women included. Besides the adverse health effects, there is also a negative social impact. An ordinary worker or farmer smoking one packet of cigarettes a day may spend a quarter of his income on cigarettes. In most Third World societies, when there is not enough food to go around, it is the women who have to give up their share. And when the men in the family are sick or die, it is again the women who have to bear the brunt of the family burdens and responsibilities.

The Image of Women in the Consumer Culture

The globalisation of culture promotes not only a Western brand of consumption and lifestyle, but also projects an image of women which is discriminatory, oppressive and male oriented. In this consumer culture, women have been reduced to mere commodities for mass consumption. Women in most Third World societies have inherited the worst of both worlds. The concept in traditional feudal society of woman as the property of her husband subject to male authority in the family, is today made worse by the commercial exploitation of women in our consumer society.

This view of modern woman as a sex object is unprecedented in human history because it is only in our age and time that through the mass media and technology at its disposal the commodification of women has become so pervasive and insidious. This process is linked to a market economy where women are used as sex objects to sell products. This is seen time and again in advertisements where women are almost always depicted as vain and seductive, as sex commodities, dull-witted, in constant need of approval (almost always by men) and ultimately best left in the home or kitchen. It is here that women are most exploited in terms of their sexuality and physical appearance. One has only to look at the advertisements flashing from cinema screens, billboards, bus stops, magazines and calendars to confirm this. Many of these portray scantily dressed women advertising motorbikes, cars or radios - products which bear no relation to the figure of the women in these ads. The commercialisation of the female body as an object to be feasted upon and consumed by eager male eyes, is seen in the semi-nude and nude pictures of women - in suggestive poses and revealing big breasts - on calendars advertising cigarettes, liquor, tractors, paints and machinery. This portrayal of women in mass media is but a reflection, albeit a distorted reflection, of how women are regarded and made out to be in a consumer society.

More important, consumer culture has created an image of woman in terms of her face and body. This in turn helps to shape women's views about themselves and how others view them. In our hearts and minds we begin to believe that the real woman, the meaning of 'femaleness' is the one we see so often in the beauty magazines or the models advertising beauty aids and women's products. Thus the real woman is all beautiful, all glamour, all seduction. And in the process of trying to attain 'this real thing' women not only compete with each other to outdo one another in sophistication and seduction (for sexual attention from men), women also lose confidence in themselves and their true worth. In this manner, consumer culture manipulates and distorts the personality of women, destroying their self-confidence and makes all of them victims.

Women as Producers

In recent years TNCs have located some of their manufacturing plants and industries in the Third World. The main reason adduced for this is the abundance of cheap, hard-working and docile labour. By this they mean women workers of course. The exploitation of women in this sector in terms of their low wages, poor working conditions, instability of employment, absence of employment benefits and oppressive laws which deny women workers their rights to representation, unionisation and compensation has been well documented in the literature.

This situation is also true in the plantation economy where women workers suffer double oppression and exploitation - working as coolies and labourers in the tea, rubber and oil palm plantations and working as beasts of burden for their other lord and master, the husband in the home. Plantation society is an enclosed atrophied society. Workers here have almost no control over decisions affecting their lives. Perhaps it is only a little better than the slave plantations during the first wave of colonial expansion in the New World.


One of the most serious forms of exploitation that women workers face is the hazards they are exposed to in the workplace. These hazards not only threaten their health, but that of their unborn children if they are pregnant. Although both men and women face hazards at work, women because of their dual jobs - one at the shop floor and the other in the home - have to shoulder more burdens and are therefore exposed to more hazards. Thus the fatigue and stress suffered by most women workers 'is a result of their 80-hour work week - 40 on the job, 40 in the house, and 24 hours on-call duty to their families.'

Women workers face four types of work hazards - psychological, physical, biological and chemical hazards. The most serious psychological work hazard is stress and a major source of occupational stress is job dissatisfaction. The majority of women work in occupations where wages are low and where they have no control over decisions affecting them. This coupled with shift work and poor working conditions result in stress, one of the manifestations of which is mass hysteria - a common occurrence among factory workers in Malaysia. Physical hazards include noise, heat, ventilation and lighting, vibration, trauma and radiation, and biological hazards include exposure to bacteria, viruses, fungi and infections. Chemical hazards are the most common. They include a wide range of industrial solvents, anaesthetic gases, heavy metals, dyes, inks, asbestos, shampoos, detergents, pesticides and radioactive materials. Women workers at home, in factories, hospitals and shops and whether they work as typists, agricultural workers, teachers or hairdressers are all exposed to these hazards. For the female worker on plantations, her long and dangerous work as a breadwinner is further burdened by her household work. As a result, women workers suffer immense stress, hardship and strain and a general deterioration in their health.

