Gendered debt servicing; towards Africa’s gender equality

The increase in public debt is a global phenomenon, but the significant buildup of public external debt is much higher in Africa compared to other developing regions.  According to International Monetary Fund-World Bank Debt Sustainability Framework 2020, about 33 of 68 African countries are either at high risk of debt distress or in distress. The high levels of external debt servicing is taking up a sizeable share of government revenues, slowly reversing the intended usefulness of borrowed funds to promote the livelihood of the citizens. In common knowledge, there is an assumption that debt servicing is affecting every citizen equally. Well, even though the debt-servicing burden is gender-neutral its effects are gender discriminatory.

As the cost of servicing debt increase without a corresponding increase in revenues, the governments are pressured to reduce spending on “less political” spending buckets. More often than not, the reduction in social sector spending commonly known as ‘austerity measures’ is an easier to reach target.  The measures have an inherent bias and the negative bias disproportionately falls on women. It affects women in three-fold. Strikingly, the reduced provision of care services by the government leaves the burden of unpaid care to women. On a normal day, according to International Labor (ILO) 2018 report, an African woman spends 3.4 more times performing unpaid care compared to men.  The reduced spending on public care service, therefore, calls for women to reduce time spent on paid employment or leisure to take care of family members. Moreover, balancing paid work and unpaid care work becomes a challenge that could put pressure on women’s health.

Secondly, the austerity measures lead to income reductions and removal of subsidies leading to soaring market prices. This makes basic household items unaffordable and pushes more households to poverty. In poor households, especially in the rural areas, women’s work is dominated by hard menial and dull work such as firewood and water collection, care of livestock, and subsistence agriculture. Such roles are time-intensive, pushing women to “time poverty” and limiting their choice of being engaged in other more productive income-earning opportunities. They weigh choices about food consumption and distribution, choosing to eat less or lower quality food for the sake of the other family members.

Lastly, the massive unemployment as a result of reduced spending on social sectors such as healthcare and education largely befall women. Women make the bulk of the workforce in these sectors and disproportionately affected by job losses. Mostly, such positions are less paid and valued and mostly on a contract basis, which makes them more attractive to eliminate during the organization’s downsizing. Even when such jobs are maintained during the ‘bad weather times’, it is more likely that the working conditions have deteriorated, adversely affecting the productivity of the women. Moreover, in African society, most of the time, women have weaker or no control property and resources. Therefore, loss of employment results in women depending on the husband or immediate family members to provide for basic needs. Evidence points out increased Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in scenarios where the man is the sole breadwinner of the family. Such women are more likely to stay in abusive relationships, more so because they feel the cost of enduring the violence compared to the cost of lacking resources or unable to fend for themselves. 

Focusing on the debt burden itself, rarely do governments borrow to invest in areas with the potential of advancing gender equality and women’s rights; an area that the continent has largely lagged behind. According to Africa Human Development Report 2016 by United Nations, gender inequality is costing the continent an average of $95 billion a year. It would be expected that government would prioritize gender equality as a development priority towards the continental efforts to eliminate poverty and promote sustained economic growth. Instead, gender inequality is subsumed into wider discussions in the name of gender mainstreaming. Some view the gender equality measures as a ‘luxury’ reserved for periods of economic growth. In fact, during such periods of debt servicing crisis when the governments have to choose priority spending, reducing spending on gender equality undermines human dignity and decelerates the country’s economic growth.

Call for Action

As the SSA countries grapple to cut government expenditure and service debts, there is a need to rethink the continental inclusive development priorities.  The extent to which women are adversely affected by the austerity measure should concern the policymakers to develop debt-servicing policies, which are guided by the achievement of human rights principles and the progressive realization of women human rights. The international community should play a role in putting in place binding frameworks and treaties that take into accountability human rights in times of debt crises. Moreover, this understanding should be a basis to which Multilateral and Bilateral lenders such as World Bank and IMF should reconsider before imposing debt relief stringent conditions such as the Structural Adjustment Programs of 1990’s.

by Dr. Judith Nguli

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