At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the gripping images of militarised response to contain the virus spread in Uganda couldn’t be missed. Images of women traders and market vendors beaten by the military in the capital Kampala, traders sleeping in the markets, including many women who couldn’t return home. Many factory and industrial flower farm workers separated from their families stayed under challenging conditions. Millions more were at home as the world tumbled.
As many tried to get back to ‘normal’ economic activities, it was evident that nothing was the same anymore. All the systems, not just health, had been shaken, and a reset was impossible. The social impact of the pandemic on families, particularly women and girls, gender-diverse persons, showed how little progress the world has made towards gender equality. The violence experienced at such mass levels exposed the unequal, unsustainable political-social and economic systems we live in.
A new study by UNODC and UN Women shows that, on average, more than five women or girls were killed every hour by someone in their own family in 2021. These killings in the private sphere have much to do with what is allowed in the public sphere. In many African countries, mass sexual violence against children was recorded when schools were closed and lockdowns. There were limited responses; non-profits that once responded to these cases and provided support, and the government struggled with budgets.
Unemployment continued to skyrocket, especially for women on whom homecare work rests. High food and fuel prices made worse by the war on Ukraine this year are compounding already unbearable realities. Many people are struggling to revamp their livelihoods as food insecurity pushes many households to spend their last savings if they had any, and many communities face famine.
These multiple crises find many African countries with high privatisation of critical services stemming from push under structural adjustment programmes as enforced by international financial institutions the last three decades. Many private acquisitions of what is supposed to be public services are by the powerful political class and serve, first and foremost, their interests. How governments step in to contain the economic crisis matters and have an impact on those already marginalised at household and community levels. It is predicted that by 2023, 85% of the world’s population will live in the grip of austerity measures.
What are austerity measures?
Austerity measures are defined mainly by cuts to public spending, frequently education, health and social protection, often alongside increases in tax revenues, specifically via regressive or indirect means rather than progressive taxation such as wealth. Austerity or fiscal consolidation refers to policies implemented by governments intended to reduce budget deficits and sovereign debt.
For 16 Days of Activism, Oxfam and NAWI Collective have published a report, ‘The Assault of Austerity: How prevailing economic policy choices are a form of gender-based violence, exploring the intersections of GBV, austerity and structural and economic violence as gendered violence.
“Austerity is an explicit policy choice that ultimately makes poor people – particularly women and other marginalized groups – pay the price of economic adjustment, while rich people bear negligible costs.” – the report emphasises. “There will be unavoidable impacts for most – particularly women, girls, and non-binary people.”
While post-pandemic recovery for the world’s poorest people will take more than a decade, it only took nine months for many billionaires who are profiteering from the suffering. Debt servicing in African countries is almost three times higher than education spending, six times health spending, 22 times social spending and 236 times more than climate adaptation spending.
Unfair global systems
African governments’ responses to the economic crisis are rarely on their own terms. Formerly colonised countries are trapped in cycles of debt and exploitation by global systems that were not designed by them or for them. Austerity measures are often adopted based on advice and conditionalities from international financial institutions.
As we watch countries negotiate for more loans like Zambia and Ghana, Oxfam analysis has found that 85% of the 107 loans negotiated between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and 85 national governments to respond to the COVID-19 crisis indicate plans to undertake ‘fiscal consolidation’ that is austerity, during the recovery period.
“These plans are now being finalised in countries across the Global South, where public services and social protection were already in need of serious investment even before the pandemic,” says the report. “The policies that deliver austerity’s deadly consequences can no longer be marketed as the ‘logical’ and ‘inevitable’ economic options that they have been for decades, and certainly not by any government that claims a commitment to gender equality or ending gender-based violence.”
Why is austerity a feminist issue?
The neocolonial financial and political decision-making of the present day ensures countries in the Global North continue to exert power and make decisions for nations in the Global South, even without direct rule. In short, we are in continued coloniality – long-standing patterns of power that have emerged as a result of colonialism.
