Evaluating Neoliberalism’s Influence on Women’s Reproductive Health and Gender Equality

Posted: November 7th, 2023

Evaluating Neoliberalism’s Influence on Women’s Reproductive Health and Gender Equality

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Evaluating Neoliberalism’s Influence on Women’s Reproductive Health and Gender Equality

Neoliberal reforms emphasize free market economics instead of the right to health, resulting in drastic changes and challenges in global healthcare systems. For many U.S. and Canadian workers, the last two decades have been characterized by declining wages and benefits, declining employee bargaining power, poor working conditions, and rising income inequality. Women can be particularly disadvantaged by these neoliberal reforms because of their lower socioeconomic status and elevated healthcare needs. Reproductive rights are often dependent on socioeconomic determinants of health. In this report, a critical analysis of the impacts of neoliberalism on women’s reproductive health and gender equality is done as part of the greater effort to identify ways to reduce gender disparities. The power distance created by neoliberal policies prioritizing economics as opposed to human rights indicators will result in a social class of disempowered persons whose health requirements will be second to market needs. Even though neoliberalism has facilitated global growth and development, it is also an aggravating factor in widening health disparities in reproductive health while reinforcing discriminatory notions of gender, sex, and reproductive rights.

Theories of Gender and Reproductive Rights

            The history of neoliberal policies on reproductive health has led to various conclusions. During the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) hosted in Cairo (1994), presented feminist writings indicated that neoliberalism was a major challenge to reproductive health with regard to population policies (Simon-Kumar, 2007). The feminist writings released at the conference were not the first scholarly materials outlining the link between race, gender, and income. According to Octavia Butler’s philosophy of history, there is a long-standing reliance on racial capitalism in post-racial neoliberalism (Weinbaum, 2013). An analysis of Butler’s philosophy shows that slavery is connected to modern politics and cultures about reproduction. The notion is that the roots of the impact of neoliberalism on women’s reproductive health can be traced back to slavery (Weinbaum, 2013; Darity, 2005). Forced servitude was the beginning of the exploitation of human beings for capitalistic gains. Slave labour became the foundation of free-trade economics as plantations emerged as the dominant form of production.

            Slavery helped create the socioeconomic structure that is the basis for neoliberalism. The world today is divided between rich, intermediate, and poor nations. The historical linkages to these patterns of inequality can be traced to slavery, underpinning why colonized countries demand reparations (Darity, 2005). Among the richest nations are European or countries born out of European occupation. In 1999, the United Kingdom had a per capita income of $20000, while its former colony, Ghana, had a per capita income of less than $2000 (Darity, 2005). The vast difference came to be because of the effects of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. America’s economy was born out of slave-grown sugar and cotton. Slavery was the first instance where businesses exploited human labour by denying individual rights, including reproductive freedoms. The subsequent wealth inequality between slave owners and slaves made racial disparities more apparent between Whites and African Americans.

            The impacts of the racial disparities caused by the slave trade were more adverse for female slaves. Butler’s philosophy of history considers slavery as a process of racial capitalism and bio-capitalism (Weinbaum, 2013). During the slave trade, kinship developed into a business model for slave owners. Women were not granted access to any property or jobs because their primary purpose was to give birth to increase the slave population. Each child meant a new source of labour or revenue to the slave owners (Weinbaum, 2013). On the other hand, female slaves could not work and earn to generate wealth. Bio-capitalism during the slave trade is an early example of how reproductive hegemony became vulnerable to free-market economics. There was the subversion of the notion of ‘motherhood’ in negative ways (Weinbaum, 2013). For instance, giving birth became a tool for increasing racial wealth inequalities between Whites and Blacks in European and settler countries.

            A sub-branch of gender inequality exists within the larger racial disparities caused by neoliberalism that began with the slave trade. White female slave owners helped reinforce the discriminatory portrayal of women as home keepers and child bearers through surrogacy (Weinbaum, 2013). It was common practice for female slave owners to use slaves as surrogate mothers. Newborn children were left under the care of Black slaves for nursing to allow the actual mother to return to other socioeconomic duties. Badgett and Williams (1994) define the race-gender curve in economics as a structure that enabled a subset of the White female workforce when negating the economic viability for a substantial proportion of the African American community. The researchers were conducting a historical analysis of the 1970s, which affirms that surrogacy is a century-old practice in America. The fact that African American women were left at home to serve as home keepers and babysitters meant that they could not keep up with White women.

            Even as society moved into the 21st century, gender-based job segregation remained a defining attribute of labour markets in developed countries. Williams and Smith (1990) discuss how the politics of unionization help create a discriminatory view of gender that contributes to the wealth inequality between men and women. Unions reserved high-paying jobs for men while reserving low ones for women due to the traditional perception of womanhood as unstable to an employer’s return to investments (Williams & Smith, 1990). Women in the unions do not access such jobs because of their increased tendency to take a leave of absence and a belief that they are not firm decision-makers. As a result, the wage structure in unions reproduced White male supremacy (Williams & Smith, 1990). The politics of union is another example of how reproductive hegemony became vulnerable to free market economics, but now from the 1980s. Unions equally contributed to the growing wealth inequality between White and Black female employees.

            The wage structure in unions was designed to downgrade the jobs of Black women. An analysis of Local 35’s (a Yale University worker’s union) wage setting shows that jobs for African American men and women are graded lower and tend to suffer wage penalties (Williams & Smith, 1990). The models used to classify the jobs do not consider job-specific skills, which results in biased race and gender coefficients for determining wages. Williams (2013) refers to this concept as the glass ceiling, an invisible barrier to women accessing high-skill, high-paying jobs. The exclusion of skill variables in the wage structure leads to Black women not receiving adequate training and development (Williams, 2013). The subsequent implication is career stagnation. Based on union data, Black women are the least likely to receive job promotions because of their skill set. Local 35’s wage structure highlights the age-old tradition of male exclusivity in American crafts (Williams & Smith, 1990). Since the 90s, the only option for Black women seeking to improve their earnings has been pursuing a ‘living wage’. Such jobs do not have a wage premium, subjugating the women to less income.

Development of Reproductive Rights and Gender Equality Standards

            Global awareness of the importance of women’s rights as human rights has been increasing with the internet age. Over the years, advances in sexual and reproductive health have often been associated with progress in female rights. According to the Council of Europe (2019), there has been a significant effort to ensure that women are autonomous and are able to make informed decisions regarding their sexuality, physical health, and motherhood. However, many European women continue to face infringements and denials over their reproductive rights. Some European nations still maintain and enforce restrictive legal frameworks that prevent women from accessing safe and effective reproductive healthcare (Council of Europe, 2019). Only now are the states rolling back some of the laws and policies to introduce provisions for access to abortion care. There have been a few unsuccessful attempts to introduce a total ban in some countries. Fortunately, the development of reproductive rights and gender equality has advanced more in Western states.

            Canada has well-established legal protections for reproductive health. The country’s history of reproductive health was largely restrictive until a Supreme Court ruling in 1969. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau partially relaxed the ban and criminalization of contraceptives (Xun, 2022). The legal development allowed Canadian hospitals to perform abortions on the grounds that a committee of doctors determined there was a fatal risk to the pregnant woman if she continued with the pregnancy (Xun, 2022). The peak of the landmark development occurred when Dr. Henry Morgentaler opened the very first abortion clinic in Montreal. However, with most issues pertaining to female rights, access becomes a problem. From 1970-1976, Dr. Henry experienced intense legal pushback from Canadian leaders and authorities, resulting in the clinic’s closure (Xun, 2022). Again, a culture characterized by the status quo impacted women’s access to reproductive health services.

            Access is the main issue regarding the state of reproductive rights in Canada. In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of an appeal brought up by Morgentaler that led to the eradication of Canada’s abortion laws (Xun, 2022). The ruling mirrored an earlier Supreme Court ruling in America in Roe vs. Wade. The ruling outlines that abortion laws violate women’s right to privacy (Xun, 2022). All major Canadian political parties support and endorse female reproductive rights. The country has established safe access zones near healthcare facilities to ensure access by criminalizing any activities that interfere with a person’s right to safe abortion services (Xun, 2022). However, free-market forces render access to such facilities challenging to individuals and households experiencing financial instability. Abortion clinics are often situated in urban centers, making them far too expensive and far for women needing abortions.

            Geographic and financial barriers remain relevant to the availability and accessibility of reproductive resources for racial minorities. According to Egly-Gany (2020), a population survey highlights that immigrants and refugees have some of the most urgent cases for reproductive health. Still, access is nearly impossible due to their socioeconomic status. In Canada, indigenous communities living in remote access do not have access to healthcare facilities. Disadvantaged families have to consider additional financial costs in the form of travel to access abortion services (Xun, 2022). For those with admittance to such services, delays and waiting lists are common because of uneven provision or the over-stretching of medical staff. The Canadian government attempted to introduce a cheap abortion pill to address this gap, but pregnant women have to wait until they pass the nine-week mark to access it (Xun, 2022). Free-market forces still impede female reproductive rights through systemic barriers, even with substantial government interference.

