Gendered impacts of austerity
by Funzani Mtembu | Amandla! Issue No. 66 | October 2019
It is often assumed that budget cuts affect everyone the same. However, there has been substantial research which shows that austerity measures affect women and children more. This happens mainly in three ways.
Firstly, when governments make expenditure cuts, the sectors which are affected the most are those which women depend upon to make the work of unpaid care less severe for them. The state reduces provision of care services, leaving women with increased unpaid care work. This chips into their time for paid work, for engaging in political and economic activities and for leisure. It also makes women perform much more strenuous work, which has a negative impact on their health.
The reduced time for women to take part in the public sphere (i.e economic and political activities) robs them of being a part of important decisions about the country and its future. So it allows patriarchal structures to remain intact and untouched while relegating women into the perpetual status of passive citizenship.
Secondly, structural adjustment programs include privatisation of institutions and industries to reduce fiscal deficits. Women’s roles as household and community managers are heavily affected by this. Public spending is cut by transferring costs to households – that is, to women who are forced to fill in the gaps left by the state. This burdens women who are poor and do not have the resources to buy either services or care from the market, because of the rise in prices and the fall in household incomes.
Social spending cuts and privatisation of services adversely affect black women in particular because, as we know, poverty is not only gendered but also racialised in this country, and black women are over-represented in low-income households.
Austerity measures only intensify our existing dependence on unpaid care and increase women’s workloads as social programs are cut.
Finally, public sector jobs in clinics, schools and other establishments are some of the ways in which unpaid care work can be turned into paid care work that is of relatively good quality as well. The public sector has also been seen to be a leading advocate for gender equality in employment.
In most cases the government serves as the first entry point for women into the job market. It provides better employment opportunities, better working conditions, including paid leave and work-life balance options, and higher wages for women. A cut in budget which results in a cut in employment and wages in the public sector leaves women with very few job options.
Undervaluing women’s labour
Feminist economics also brings an important aspect into play by interrogating not only the impacts of austerity, but also the neoliberal policies themselves. It asserts how the narrowness of orthodox economics fails to grasp the importance of undervalued and unacknowledged labour performed by women. Unpaid care work keeps the economy functioning – domestic work women take care of their children, who later become a part of the labour force. And men who are a part of the labour force depend on the unpaid care work of women to be able to perform and contribute substantially towards surplus value.
The current economic model also depends upon women’s low-paid work in global supply chains and sub-par social benefit structures that underserve women and perpetuate gendered inequality.
The work done, mostly by women, in ensuring a productive labour force is not seen as a long-term investment the way that infrastructure investment is perceived for instance, whereas women are the ones who ensure a country’s labour force can deliver what is expected of it.
During times of recession, this bias is even more evident. Men’s employment is seen as more of a priority than women’s. Cuts in social spending are frequently seen as the easy option under austerity measures, with women’s unpaid care work filling the gap. What has become painfully clear is that the state, particularly the South African state, depends upon foreign investors and shapes its economic policies according to the interests of these investors. This means that the state has little to no control over its own country. Those with capital who bring their money into the country expect the state to act on their behalf, even if it is at the expense of social cohesion, and even though women are most affected.
Funzani Mtembu is an investment analyst, an activist and an advocate for a feminist economy and Pan Africanism. She writes and speaks in her own capacity on subjects such as feminism, political economy and social movements.