From its origins, the International Labor Organization (ILO) considered the woman worker as included in its various labor conventions but needing targeted treatment through protective legislation. Women were the same, but different. Among all the tropes of the woman worker, however, “women in developing countries” became difference’s other: a special category within the distinction, with intensified problems due to her social and spatial location, a casualty of underdevelopment and traditional society. As mothers, household managers, and workers in family-based cottage industries, “women in developing countries” gestured to reproductive labor outside of the market economy. Her unpaid family work stood apart from the productionist enterprise so central to neo-liberal directions in development. But development projects beginning in the 1970s sought to commodify her labor through self-employment, an ironic outcome of the collective efforts of grassroots activists during the last decades of the 20th century who sought better working conditions for her.
Drawing upon the records of the ILO and other UN agencies, this paper historicizes the construction of the category “women in developing countries” after WWII. It traces distinctions between women within ILO discussions and then charts the shift in the position of rural women in Asia, Africa, and Latin America from the margins of these deliberations to the center of ILO concerns. Women sat at a strategic location for ILO efforts to promote basic needs as a strategy for improving the world’s workforce in the 1970s. The self-employment of “women in developing countries” became a key mechanism for world employment. I end by considering these ILO positions in light of the UN Decade for Women when the challenges of global inequality stood at the center of debates over the meaning of development, in which women and men from newly independent states across the world demanded action.
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