By Angela Machonesa
The gender agenda has been on the tables for a long time now. The reality that gender equality matters for development outcomes and development policy-making is not new. The fact that treatment of women is positively related to economic prosperity is becoming a cliché in the development discourse.
It is true that when women are given economic opportunity, the benefits are large not only for their families, but for their communities, and ultimately for national development efforts and this is well pronounced in policy papers. Indeed policy makers know that opening economic options for women puts poverty reduction on a faster track and steps up progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, which include the eradication of poverty and hunger by 2015.
For how long then will these pronouncements be made without adequate action on the ground?
More talk, less action
As Eve Odete points out, the success in efforts of empowering and investing in women for development vary largely across Africa. The extent to which numerous acclaimed action plans like the Beijing Plan of Action and the domestic and international legislation like CEDAW have been translated into real programmes with clear policy outcomes for African women is minimal.
The global economic slowdown, which was most severe in advanced economies (in terms of decline in GDP), had several ripple effects on middle and low income countries and devastating impacts for women via declines in the demand for manufactured and commodity exports, plummeting tourism expenditures, and a drop in foreign direct investment.
Budgets for women’s programmes remain insignificant as the agencies that are created or expanded to implement gender programmes remain under-resourced since major funding partners are in turmoil. Specific policy pronouncements have been made in relation to women’s right to property, participation in decision making, and safety nets for vulnerable groups against the impact of harsh macro-economic policies. These too have remained on government policy papers and on the lips of the agitating groups.
They have lacked in time-bound targets and benchmarks for monitoring. The role of NGOs in the consultation and agenda setting has been nebulous as most structures for such engagement have remained unclear and un-funded even when these have been clearly spelled out in legislation
Another channel by which developing countries were affected by the crisis is the drop in remittances from family members living in developed economies. The anti immigration stances in Euro zone have led to a lot of layoffs of African immigrants thus affecting household incomes back home. Like former policy prescriptions, the reduced role of the state in welfare sectors have also increased the burden on women due to increased unpaid work and/or precarious employment and reduced or for-fee social services, while in many countries the invisible hand of the market has failed to pull women out of poverty.
Limitations in enacting laws that seek to protect women range from the harsh realities of macro-economic programmes, devastation of armed conflict, the emergence of counter social forces opposed to women’s rights, weaknesses of democratic political institutions, the weakness of a vigorous civil society and the lack of political will.
The Progress of Nations Report (2000) published by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) cautioned all of us, and indeed we ought to take this warning seriously that, “The day will come when nations will be judged not by their military or economic strength, nor by the splendour of their capital cities and public buildings, but by the well-being of their peoples, i.e. by their levels of health, nutrition and education; by their opportunities to earn a fair reward for their labours; by their ability to participate in decisions that affect their lives; by the respect that is shown for their civil and political liberties; by the provision that is made for those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged; and by the protection that is afforded to the women and growing minds and bodies of their children”
Addressing the economic crisis requires a direct focus on women’s well-being. The danger in the current crisis is that governments will overlook the needs of women when deciding how to allocate funding in stimulus packages and external aid, or in making cuts.
It is more important than ever that women have equal representation in decision-making on public spending, both within governments and in global advisory bodies. Clearly, the persisting economic crisis, coupled with ecological destruction, which negatively impacts on the overall conditions for sustainable development, demand that we make clear that no effort to reduce poverty can succeed if half of the world’s population is not taken into account.
Women and taxation
To circumvent the effects of global turmoil and to promote sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction, countries have been urged to turn to domestic revenue accumulation mechanisms like taxation. Taxation indeed generates critical resources for social expenditure. However, policy interventions in the area of taxation have shifted from taxing income to taxing consumption. This has negatively affected desired outcomes in the area of gender equality. Through the Value Added Tax (VAT), and the gendered patterns of how people consume, women are highly taxed as they take a bigger proportion of household expenditure. Mainstreaming a gender equality perspective into general tax policy analysis can significantly improve the quality of public policy.
As Terrence Smith points out, most discussions of taxation use a definition of tax which is too narrow and neglects what can be called the “unpaid labour tax” or “reproduction tax” which women pay, in terms of their time and effort (and money) in the reproductive work of bearing and raising children and caring for other members of society. This work, like other forms of taxation, contributes to the general welfare of society and is essential to the functioning of the economy and society (Women’s Budget Initiative, 1997). Women, however, do not receive any direct reward for this work, which is in effect a tax which they bear and men do not. Although the size of this tax is difficult to quantify in monetary terms, its value far outweighs the value of the heavier income tax burden on men.
The Gender dimension of debt
Basic human needs in Africa have been jeopardized by the debt crisis. The debt burden has particularly harsh consequences for women. Debt repayments and the implementation of conditionality attached to loans have a severe impact on the provision of government services so desperately needed by women and their households. In addition, structural adjustment programs have destroyed the African agricultural sector, with a devastating impact on women, who are the majority of African farmers. This has led to what many call the “feminization of poverty” in Africa.
Women suffer not only from national debt, but also from individual and household debt. Microcredit models imposed by financial and other institutions from the North have had significant impacts on women in the South. They have contributed to the collapse of traditional forms of credit, entailed the handing over of personal possessions as collateral for credit and resulted in women and their households becoming increasingly trapped in a vicious circle of indebtedness and poverty.
Given the severe impact of the debt on women, much more work needs to be done to integrate gender into our alternatives and strategies loan contraction and debt mamanagement.
Missing women in Mining
Women are still largely excluded from participating in the extractive sector and ultimately obtaining benefits from it. The reasons for this anomaly range from the historical factors of colonisation, apartheid, and racial and gender discrimination to the dominance and perpetuation of patriarchal, paternalist- tic and cultural attitudes, which dictate whether or not women should work, where they should work, how much they should earn, how they should use their income, where they should live, and so on . A number of obstacles hinder greater participation in the sector, namely, women’s lack of access to education in the past, lack of access to training in technical and engineering fields and entrepreneurship, lack of access to finance, cultural barriers and attitudes, and generally the dominance of a patriarchal system that undervalues women.
Women are not safe in their communities. Disturbingly, security forces are overwhelmed by the insecurity fostered by violence within the communities that prevents freedom of movement and avert unfettered access to community spaces, education and employment opportunities. Eliminating gender violence is not just a moral issue but a major economic issue. It is an issue that everyone pays for – not just women. Higher health care costs and more frequent visits to hospital emergency departments pose a burden to families and to the state. Tourists and investors are gravely concerned when they witness heinous acts of gender violence in the country. Parents often will keep girls back from school for fear of rape. In economic terms, there are direct and long-term costs for both the individual and the state associated with mental and physical health care provision, and increased household poverty levels as a result of absenteeism, lower worker productivity and reduced income generation.
Women coalitions and groups have shouted and cried enough against injustices. Angry mothers have protested for ages against assaults while trying to sell their goods at the markets, or harassed while trying to take their children to clinics. Indeed what kind of a society are we that are failing to respect the female specie? The momentum for the gender agenda has never been this high, policy makers and global systems must now effectively deliver for women.