A call to action for CSOs: Stop the new debt crisis from derailing women’s rights


by Iolanda Fresnillo, Eurodad and Verónica Serafini, LATINDADD

This blog outlines the serious barriers women are facing due to the unfurling debt crisis in the global south. As debt payments increase, resources are diverted from public services investments and towards the outsourcing and privatisation of these services. This poses a threat to women’s rights and equality. CSOs across the world can help tackle this injustice, but, as this blog states, a greater gender focus for our actions is essential.

An unfurling debt crisis

The last decade has seen an unprecedented increase in debt levels globally, including in the global south. This new “wave of debt” is – according to the World Bank - “the largest, fastest and most broad-based increase in debt” we’ve witnessed in “emerging and developing economies”. Spiralling public debt means that public budgets are bearing the increased weight of debt service payments in many countries.
As Eurodad’s new report “Out of Service” shows, between 2010 and 2018, external debt payments as a percentage of governments’ revenues grew by 83 per cent in low- and middle-income countries, from an average of 6.71 per cent in 2010 to an average of 12.56 per cent in 2018. At least 20 governments in the global south spent more than 20 per cent of their revenue servicing external debts in at least one of the last five years. In some cases, such as Angola, Djibouti, Jamaica, Lebanon, Sri Lanka and Ukraine, more than 40 per cent of government revenue was destined for external public debt service at some point between 2014 and 2018.
This situation is reducing the resources available to deliver quality and gender sensitive public services. On top of this, human rights, climate action and the attainment of the SDGs are being put at risk, as well as international commitments to achieve gender equality and fulfil women’s rights. 

Broken promises 25 years after Beijing

In 1995, the 189 member states of the UN adopted the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action, an agenda to move towards the fulfilment of women’s rights. The first of the Platform’s strategic objectives was to “review, adopt and maintain economic policies and development strategies that address the needs and efforts of women in poverty”, specifying the need to analyse and modify macroeconomic stability programs, structural adjustment, and the management of external debt problems in order to incorporate a gender perspective.
A quarter of a century on, the "Review and appraisal of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action" concludes that, far from having adopted a gender approach to economic reforms, “new waves of austerity measures and the increasing privatization of public services are deepening inequalities with a disproportionate impact on women”. 
This paradigm, which follows the neoliberal mind-set that has dominated recent decades, has been closely related to rising levels of indebtedness. Austerity, coupled with a drive for privatisation, have been at the core of IMF and World Bank policy advice and conditionalities, and central to the approach adopted by most governments in the face of debt distress.

The impact of austerity and privatisation on women’s rights

Austerity-driven cuts to public service budgets have had many negative impacts. Firstly, there has been a loss of quality and coverage in public services, restricting access to women - especially impoverished women. Additionally, austerity policies have reduced or removed specific care services for women such as those related to maternal health care or survivors of gender-violence. 
Less access to public services has also meant an increase in unpaid work carried out by women, as they assume responsibilities such as care for the sick or elderly. 
In addition, women are more highly concentrated in lower-income sectors of society, so they are more affected by cuts to social protection programs and the reduction or even removal of food or energy subsidies. In Egypt, for instance, fuel and energy subsidy reforms promoted by the IMF combined with high inflation, led to a cumulative increase in electricity and food prices. This affected the poorest -among whom women are over-represented- and made women’s unpaid work providing meals for their families yet more difficult. In Ecuador, an austerity package including energy subsidies cuts was cancelled following mass demonstrations, including a women’s demonstration in October 2019. 
Finally, the public sector has a higher proportion of female employees and women are often concentrated in positions where wages tend to be lower. Sectors and positions occupied by women – such as nurses, care workers, teachers and social workers - tend to be more affected by budget cuts and wage caps. Lower-level administrative positions and temporary and part-time jobs are also most affected by austerity. Women tend also to be disproportionately affected by salary cuts, as they have lower wages (due to wage gender gaps) and the impact of cuts on livelihoods is greater. For instance, in 2014-15 in Ukraine 165,000 civil service jobs were cut to comply with IMF loan requirements. Women comprised more than 75 per cent of the civil service. 

How can the debt movement contribute to tackling gender injustice? 

We know that a fundamental shift in international debt resolution framework is critical if we are to prevent populations continuing to pay a disproportionate price – particularly women and girls – for debt crises. 
However, while social movements and CSOs have long been focusing attention on how unsustainable debt can impact negatively on human rights and development, gendered impacts have often gone unnoticed. The lack of dis-aggregated indicators and comprehensive, quality data on public service budgets and coverage is one hurdle to applying a gender lens to these issues. 
Activists and organisations linked with the feminist movement have been addressing these challenges for some time. Partnering with these actors across regions, and building on their practices will help more organisations to better understand, highlight, and contest policy approaches that drive inequalities. 
Some ways forward are outlined below:

  • When analysing macroeconomic reforms and public budgets, CSOs could address impacts on public services, especially those that respond to women’s needs, and impact on unpaid care work mostly assumed by women;
  • When analysing the outsourcing or privatisation of public services and promotion of PPPs, we could incorporate the risks of indebtedness and its potential impacts on women’s rights and gender inequalities. We could also incorporate an intersectional approach, looking specifically at how other areas of discrimination (race, age, class, …) are also affected. 
  • In advocacy work, our claims to international financial institutions and governments should systematically incorporate a gender perspective;
    When promoting, carrying out or participating in debt audit processes, we could incorporate the analysis of gender impacts;
  • In public capacity building actions, communications or campaigns, we should make the impact of debt policies and austerity on women and girls explicitly visible.