Murica Life

Blog 9 – Many Hands of the State: Stratifying State (Gender)

*This writing has been proofread by Dr. Carol Yoken

In 2013, the eight-story Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which served as a sweatshop for many high-end brands in Italy, the USA, and the UK, collapsed, killing approximately 1134 garment workers and injuring 2500 others. Nearly all the victims were informal women workers. Two years after the Rana Plaza event, the compensation procedure was still complicating the workers’ rehabilitation process, especially for single/unmarried women without or with children

This incident reveals how the international division of labor perpetuates the gender division of labor, and it gives us a glimpse of the complex situation of social provision in the developing world. Informal female labor constitutes 60% of total employment at the global level. The number is even higher in the Global South, reaching 81% (UN Women 2017). Using the frame of Orloff’s (2017) destructive-constructive, this blog post explores social protection policy in the developing world where informal female workers are those most vulnerable to the risk of the state-market relationship. I also would like to address to what extent social provision in the developing world shapes the gender relationship within the state.

Informal labor in the developing world remain an enigma in the landscape of social protection policy in the developing world. The workers very existence defies the direct relation with a fully-developed industry which would guarantee social provisions. Since what they are doing is considered less than “formal” work, any request for protection will be questioned. However, informal labor provides a space to achieve limited economic resources for women, no matter how “informal” the work is considered. Despite the demonized concept of working women that prevails across developing countries, the low-paid informal sector manages to support poor households to a certain degree. In a cultural turn, some women in Indonesia express their “relief,” as their home-based work helps them avoid domestic violence caused by poverty (International Labor Organization 2014; Mehrotra and Biggeri 2013).

Aforementioned illustration of women gaining economic access can be considered an illustration of how informal labor is destructive to the already disadvantageous position of poor women in developing countries. Yet, I argue that the destructive process is very limited, for what is considered suitable work for women remains in the arena of low-wage labor that does not qualify for social protections. The work does not necessarily challenge the masculine notion in labor; women still need to have both worlds, public and domestic sphere, by working as a mother and caregiver (Orloff 1993). Any social protections or rehabilitation given to them are derived from their being mothers or wives of male workers, not from their being informal laborers.

The rise of females in the informal sector is also constructive to the recasting of social protection for women in the developing world. In the international division of labor developing countries are in the awkward position of maintaining labor welfare while providing cheap labor and commodities to the global supply chain. Here, many frameworks have been proposed to move beyond Esping-Andersen’s model of the three-welfare states which has been deemed unsuitable for application to developing countries, as these countries’ social provisions serve mainly as economic development (Cook and Kwon 2007) rather than as decommodifying work. This situation gives rise to an addition to the trinity of state-market-family relation in social provisions–a fourth actor of non-governmental organizations (NGO). NGOs, with their aid, play an important role as the non-state actor that provides social benefits for the most vulnerable, either in direct ways or indirectly through political pressure on governments.  Which of the two options is used varies across countries (since aid most definitely work in providing direct social provisions).

Yet we must ask to what extent the non-state actor contributes to gender stratification as it tries to deliver gender justice as well. The social provisions typically given by NGOs are rarely seen to counter the state vision of the structure of family and gender; nor does it work merely as a neoliberalist agent that undermines the state ”job” to redistribute wealth as accused by Arundhati Roy (2011). If anything, the NGOs’ position, although on the surface dismissed by the state, persists and is maintained–as they help to bridge the state-society relationship. Only in a case like Myanmar do the NGOs have relatively limited to zero authority to navigate the state-society relationship, especially for delivering social provisions for women.

No matter how limited the NGOs’ work, however, still visible is the stratification of gender that they help to reinforce. Their promotion of women’s gaining full membership in society as citizens maintains women precarious position as the majority of informal workers. Their work can still be classified as “nondoctrinal” (Htun and Weldon in Orloff and Morgan 2017: 164) in the issue of  informality of the labor that these women do. This situation is challenging; conservative and religious group may support the informal female workers since it doesn’t challenge male domination in formal work, public space, and breadwinner position. Islamic groups in Malaysia and Indonesia have been the proponents for home-based (informal) working mother, for this concept keeps women “where they belong” as homemaker (Ong 1990).

Orloff (1993) criticizes the model of reductionist protections that is based on contribution–derived from rather masculine-gaze citizenship–as this approach neglects the patriarchal gender dynamic that is persistent within the pattern of women’s employment. As Nancy Fraser (2012) points out, in gendered relationships, social protection insists on a hierarchical mode rather than acknowledging women’s participation. This current situation, I believe, shares a similarity with how a “republican” value was championed by the Women’s Club (Skocpol’s 1992). In neither situation is the state’s ideality of family threatened.

I’d like to conclude this lead post with an invitation to discuss the multidimensionality of the dynamic of states and non-state actors in social protection, especially for gender justice. The condition of non-state and state actor engagement in providing social provisions to society is, after all, not unique to the Global South. However, in terms of power relations, I also wonder what other kinds of output the politics of donorship can contribute in social provision provided by non-state actors, in both the Global South and the Global North. The state interest for improving the condition of women in the developing world faces challenges from the concept of informal work that states in developing countries need. The process of “decommodifying” work, as suggested by Esping-Andersen to implement social provisions, is undermined by the gender division of labor supported by the international supply chain that needs female cheap labor from the South. Women development, although often mentioned in global goals, is often in accordance with masculine characteristics embedded in formal work and the breadwinner type of family, making precarious condition of women in the current neoliberal market, an issue that is not well addressed. Gender justice might be achieved in the small spaces spread between the landscape of development and the stratifying nature of state; as any hands of the state potentially can contribute to form it, or, on the flip side, to deepening the stratification.



Chowdhury, Rashedur. “The Rana Plaza Disaster and the Complicit Behaviors of Elite NGOs”. Organization, Vl. 24(6), p. 938-949, 2017.

Fraser, Nancy. Between Marketization and Social Protection: Resolving Feminist Ambivalence. In Fortunes of Feminism. Verso: London, 2013.

Htun, Mala and Weldon, SL. “States and Gender Justice”. Pp. 158-177, in The Many Hands of the State: Theorizing Political Authority and Social Control, edited by Kimberly Morgan and Ann Shola Orloff. Cambridge University Press, 2017.

International Labor Organization. Kita Perlu Mengungkapkan Isu Pekerja Rumahan. 2014.—asia/—ro-bangkok/—ilo-jakarta/documents/publication/wcms_348394.pdf, accessed November 10 2017.

Kim, Suhyun. “NGOs and Social Protection in East Asia: Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia” Asian Journal of Political Science, Vl. 23(1), p. 23–43 2015.

Martinez, Juliana M., and Voorend, K. “Blacks, Whites, or Grays? Conditional Transfers and Gender Equality in Latin America”. Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society, Vl. 22 (1)1, p. 38-59, 2015.

Mehratora, Shantos K., and Biggeri, Mario. Asian Informal Workers: Global Risks Local Protection. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Ong, Aohi. “State Versus Islam: Malay Families, Women’s Bodies, and the Body Politics in Malaysia”. American Ethnologist, Vl 17(2), p.258-276, 1990.

Orloff, Ann S. “Gender and the Social Rights of Citizenship: The Comparative Analysis of Gender Relations and Welfare States”. American Sociological Review, 58(3), 303-328, 1993.

Orloff, Ann S. “Gendered States Made and Remade: Gendered Labor Policies in the United States and Sweden, 1960-2010”. Pp. 131-157, in The Many Hands of the State: Theorizing Political Authority and Social Control, edited by Kimberly Morgan and Ann Shola Orloff. Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Skocpol, Theda. Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

UN Women. Women in the Informal Economy. 2017., accessed November 10 2017.


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