Women and girls “expendable” in misguided slash-and-burn policies of economic recovery

Tuesday 22 November 2022

Oxfam: Austerity measures and their gendered harms are a form of gender-based violence

Governments around the world are putting women and girls in danger of unprecedented new levels of poverty, peril, overwork and premature death as a result of near-universal “slash-and-burn" efforts to recover their economies from the pandemic and tame inflation.

A new Oxfam report today, “The Assault of Austerity”, says that four out of every five governments are now locked into austerity measures, cutting public services like health, education and social protection rather than pursuing wealth taxes and windfall taxes. More than half of these government already fail their women and girls, by failing to provide or barely providing gendered public and social services. They are treating women and girls as expendable.

For example, Nigeria announced a 42% reduction in health spending in 2020, despite having one of the highest maternal mortality and morbidity rates in the world. Testimonials from frontline health centres in Nigeria reveal scenarios such as two nurses on duty to respond to over 150 women in an antenatal ward.

“Women carry most of the physical, emotional and psychological consequences of these cuts to crucial public services because they rely on them most. The road to post-pandemic recovery is being built upon the lives and sweated labour and security of women and girls,” said Oxfam Head of Gender Justice and Gender Rights, Amina Hersi. “Austerity is a form of gender-based violence.”

Austerity is not inevitable, it is a choice: governments can continue to cause harm by cutting public services, or they could raise taxes on those who can afford it. A progressive wealth tax on the world's millionaires and billionaires can raise almost $1 trillion more than governments are planning to save through cuts in 2023.

Recent reports from UN agencies show that women and girls are already living in dire situations and Oxfam believes that austerity policies are contributing to:

  • More women and girls joining the 1.7 billion who are already now living below the poverty line of $5.50 a day;
  • Baking in the unequal “return to work” rate of women, who between 2019-22 captured only 21% of all projected employment gains, with many of those jobs becoming ever more exploitative and precarious;
  • Women being foisted with yet more responsibility for care, even as they already worked an additional 512 billion unpaid hours in 2020;
  • Women and girls facing even more difficulty to get clean water – the lack of which already kills 800,000 of them each year – along with affordable food, given the sharp rises in costs;
  • More violence, even as one in every 10 women and girls faced sexual and physical violence from an intimate partner in the past year. To squeeze budgets during lockdown, 85% of countries shut their emergency services for survivors of gender-based violence, according to a UNDP review. 

With more than 85% of the world’s population projected to live under austerity measures in 2023, this already horrific situation will get worse, even as governments’ priorities are clearly elsewhere: 2% of what governments spend on military is enough to end interpersonal gender-based violence in 132 countries.

“Austerity policies blend patriarchy and neoliberal ideology to further exploit the most oppressed within society and deliberately dismiss their needs,” said Hersi.

“It is not just a gendered policy, it is also a gendered process in its ‘everydayness’ – the way it permeates the daily lives of women specifically, in their incomes, their care responsibilities, their ability to access services as essential as health, water, and transportation, and in their overall safety and freedom from physical violence in the home, at work, and on the street,” Hersi said.

The report shows that women are impacted by cuts to services, social protection and infrastructure twice: first directly, through rising prices or loss of jobs; and then indirectly, because they are made society’s ‘shock absorbers’ and expected to survive and take care of everyone when the state steps back. For example, despite the terrible impact of food price inflation, and with more than 60% of the world’s hungry being women, the IMF told nine countries, including Cameroon, Senegal and Surinam, to introduce or increase value-added tax which often applies to everyday products including food.

The report says that governments are pursuing their economic policies in a vacuum of gendered data. Less than half the data needed to monitor the fifth Sustainable Development Goal to achieve gender equality is currently available. Only about 35% of reported health-related data is segregated by gender.

“This absence of systemic data about the economic violence being perpetrated upon women means that governments are making their economic decisions in the dark,” Hersi said.

“Women are being gaslit by a false choice between the state either providing social and public services or repaying debt and attracting investment and growth. It doesn’t have to be,” Hersi said. Governments should adopt human-centred, feminist economic policy choices to tackle inequalities and support the wellbeing of marginalised gender, racial and ethnic groups across all countries, the report says.

Oxfam calls all governments to end austerity and instead seek alternatives such as feminist budgeting and progressive taxation, where taxes are invested into universal social protection and public services, putting the specific needs of women and girls at the heart of policy making. It calls for decent work through the full implementation of the International Labour Organization’s labour standards, including particularly for women in the informal and care economies.

Oxfam calls on the IMF to stop pushing painful, failed austerity measures, and to suspend austerity-based conditionality on all its existing loan programmes. It also calls on rich countries to urgently advance debt cancellation and debt-free financing for lower income countries.

Notes to editors: 
Contact information: 

Simon Trépanier, GMT + 1 | simon.trepanier@oxfam.org | Tel/What’s App +39 388 850 9970