Groundbreaking book unveils the feminist lens on global sovereign debt


A new book “Feminism in Public Debt: A Human Rights Approach” delves into the intricate connections between debt, gender, and human rights, with a spotlight on Latin American countries. 

Amidst the ever-growing focus on global sovereign debt, the crucial feminist perspective is often overlooked. A new groundbreaking book “Feminism in Public Debt: A Human Rights Approach”, co-edited by Juan Bohoslavsky and Mariana Rulli (with a chapter contributed by Eurodad) and published by Bristol University Press, redresses the balance and challenges the accepted notions of public indebtedness. Throughout the book it is argued that debt isn't just an economic concern, it is a feminist issue, with profound implications for gender equality and women’s human rights.

Debt as a systemic and feminist issue

In the book, debt emerges as a direct manifestation of neocolonial patriarchal violence rooted in the modern neoliberal economic system. From a feminist perspective, women’s role in this system is often obscured and overlooked despite various forms of ongoing economic, domestic and institutional violence, as well as both paid, unpaid and underpaid labour exploitation - a daily experience for many women in the global south in particular. The book identifies a need to look beyond the financial aspects of debt and also acknowledge the debt that is owed to women and girls due to the unrecognised care work they systematically carry out to sustain households and, by extension, their communities. 

The recent report by, “Global Sovereign Debt Monitor 2024”, shows 130 out of 152 global south countries experience a debt situation at some level, with 24 countries in a very critical stage. To tackle the debt crisis, governments in the global south are encouraged by institutions like the IMF and World Bank to cut essential financing for gender-responsive public services, like maternal healthcare or social protection programs, including vital services for survivors of gender violence. Austerity measures like these, coupled with a push for privatisation, have been at the core of  IMF and World Bank programs that prioritise debt repayment over human rights. This has posed a significant threat to women and girls' social, political and economic well-being. Addressing the ongoing global south debt crisis should therefore include human rights and gender justice perspectives to ensure its orderly, fair, transparent, and durable solution.

Life sustainability over debt sustainability

The book calls for a paradigm shift to address exacerbating inequalities promoted by neoliberal, profit-driven economic policies. This shift entails prioritising life over debt sustainability, closely examined in chapter 15 by Patricia Miranda and Verónica Serafini from Latindadd. At the centre of this shift is the concept of a care economy as an integral part of transformative change in addressing inequalities and ensuring human rights to those both providing and receiving care. The care economy encompasses the social and economic relations necessary for the provision of care and services that contribute to the nurturing, sheltering and reproduction of current and future populations, including the paid (both in formal and informal sectors) and unpaid labour related to caregiving.

Without care work, societies would not have the basis for social reproduction and sustained economic development. Care is actually a driver of economic productivity. In order to place care back at the centre of our societies, there is a need to address the unequal distribution of responsibilities and labour between women and men, and between the private (households and market) and public spheres. The authors point out that regretfully, care’s significance continues to remain invisible and undervalued, particularly in orthodox economics. The book masterfully illustrates the importance of this debate through several chapters (including chapters 2, 10, 12 and 15).

The vicious cycle of indebtedness for women and LGBTQ+ communities

The book does an excellent job at prioritising global south voices, adopting an intersectional focus on women and the LGBTIQ+ communities across Latin America, particularly in chapters 5, 12, and 13. The author in chapter 12, María Nieves Rico, a former Director of the Gender Affairs Division of ECLAC, introduces the concept of “care debts”. She argues that women in some Latin American countries become indebted for care purposes, given that they take charge of the monetary management of care.

Chapter 13, by sociologist Florencia Partenio and Ariel Wilkis, PhD in Sociology (EHESS-UBA) also sheds light on women, lesbians and trans femininities in Argentina that go through cycles of indebtedness to finance care needs. They live “encuentadas” (drowning in bills) and end up taking consumption loans in the informal sector, under highly unfavourable conditions. These ‘care debts’ are a consequence of both the unequal distribution of care and the unfair social protection system. Still, care debts are nowhere to be found in orthodox economic analysis. 

Actionable solutions to feminist debt

The book offers not only a wide range of theoretical and methodological analyses, but also a policy-focused array of actionable solutions to the current debt crisis and the role of women and gender equality in it. It rightfully criticises the neoliberal economic policies promoted by the international financial institutions, especially in chapters 3, 9, 10, 11 and 18. For example, Christina Laskaridis, Lecturer in Economics at The Open University provides practical examples in chapter 18 of the need to end the IMF’s Surcharges [a system of fees on loans which places an unfair burden on vulnerable countries that require financial support], calling for an increased allocation of Special Drawing Rights as well as improving representation of low and middle-income countries across decision-making fora. Furthermore, in addressing the climate crisis chapter 4, by Iolanda Fresnillo and Leia Achampong from Eurodad, reveals how engaging women in the decision-making process at all levels, from community to national and international, to address climate impacts, can bring benefits to the wider community. Instead right now, both the impacts of debt-driven austerity and climate change become a barrier to women’s engagement in community participation and political decision-making. The chapter 19 by Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky and Lena Lavinas also addresses false solutions, like gender bonds. They are the new type of social bonds which are issued by states to finance projects and public policies aimed at reducing gender inequalities and promoting women’s rights with penalties for noncompliance. The authors’ analysis concludes that this financial innovation is yet “another brick on the neoliberal wall”, as there is no actual evidence of the impact on effectively implementing gender-responsive policies, becoming a clear strategy for “pink-washing”. 

Ultimately, the book offers a comprehensive insight into the position of women within the current financial architecture and outlines a systemic reimagining of the neocolonial patriarchal society we live in. I encourage anyone working on - or interested in - the issue of debt to get a copy of this incredibly important book. 

You can download the book for free or buy it in English here.

You can download the book in Spanish here

Watch the recording of the book launch: