Opinion: Austerity takes a devastating toll on women. Here's why.

A migrant domestic worker in New Delhi. Photo by: © ILO / J. Urmila 2018 / CC BY-NC-ND

This week, leaders are gathering at the United Nations High-level Political Forum to discuss progress toward Agenda 2030’s stated ambitions on “empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality,” framed by an aspiration to “leave no one behind”.

It’s an urgently needed discussion. Progress on the agenda’s commitment to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” is wildly off track: a recent analysis of 129 countries found that not a single one was “fully transforming laws, policies, or public budget decisions on the scale needed to reach gender equality by 2030.”

It’s clear that marginalized women continue to be left behind in global development. But, as a new briefing from the Gender and Development Network highlights, the problem is deeper rooted than that. Women aren’t just being left behind — they are being pushed, by austerity policies that exacerbate and even exploit existing gender inequalities.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, austerity policies have been taking hold. A major analysis in 2015 anticipated that 127 countries would undergo cuts in government expenditure between 2016 and 2020. Countries in the global south have been the biggest adopters of austerity measures, many of them strongly pressured to do so by policy “advice” or loan conditions from the International Monetary Fund.

The human costs of austerity have been documented all too clearly. From cuts to health care in Ecuador, through hikes in the price of water in Ghana, to the reduction of education budgets in Argentina — austerity policies worldwide are stopping people from enjoying the most basic of rights. And narrowly targeted social safety nets supposed to protect the poorest have proven woefully inadequate, if not outright counterproductive. 

Cuts in social services particularly impact on women who, because of underlying inequalities in incomes and in social norms around the provision of care, are more reliant on them — both as a provider of services and as a source of employment. Some cuts have also fallen on services that primarily benefit women. In Brazil, the budget for women’s rights programs, including services for survivors of violence against women and girls, was cut by 40% between 2014 and 2016. Women facing intersecting inequalities are especially hard hit by cuts: for example, women with irregular migration status in Spain have been deprived of access to most kinds of health care.

It’s plain that austerity takes a devastating toll on women. But widening gender inequalities are not just an unintended side-effect of austerity: they are also one of the conditions that make it possible in the first place.

Under austerity, budgets for publicly funded health care, childcare, adult social care, and social protection often come into the firing line. This has a disastrous direct impact on the people who stand to lose their services and their entitlements. It also has a significant impact on family and community members, who step in to fill some of the care gaps that cuts leave in their wake.

The bulk of this secondary impact falls on women, who perform an estimated 76% of total unpaid care work worldwide. And by covering some of the gaps, women’s unpaid care and domestic work forms a “shock absorber” that disguises the full human costs of austerity. Without being able to take advantage of women’s unpaid work to conceal the full damage done, politicians might have a harder time rationalizing austerity at all.

Austerity also often goes hand in hand with other economic policies that seek, in various ways, to create a more favorable environment for businesses, especially multinational businesses. Moves to reduce protection for workers’ rights are a particularly worrying trend.

Research on 187 countries in 2015 found that 89 planned “flexibilisation” measures such as relaxing dismissal regulations, revising minimum wages, limiting salary adjustments to cost of living benchmarks, and decentralizing collective bargaining. And when workers’ rights are eroded, women workers, who tend to have fewer alternative options because of the wider inequalities that they face, and are less likely to be in unions, are more at risk.

At the same time as governments rush to relax domestic regulations on businesses, efforts towards a legally binding global mechanism, which could help give marginalized women and others some redress against the worst corporate abuses, are making only very slow progress.

Harsh austerity is sometimes presented as the only way out of economic crises. But, as the Gender and Development Network’s new briefing argues, a wealth of alternatives exist — if only governments start from the premise that human rights, equality, and well-being, rather than the single-minded pursuit of economic growth and profit, should be the foundation for economic policymaking.

The briefing recommends six over-arching policy directions for governments, and also urges that international financial institutions leave national governments the policy space to put these recommendations into practice:

1. Prioritize the promotion of gender equality and women’s rights in economic policy decisions, including through application of the new guiding principles on human rights impact assessment of economic reforms.

2. Recognize, redistribute, and reduce the burden of unpaid care and domestic work, and promote opportunities for decent work for women.

3. Avoid cuts in social spending and adopt alternative strategies to tackle crises, such as progressive taxation, clamping down on tax avoidance, and making strategic investments in social infrastructure.

4. Ensure that, if austerity really is necessary, cuts do not fall disproportionately on women by using full impact assessments that examine hidden costs, particularly of unpaid care and domestic work, and considering the full range of options as to where cuts can be made.

5. Take steps to prevent future crises by regulating in a way that promotes stability, ensuring that trade and investment agreements uphold women’s rights, and (for donor governments) meeting longstanding commitments on aid quantity and quality.

6. Promote democratic economic decision-making, which entails actively seeking the meaningful participation of marginalized women and their organizations.

As leaders gather for the High-Level Political Forum, there’s no shortage of evidence that austerity is undermining the ambition of “achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls.” The only question that remains, with 2030 approaching fast, is whether governments will finally muster the political will to stop pushing women behind.

About the authors

  • Jessica

    Jessica Woodroffe

    Jessica Woodroffe is director of the Gender and Development Network, a U.K. based coalition of over 100 NGOs and experts, which works in partnership with women’s rights organizations internationally to advocate for gender equality and women’s rights. Her nearly 30 years’ experience of research and advocacy covers gender equality, international financial institutions, and economic empowerment issues in roles such as director of policy and campaigns at ActionAid UK, head of policy and campaigns at the World Development Movement, and policy officer at Christian Aid.
  • Polly

    Polly Meeks

    Polly Meeks is an independent consultant specializing in development finance and inclusive development. She previously worked at the European Network on Debt and Development, ADD International, the U.K. Parliament International Development Committee, and the U.K. National Audit Office.