Published October 23, 2019
Economists are quite familiar with a term that may be unfamiliar to most. Neoliberalism, the ideology that our social and economic world is characterized by free market capitalism, drives our policies and relationships. An April 2016 article in The Guardian suggests it is the root of all our problems: the 2008 financial meltdown, slow degradation of public health, epidemic of loneliness, and the collapse of the ecosystems. Neoliberalism applauds competition, defines citizens as consumers, and suggests that the market delivers all that we need. As consumers, “we internalize and reproduce its creeds.” While the rich blame the poor for their failures, they often ignore the structural barriers (education, economic status, gender, class, race, etc.) that put them at an advantage.
Trained in economics and public policy, UB’s Dr. Shaanta Murshid, Assistant Professor of Social Work is not a stranger to the macro-level and micro-level influence of neoliberal ideology. Murshid earned an undergraduate degree in economics from James Madison University and a master’s degree in public policy from Australian National University. Her thesis focused on how corruption influences foreign direct investment, a macro-level look at the signals of poor financial environments.
At Rutgers University, Murshid began a program in the School of Social Work, with an interest in studying abusive relationships in the context of microfinance and women’s social networks. Murshid’s background in economics and public policy guided her doctoral study and current research. Scholars have suggested poverty is a cause of domestic violence. Murshid wanted to understand if economic empowerment through microfinance could pave the way for women to leave difficult relationships or to negotiate their relationships and reduce the violence.
Most of Murshid’s research is focused in Bangladesh, which she refers to as a peripheral state that is undergoing speedy neoliberalism. This means a couple of things. First, that people are in flux. Bangladesh is undergoing rapid urbanization. Second, that woman are a large part of the labor market but patriarchal mores remain. Women work and navigate masculine spaces at great personal cost that includes sexual harassment outside the home and partner violence at home. Third, that women’s empowerment strategies, often at the behest of UN sanctioned goals, have not involved men. Men are confused at best and angry at worst, as they watch the changing profile of women, if recent rates of violence against women are anything to go by. Almost 80% of women report partner violence while newspaper reports indicate high incidence of rape and sexual harassment in public.
By diving deeply into the stories of people living in violent relationships, Murshid has come to realize that many women are acting with agency when they choose to stay. Sometimes the decision to stay is economic. However, others understand that they have few options – that any future relationship will inevitably be the same or worse. In broader language, women are basing their decisions to stay because they live in a world that precipitates the mistreatment of women.
Initially, Murshid viewed microfinance as an empowering tool that could pull women out of violent relationships. However, her research has proven that this may not always be the case. A product of a system that feeds neoliberal thought, microfinance makes consumers out of citizens. For women who are trying to leave violent relationships, microfinance is also broadly exploitative. Women experience violence in their homes and their economies; they must move from one microfinance opportunity to another with little change in their economic opportunities.
Similarly, products like mobile money exist because neoliberal ideology has prompted massive trends in urbanization. Generations of farmers around the world are moving to cities to pursue economic gains, leaving their families in the villages. Before mobile money, these farmers would travel home regularly to help pay for daily costs. With mobile money, already fragmented families hardly see one another; relationships shift from familial to transactional.
Murshid likes to ask big questions like if we did not live in patriarchal society where women’s empowerment threatened masculinity would we see violence and abuse? Or, in trying to empower women are we essentially introducing them to a system that is exploitative? These questions are important when we consider how the Global North has directed “development” projects that seek to improve the lives of individuals around the world, yet often leave communities voiceless and powerless.
With the Community for Global Health Equity, Murshid’s work cuts across and informs our six Big Ideas Teams. Her publications point to important structural barriers that have micro- and macro-level impacts on the health and wellbeing of populations around the world.