Women as Sellers

Many Third World countries are dependent on foreign trade. This is compounded by the fact that a large share of the exports of Third World countries consists of only a few commodities - raw materials which are more susceptible to price and demand fluctuations than manufactured goods. In the world market, both Third World men and women producers suffer from the low prices they are able to get for their produce. Their incomes are also reduced. And the industrialised countries dominate world trade. This unequal relationship vis-a-vis the Third World means that industrialised countries (ICs) control the markets of both raw materials and manufactured goods. Third World countries have to take whatever price is being offered - both for their exports of raw materials and the imports of manufactured and industrial products from the ICs. Thus, Third World countries have poor terms of trade for their commodities vis-a-vis industrial products of the developed countries. Their terms of trade have been declining in the past few decades and continue to do so.

Apart from the poor terms of trade for Third World commodities, a large portion of the export earnings of Third World countries goes to payment for freight, insurance, packing, marketing and shipping - services controlled by TNCs who, through their shipping firms, impose high and increasing charges for freight services. Although this problem is not specifically related to women, women do suffer as they are also producers of commodities like rubber, tin, tea, bananas, cotton, coffee and sugar. Indirectly, they are also affected if their menfolk who are the primary bread- winners earn less income. With less money being brought home, the quality of life, health, nutrition and general well-being of the entire family is also affected.

Sex Tourism

There is more insidious exploitation of women which is linked to world tourism. This global industry has given rise to the flesh trade whereby women and even children are made to sell their bodies for sex. Hundreds of thousands of women in Asian countries, forced by socio-economic circumstances, have been sexually exploited working as prostitutes, social escorts, dance hostesses and waitresses in nightclubs and cocktail lounges.

Sex tourism is the most dehumanised form of sex and economic exploitation of women. It has its roots in a Western decaying urban life, where society is alienated and deculturalised, and where the need to consume has become compulsive and devoid of any real meaning. Hence new stimulations, distractions and excitement have to be sought to give one continued satisfaction and what can be better than the fulfilment of sexual fantasies?

This barren existence is best typified by this young carpenter from Amsterdam who returns yearly to Bangkok on the sex tour: 'It's really unbelievable, all the gorgeous dames here. This is the third time I've come here and I swear that in all these times I haven't seen anything else except this bar. They drive you wild and for a few guilders you can pick the most beautiful of the beauties. This is something else, at least, than lying on your back in Spain to get a little tan. You're the king here and all for a few rotten pennies.' This is also how much Asian women are worth. Through sex tourism, the industrialised countries export their sexual alienation and perversion to the Third World.

Marginalisation through Development

The impact of the West which began first with colonial intervention and the development decades that followed have had adverse consequences on the role and status of women in traditional subsistence society. The introduction of Western concepts of ownership of land has deprived women's usufructuary rights to cultivation and control of land. The introduction of cash crop production and Western male concepts of ownership have led to the exclusion of women in the cash economy. The neglect of the food subsistence sector where women were confined, in place of export crops and the new technologies which were introduced in agriculture not only increased her burden but in many instances, led to her redundance in traditional agricultural activities. This has resulted in the increasing marginalisation of women in the traditional rural economy, reducing women to a position of dependence which was absent in the traditional economy.

This discrimination against rural women has led to a steady displacement of women in the traditional sector. Further displacement due to development projects like dam construction, mining activities, aquaculture projects and tourism development, forces women to drift to the towns and cities in search of wage labour. In the factories they are exposed to hazardous and stressful working conditions, sexual harassment and an urban culture and lifestyle.

Despite the various attempts of the UN and the International Agencies to highlight and alleviate the problems of women, a UNESCO study at the end of 1993 revealed that the status of women in the developing nations of Asia had actually deteriorated in the past three decades. Hence the problems of women must be examined in the light of present development strategies. As such, the solutions to the problems have to be seen and understood within the context of the whole development process that is taking place both in the rural and urban areas.

Evelyne Hong is an editor of the Third World Resurgence.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.