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

Tuesday, November 22, 2022
Woman walking through a flooded street

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 governments 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 responding to over 150 women in an antenatal ward.

“Women bear the brunt of unpaid work around the world and are often the most neglected when it comes to basic and essential public services.

Lack of social safety nets and stringent government cuts to spending on social services that benefit women and girls is a setback to the modest progress made towards reducing harm, abuse and violence.” said Oxfam International Country Director in Nigeria, Dr Vincent Ahonsi.

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 worsen, 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.

“A recent report by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) revealed that 133 million Nigerians live in multidimensional poverty. This evidence shows weak government performance in poverty reduction over the years resulting in more women and girls not having access to quality healthcare services, food and basic amenities.

Women economic empowerment and economic inclusion remain poor, with poor access to agricultural tools, loans and other inputs by women.

The government needs to rethink its current anti-poverty and human capital development strategies and initiatives to generate more income, reduce the cost of governance, improve fiscal transparency, reduce corruption and wastage, and drive growth.

The corporations and wealthy individuals need to pay their fair share of taxes, and a transparent and prudent purposeful social protection opportunity needs to be created for women and other vulnerable groups in society,” said Dr Ahonsi.

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.

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 on 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 policymaking. It calls for decent work through the full implementation of the International Labour Organization’s labour standards, 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: 

14 out of 16 West African countries plan to reduce their national budgets by a total of $69.8 billion between 2022 and 2026 due to pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) through its COVID-19 loans., based on the World Economic Outlook Database of the IMF and Oxfam’s analysis Adding Fuel to Fire: how IMF’s demands for austerity will drive up inequality worldwide

  • Follow the End Austerity campaign. Organizations participating in the #EndAusterity Campaign include Oxfam, the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad), Red Latinoamericana por Justicia Económica y Social - Latindadd, Financial Transparency Coalition, Arab Watch Coalition, The Bretton Woods Project, Global Social Justice, Action Aid International, WEMOS, Ibon International, the Fight Inequality Alliance, Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR), Third World Network, INESC-Brazil, Equidad de Género: Ciudadanía, Trabajo y Familia, and the Campaign of Campaigns.
Contact information: 

Chioma Ekene-Ugwu, Abuja, Nigeria | chioma.ekene-ugwu@oxfam.org | Tel/What’s App +234 803 6110 631