            Bureaucratic, structural barriers also enhance the racial disparities in reproductive health. Accessibility to abortion services in Canada and the United States is subject to provincial and state regulations, respectively (Xun, 2022). For instance, the Canada Health Act mandates that provincial health insurance plans include provisions for necessary procedures. However, the New Brunswick health insurance plan only covers the expenses for abortions that take place in hospitals (Xun, 2022). Indigenous women in reservations are forced to go to community clinics or receive home-based maternal care, meaning they do not access insurance coverage for reproductive healthcare. In Yukon, Prince Edward Island, and Nunavut, abortions are limited to only the first 13 weeks of gestation (Xun, 2022). No clinic in Canada provides abortions beyond 23 weeks of pregnancy. Insurance cover is one of the many structural impediments increasing racial disparities in female reproductive health worldwide due to its implications on access.  

The Intersection between Neoliberalism, Reproductive Care, and Gender Equality

Poverty Reduction and Food Security

Neoliberal policies are increasing global food insecurity by elevating the cost of cultivation and influencing the relatively slow growth of agricultural sectors. According to Ravindran (2014), cuts in public expenditures have resulted in a decline in investments in agricultural infrastructures. The lack of government subsidies, compounded by increasing oil and fertilizer prices, contributes to the food shortages. Neoliberal forces are pressuring small-scale farmers from subsistence farming to cash crop farming (Ravindran, 2014). The transition marks an unfeasible alternative for many subsistence farmers due to a lack of working capital. Moreover, large-scale land acquisitions from agricultural conglomerates are also forcing small-scale farmers out of farming. Women are having to rely on their husbands, fathers, and brothers to gain access to farming land and other productive assets. The financial crisis of 2008 incentivized financial institutions to invest in stable, long-term assets, such as land (Ravindran, 2014). The resultant implication is the displacement of small and medium-scale female farmers, which has drastic implications for national and global food security.

Gendered labour positions women in an important role associated with global food security. Important to note is that women make up the majority of small-scale, subsistence farmers (Ravindran, 2014). Women represent the producers, procurers, and processors of household food, meaning they are accountable for the nutritional security of family members. Neoliberal forces ensure that women take on this responsibility against massive odds. While the reduced public investment has impacted the farming community, women face extra difficulties. For instance, there are barriers to access to institutional credit, which impedes women from engaging in cash crop farming (Ravindran, 2014). A female farmer would have to rely on her male ties to gain access to sufficient funding to farm. The inability to access capital for farming is another example of how neoliberalism contributes to gender inequalities. Poverty becomes a more likely outcome with the inability to transition to cash crop farming.

Women are more likely than men to become poor with increasing food insecurity. An analysis of women’s role in producing food shows that food insecurity is causing women in Bangladesh to work 4.8 hours more daily (Ravindran, 2014). Women are working harder and for longer hours to buy or prepare meals at a lower price. Moreover, the women toil harder to earn less income. As a result, Bangladesh mothers are forced to withdraw their daughters from school for them to aid in household tasks. Girls are withdrawn from school while boys are allowed to stay, helping create generational gender inequality. Low education standards are cited as one of the primary driving forces in racial and gender disparities in developing nations (Williams, 2013). Moreover, food insecurity is bound to exacerbate women’s need for healthcare. Nutrition plays a critical role in promoting and maintaining good reproductive health. Malnutrition exposes pregnant women to miscarriages, still-borne babies, and even death in severe cases.

The Privatization of Health Services and Education

            Privatizing health services has a gendered discriminatory effect since public services are essential in promoting systemic inclusion. The analysis of Canada’s history with reproductive rights indicates that most reproductive health facilities are located in urban centers. The centers demand out-of-pocket payments, which disproportionately impact women and the poor (Dayi, 2019). Private health systems focus on profit, skewing services to target the wealthy. Private facilities are subject to higher borrowing costs compared to the public sector, meaning average spending per patient is higher (Dayi, 2019). The resultant price tag for health services cuts out individuals with a low budget. Due to lower wages and low access to job opportunities, women are the most likely to have low budgets. As a result, a substantial number of women cannot afford private reproductive health. Neoliberalism is forcing national governments to work with private sector companies to ensure the availability of health services. It is uncommon for public healthcare to have a massive and noticeable presence in capitalistic nations. National healthcare delivery in such countries, like Canada and the United States, is characterized by public-private partnerships.

An ideological commitment to privatizing healthcare will negatively affect the health needs and rights of the populace. Clark and Chinchilla (2021) assert that the decline of public health implies a diminished focus on women’s reproductive health issues. Women’s reproductive health activists have been unable to cement abortion as a permanent health service because of the marginalizing effects of capitalism. It is difficult to mandate free abortion services in areas with no hospitals or clinics. Women, poor and of young age, would bear most of the implications of privatization. The unrelenting stigma and lack of life skills can prove disastrous if public healthcare is unavailable. Important to recall is that statistics indicate that teenage girls and young adult females have the least uptake rate for contraceptives and ARVs (Ravindran, 2014). Global healthcare requires a system that provides access to a wide range of healthcare options for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic background.

