All over the world debt injustice hurts women most

From austerity in the UK, to the new debt crisis in Africa, the effects of debt-servicing and policy conditions are not gender-neutral.

It’s almost ten years since the financial crash in the UK which saw banks bailed out by the government. Since then 86% of the burden of austerity has fallen on women. In total the cuts will have cost women £79bn since 2010, against £13bn for men.

And in the global south, where austerity measures have a longer and more severe history, a similar pattern exists. “The very things that can help raise women’s status – education, healthcare and employment – are being decimated as governments struggle to meet crippling debt repayments to the creditors”, said economist Yassine Fall in 2005. And nearly 15 years later this trend continues, as counties such as Ghana and Mozambique are once again facing unpayable debts and are struggling to fund public services.

Owing to their traditional role in society, and the multiple forms of discrimination that they suffer, women tend to be disproportionately affected by debt and associated economic restructuring policies. The prevalence of women in informal employment, their heavy burden of work, their role in caring for children and for ailing and elderly family members, their limited access to land, property and social security, their primary role in providing food and water for their families and their prevalence in subsistence agriculture leave women vulnerable to the economic hardship associated with debt and austerity. For example:

  • When there is a shortage of basic healthcare or other social services, women, who usually care for the young, sick and elderly in a household, take on the burden of the extra care work. For younger women, this is often at the expense of education.
  • When school fees are introduced as a result of public spending cuts, girls lose out most. Since a woman’s role is generally seen as being ‘in the home’, cash-strapped families usually prioritise their sons’ education over their daughters’.
  • Water privatisation can reduce access to water, both through cuts in services and through increased fees: this can increase the workload of women, who tend to bear the burden of fetching water.
  • When families grow cash crops for export, rather than staple foods, women’s work produces money – not food – which men usually control. Women’s positions are thus weakened in marriages, families and the wider community. And men are much less likely than women to spend money on family welfare.
  • When trade barriers are removed, farmers and producers can be left unable to compete with subsidised imports from elsewhere in the world. Women produce 60% to 80% of the food in impoverished countries: they and other smallscale farmers are the first to suffer from this loss of state support.

In summary, “Austerity in response to debt crises disproportionally affects women. For example, the reduction in public services, including childcare facilities, hits women the most. Women are also often the first to be laid off when labour protections are moved to make it easier for companies to sack people,” said Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, UN Independent Expert on debt and human rights

International Women’s Day

On International Women’s Day, the Jubilee Debt Campaign sends solidarity to women all over the world who are suffering the consequences of debt injustice. The imposition of unpayable debts on impoverished nations is not gender-neutral. Austerity measures that diminish public services are not gender-neutral. Financial and macro-economic injustices cut deep and are felt painfully by many women. Along with everyone joining the #womenstrike, we dream of a financial system that puts people first and strive to realise equality and justice for all.

Further reading: Debt And Women – 2007 report by Jubilee Debt Campaign.
(Photo of Leymah Gbowee by Michael Angelo for Wonderland)

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