Neoliberal macroeconomic policies are not gender-neutral, just as colonisation was not some gender-neutral oppressive event that ended. In Decolonization and Afro-Feminism, Sylvia Tamale asserts, “Imperialism dealt a double blow to women. First of all, women suffered as Africans who had been robbed of their resources, freedoms and pride, but also as people whose status had sharply regressed with colonialism.”
Neocolonial systems continue to unleash economic violence that keeps African women and gender-diverse persons at the periphery of global capital despite decades of women’s liberation movements’ demands.
“Patriarchy-fuelled capitalism places women at the sharpest end of exploitation, left to cope in the most precarious and unprotected low-income work, while their unpaid care work remains invisible,” says the report. “Patriarchy and neoliberal ideology feed and reinforce each other, with both systems being exploitative and designed to dismiss the needs of women, girls and non-binary people.”
In 2020, African Feminist Post-COVID-19 Economic Recovery Statement pointed out that: “Decades of reduced public spending has left millions without access to basic services such as healthcare, whilst the movement towards privatising those services and resources (including water and energy) further compromises equitable access as a result of basic services being commodified and subject to market rules and shareholder needs.”
The African feminist economists added, “the gender dimensions of prevailing policy models are still not fully acknowledged or considered, including how those models deepen women’s economic inequality by exploiting their labour inside and outside the home; invisible, poorly paid, unpaid, and insecure.”
Austerity as economic violence
Austerity policies often do not consider preventing harm to women, girls and non-binary individuals. As many have pointed out, the policies only seek to offer temporary fixes of “helping women become slightly better to be able to survive in a hostile economic system that is designed by and built for the wealthy, privileged men and rich countries.”
These current measures, just like the imposition of Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) in the 80s and 90s, will have a devastating impact on the struggle for financial freedom for women and girls as a collective on the continent. New austerity measures, such as taxes on food and fuel or spending cuts, could put vital public services at risk.
Reduced public health spending will have terrible outcomes for women’s and girls’ health, especially in countries where maternal mortality is still a major killer. They will derail the fight against prevailing epidemics that have persisted due to gendered inequalities. In sub-Saharan Africa, girls and young women aged 15–24 are three as likely to acquire HIV than young men of same age group. Six in seven new HIV infections in 2021 among adolescents aged 15-19 were among girls.
Girls’ education faces uncertain times since many fell out of school during the pandemic due to pregnancy. According to the 2021 UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report, over 98 million children are out of school in sub-Saharan Africa. Before the pandemic, an estimated 24% of adolescent girls and young women between 15-24 were not in education, training or employed, compared to 14.6% of young men.
The health and education sectors are highly feminized, and any reduced spending and wage-cutting will affect millions of women. The sectors also play a critical role in advancing women’s rights if barriers are removed.
Labour deregulation and privatisation that are being pushed will throw back efforts to achieve labour rights. It is estimated 89.7% of women in Africa work in informal employment. Women in informal work have faced significant increases in unpaid care and insecure paid work.
Women’s unpaid care work subsidises the cost of care that sustains families, supports economies and often fills in for the lack of social services. If social protection programs are targeted for cuts, it will worsen the situation of millions of women.
According to the African Development Bank, Africa has the highest percentage of women entrepreneurs, yet the austerity measures will hardly trickle down beyond the wealthy investors. Instead, value-added tax (VAT) increases on essential goods and services will affect women as they struggle to balance household budgets to feed their families and investing in their businesses.
African government must prioritise budgeting that addresses the needs of those living at the margins, not further burden them. Reduce privatisation of public goods, tax the rich and strengthen universal social protection systems.
We must see more community support to shift power towards feminists and social movements. African leaders must ensure they guarantee rights and halt the magnified socio-economic inequalities. Now more than ever, we need to challenge austerity as an exercise of power by the Global North over the Majority of the World which makes the struggle to secure rights of women and gender diverse persons even harder.