Privatizing healthcare impacts the quality of health education offered to medical personnel and the public. Sex education for children has transformed from a field focusing on life skills to one that prioritizes knowledge. Ravindran (2014) considers changes to the education system to be contributing to the slow or low uptake of contraceptives among the youth. A 2012 progress report on 21 Asian countries found that contraceptive and ARV use was below 22% (Ravindran, 2014). The report highlighted that participants feared the prejudice and stigma that comes with using reproductive health services. The sense of dread shows that theoretical knowledge does not help address the social and cultural barriers associated with contraceptive use, meaning the current state of health education risks the reproductive health of young girls. A student with sufficient life skills is more resilient and would weather social criticism while accessing reproductive healthcare (Ravindran, 2014). There is a growing need to reform health education to negate the influences of neoliberalism in favour of principles and values that promote human and female rights.

The privatization of education continues to be a systemic barrier impeding women from upward social mobility. Neoliberal forces are encouraging cuts in public education funding, disproportionately marginalizing the poor and families in remote areas (Crotty, 2002). Girls from lower-income households get excluded from education. The resultant effect is a reduced ability to secure high-paying jobs. The impact on women is a step backward regarding gender income equality. The Bangladeshi study informs those young girls are more likely to drop out of school due to familial financial hardships (Ravindran, 2014). The girls are taken out of class to help with household chores and farming. Past studies on teenage school attendance show that regions with high rates of girl dropouts are associated with higher rates of teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Such developments contribute to gender inequality as early pregnancy restricts the female child to household duties instead of commercial ones.

Neoliberalism and Labour Migration

            Labour migration is a key national economic strategy for many countries in the contemporary global economy. Low-income countries, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Uganda, are forced to export labour to meet the demand for large structural programs in developing countries (Tanyag, 2017). People from these countries understand that better job opportunities exist outside, incentivizing them to migrate. The same pattern occurs at the national level through rural-to-urban migration. According to Tanyag (2017), governments from developing nations are known to support labour migration to sustain their sovereignty. For instance, the Philippines has developed into a remittance-driven economy. Unfortunately, labour migration causes household and community depletion of labour. Due to the over concentration of women in foreign jobs, there are fewer workers work on subsistence farms, contributing to domestic food insecurity. Again, the impoverished and women are the most affected by these developments. As urban centers grow, wealth inequality becomes bigger compared to rural areas.

            Labour migration is a highly gendered economic activity. The fiscal strategy relies on notions of masculine dignity; as low-income men are expected to sacrifice themselves to take up foreign technical jobs. On the other hand, women are anticipated to take on low-skill labour in international markets (Tanyag, 2017). Low-skill jobs make up most of the available jobs in the global labour market. Human exports from the Philippines are female-concentrated due to the availability of ‘domestic worker’ jobs. The pattern of Filipino exports is evidence of how the country is positioned within a labour structure that is gendered and racialized (Tanyag, 2017). The continued demand for care work, especially for the senior population in developed countries, will remain a key feature in debates concerning gender equality. Labour migration is causing the impoverished to become poorer through a lack of skill and human strength.

            Labour migration has become a concern to reproductive health due to the exploitation of women working in foreign jobs. Unskilled work, predominantly female, is attributed to the underpaying and exploitation of women. In 2014, Filipino women sent 24 million pesos back home, 19% of the total remittances to the country (Tanyag, 2017). As cheap workers, the statistic indicates that Filipino women send a greater share of their earnings back home. The migrated women cannot cater to their health or well-being with the little disposable income. The problem worsens in times of financial crisis. Studies on neoliberalism highlight that low-skill jobs are the first to be affected during economic decline (Tanyag, 2017). The development implies that women are the first to experience wage cuts. Women are equally the first to lose their jobs during corporate cuts in response to market forces.  


            The continued restrictions to women’s reproductive freedom is sufficient evidence of the dominating global material inequalities, and how globalization has come with an immense cost of physical exhaustion for women and girls. Despite social advancements associated with the 21st century, neoliberal economics still reinforce conventional gendered roles through systemic exclusion and wealth inequality. Foremost, the privatization of health services is making health services more inaccessible to the poor and geographically disadvantaged. Secondly, the reduced funding of public services negates the quality and availability of education for young girls. Thirdly, globalization subjugates women to less paying jobs, impacting their ability to guarantee food security or cater to individual needs, including reproductive health. Lastly, labour migration leaves rural households without human capital to foster upward social mobility while the domestic economy exploits the migrated workers to maintain its sovereignty. Overall, neoliberal globalization and its economic policies underlie the current food insecurity, lack of access to healthcare, and gendered wage structures. All three developments have significant implications on women’s reproductive freedom.


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