Whenever the global south is discussed, it gets represented in light of absolute poverty, disease, terrorism, and male domination over women. Aid organizations from the global north go to the global south to provide assistance and donations in various areas. One of the areas is the area of women empowerment, which can be interpreted loosely as attempting to give women a voice and the opportunity to fight and campaign for equality. This scope is however changing quickly with the creation of export processing zones and the engendering of labor as a way of pushing for female emancipation. This has progressively taken place in nations like Kenya and Sri Lanka among other countries. However, there are arguments that the creation of the EPZs does not necessarily translate to female emancipation. This paper asserts that while women may be going through plenty hardships in the export focused zones; the benefits of the process outweigh the challenges.
To start with, it is important to understand empowerment, how the export processing zones contribute to enfranchisement and female emancipation. According to Reeves and Baden empowerment refers to bottom-up process through which gender power relations are transformed by either individuals or groups of people creating awareness about women subordination and building the required capacity to challenge this subordination. From this definition, empowerment involves enabling women to make choices and decisions but before then, information must be available on what choices are available. Female emancipation is one way of empowering women to make decisions and choices. The export processing zones provide jobs for women. The women are liberated from perennial poverty and overdependence on men as the family providers. By providing them with the opportunity to earn income, the EPZs emancipate women and this act as a stepping-stone towards empowerment.
Reeves and Baden also recorded that empowerment cannot be done to women rather what happens is that external support gets provided to them in order to support the process of empowerment. Going by this statement, export-processing zones can be said to play a facilitative role in women empowerment. This is because the EPZs provide women with stable employment opportunities making it possible for them to get access to financial services. More importantly, the women are able to get into unionization platforms by either joining the national labor organizations, forming women-only organizations, or even having adequate representation in the organizations and in policy-making bodies. By having access to unions, the women are able to promote their interests by having dialogues with the policy makers and the people in power. This in turn results into female emancipation that would otherwise be difficult to come by without the export processing zones.
Another way through which the EPZs provide opportunities for female emancipation is through the standardization efforts made by the global north to ensure that the people making the goods and products exported to the global north are treated with dignity. One of the common standards is the need to meet certain minimum wage payments for the employees. In Kenya, for instance, Netherlands imposes minimum wage payments on the flower exporters from the EPZ. This means that if the exporter does not pay the minimum wages the importer is at liberty to reject the products. Other such standards include the limits on working hours, the provision of protective gear to the flower harvesters, and equal treatment of all employees as the minimum standards. Such enforcement of standards applies to the EPZs in many countries from the global south with Kenya and Sri Lanka providing good examples. Through such regulations the women are made to understand their rights and this contributes to female emancipation.
The Export Processing Zones also provide opportunities for the government to roll out and run financial inclusion services. Financial inclusion entails enabling the poor people in the society to access financial services through the formal sector. In Bangladesh, for Instance, women doming the garment making (textile) industry which is a major component of the EPZ. The workers in this industry usually received their wages in for of hard currency. However, the government in the recent past has rolled out programs that will enable the women working in the EPZ to receive their wages through banks and savings and credit organizations. The opening of the bank accounts will in return help the women to access micro-credit that will greatly contribute directly to female emancipation. This proves that EPZs provide opportunities for female emancipation and empowerment.
Other than the points delivered in the paragraphs above, EPZs also generally contribute to additional employment with the majority of the mentioned jobs going to women. Taking the examples of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Mauritius it is important to note that the workforce of the EPZs is dominated by women. This has raised concerns about whether or not the export processing zones create additional employment. Nonetheless, the fact that the sector is female dominated indicates that more women get the opportunity to get financial independence. This does not only help the women to deal with perennial poverty in the global south but it also helps them to take advantage of other opportunities and for this, EPZs can be said to contribute to female emancipation.
While in the previous paragraph focus has been on the positive aspects of export processing zones with regard to female emancipation, there are also some problems which women face in the pursuit of their emancipation. The wage pay gap and generally low wages are some of the factors that women face while working in the EPZs. Additionally, the women are also forced to work in tough working conditions with long working hours. The factors make it difficult for women to empower themselves. However, it gets considered to be better than having no form of income at all. Additionally, it helps put the plight of women in the workforce to the limelight hence attracting the attention of global organizations such as ILO and local labor organizations which help push for the rights of women. By highlighting the problems therefore, the export processing zones help in the empowerment and emancipation of women.
In conclusion, this paper discussed the contribution of export processing zones to female emancipation. The export processing zones are special trade zones which have remained global south simply because the governments in the global south offer incentives to the entities located in the EPZs in order to spur economic growth. One facet of this growth is the employment of women which, ideally, should and does contributed to women empowerment and emancipation. However, women working in the economic processing zones face a lot of problems in the workplace including the gender pay gap issues, low wages and salaries, harsh working conditions, and other forms of inequalities. The problems make women empowerment and emancipation to appear like the elusive dream of owning a home in the book The House of Mr. Biswas. However, the problems also attract the attention of the civil societies and organizations such as ILO which help in campaigning for women empowerment thereby creating awareness which leads to female emancipation. Overall, the economic processing zones have more benefits that disadvantages. This leads to the conclusion that the economic processing zone provide opportunities that lead to female emancipation.