It’s International Women’s Day, and what better reason to remind ourselves of one of the most compelling reasons for Jubilee Scotland’s work – that women are disproportionally affected by unfair and unpayable debt. The most basic reason for this is simply that debt causes poverty, and women make up 70% of the world’s poor. But it goes further than this, too, because when governments are forced to make huge debt repayments, or introduce ‘austerity measures’ to qualify for debt relief, the services which are affected are those with a bigger impact on women. Here are just a few examples:
- In many countries, men are chosen to be educated over women. This means that when there is a fee to attend school, families often send sons and keep daughters at home. In Côte d’Ivoire, the government spends $500 a year on servicing debts, which means it is forced to charge fees even for primary school. Over half of school-age girls there do not attend school.
- Women are also denied access to education because of an assumption that their place is in the home. When social services or basic healthcare provision is removed, women often have to leave school to care for young or elderly family.
- Women traditionally have responsibility for fetching water for their households. Water privatisation – a classic austerity measure advised by the International Monetary Fund – means an increased workload for these women.
- Women produce 60 – 80% of the food in poor countries, and are often the first to suffer when government controls and assistance are removed in response to debt.
- When governments are implementing austerity measures, or trying to increase revenue to pay back debt, farmers are often encouraged to grow cash crops rather than staple foods. This means that women’s work changes from providing food for the household, to providing money. As men usually control the money, women’s positions in the households are weakened, and money is far less likely to be spent on welfare
And all this is not even mentioning that fact that women – by virtue of having the ability to bear children – are going to be most affected by cuts in healthcare. Put simply, focussing on paying external debt rather than healthcare will mean more women die.
This is not just the case in poor countries. In Greece there have been reports of women in labour being turned away from hospitals because they cannot pay the necessary Є900 charge (equivalent to about 3 months rent). Even in Britain, where debt is being used as a reason to force through huge austerity measures, Ed Miliband called the plans “the biggest attack on women in a generation”.
As Yassine Fall, the eminent Senegalese economist has said: “the debt problem is a problem of economic justice because expenditure on debt service endangers women’s right to human development”. Whether we are talking about debt cancellation in the global south – in Uganda for example, debt cancellation has resulted in equal numbers of boys and girls attending school where before there were 20% fewer girls – or fighting against austerity measures closer to home, International Women’s Day is a chance to highlight the need for an economy based on equality.