Beyond Economics: Assessing IMF Austerity’s Effects on Women’s Rights

In the intricate web of global economic policies, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) plays a pivotal role as a financial lifeline for nations facing economic turbulence. Austerity measures, a common prescription offered by the IMF to stabilize economies, have been a subject of extensive debate and analysis for their far-reaching consequences. While austerity policies are intended to restore fiscal balance, their impact is far from uniform, often exacerbating existing inequalities. This article delves into the intersection of economic policy and gender dynamics, exploring how IMF austerity measures can reverberate through societies in ways that disproportionately affect women. From the erosion of social safety nets to the undermining of women’s access to essential services, we navigate the intricate landscape of austerity and its intricate implications for women’s rights.

Introduction to IMF Austerity

The IMF engages in regular economic monitoring of nearly all nations through its Article IV consultations, frequently providing policy recommendations. These suggestions might be disregarded by more affluent nations but wield significant influence over the policy decisions of less economically developed countries. In instances where countries face a debt crisis and require financial assistance from the IMF, which acts as a lender of last resort, the IMF imposed even more forceful policy advice and requirements. Over the past four decades, the essence of IMF guidance has remained largely unchanged, starting from the introduction of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs). However, this guidance is presented, characterized, and marketed in novel ways.

The prevailing model followed by the IMF has been rooted in neoliberal ideology for many years. This ideology advocates for a specific set of policies, including austerity, the liberalization of markets, the removal of capital and exchange controls, the privatization of public services and government-owned enterprises, as well as a decrease in direct tax rates alongside an increased reliance on broad consumption taxes, all justified under the banner of economic ‘development’. The IMF’s definition of ‘development’ is narrowly confined to economic growth, despite these policies consistently facing criticism for eroding human rights and livelihoods, as well as regularly falling short of achieving the elevated growth rates promised.

The concept of structural adjustment places emphasis on prioritizing ‘fiscal fundamentalism’ rather than focusing on achieving economic and social equity and ensuring the realization of human rights. Governments primarily target the reduction of their fiscal deficits as a primary objective. A significant portion of the critique directed at IMF policy recommendations stems from this conventional macroeconomic perspective. This approach advocates for a shrinking government budget allocation for services while giving precedence to fiscal responsibility, even if it comes at the expense of other factors such as social, economic, and gender parity.

Gender Lens on Austerity

These measures of austerity, also known as ‘fiscal consolidation,’ have the potential to influence women’s rights through diverse channels. Nevertheless, it is the combined effect of these policies that is exceptionally destructive. The reduction of publicly provided childcare services in nations intensifies the impact of higher consumption taxes and weakened enforcement of labor regulations against discrimination. This combination adversely affects women’s ability to secure equitable wages and satisfactory employment opportunities. Reductions in critical public sector positions, where women constitute a significant proportion, such as in healthcare and education, are experienced acutely.

Austerity measures entail various ways through which women’s economic security is directly and unfairly jeopardized. Austerity packages frequently involve wage freezes and significant reductions in the public sector workforce. Given societal norms and workplace segregation, women predominantly occupy sectors in the public realm, often targeted for cutbacks. This includes vital frontline roles such as nursing, teaching, and social work, along with lower-level administrative and part-time positions. Consequently, these measures push a considerable number of women into unemployment, precarious employment, or informal labor markets. This transition leads to enduring financial and asset losses, potentially exacerbating gender-based wage disparities while undermining women’s overall economic well-being.

Regressive Fiscal Consolidation: A Threat to Women’s Rights

Sufficient funding for the public sector and investments in social programs and public services have been crucial for women’s economic rights in recent decades, ensuring access to quality employment. In contrast, reductions in public spending linked to austerity have resulted in cutbacks to essential social and physical infrastructure, including education, healthcare, and transportation services. These actions distinctly affect women more than men and hinder advancements in gender equality. This is compounded by the historical context of gender inequality and bias, structural disadvantages, biological distinctions, societal norms, and disparities in the practical application of laws and policies.

i). Budget cuts directly impact women’s income and economic security

Reductions in public expenditure have an uneven and severe impact on women, manifesting through distinct pathways. Broadly, the consequences for women’s rights due to budgetary cutbacks occur through three primary mechanisms: i) direct income losses, ii) curtailed access to crucial services, and iii) heightened burdens of unpaid labor and time scarcity. These factors are interdependent, exacerbating the overall negative effects on women. The repercussions of budget reductions on women’s income and economic stability are extensive and multifaceted

ii) Diminishing Public spending impedes women’s access to crucial services

Among the most insidious consequences of reduced public spending, marked by enduring and disproportionate impacts, lies in how these reductions amplify the obstacles often faced by women when accessing vital public services of high quality. On occasions, budget cuts are directed straight at programs and services primarily benefiting women. Frequently, these cuts extend to services that cater to the wider populace, such as healthcare or vocational training, yet are of particular significance to women due to their economic disadvantages or specific needs (e.g., heightened reliance on healthcare services for pregnancy and maternity needs). An additional measure under austerity is the introduction of fees for essential services, purportedly as a ‘cost-saving’ strategy, which unfortunately escalates disparities in access to care. This disproportionately affects women due to the gender pay gap and limited control they may exert over household finances.

iii) Austerity-driven fiscal restraint intensifies women’s unpaid care work and deprivation

A third vital aspect is the profound significance of austerity measures in exacerbating women’s unpaid care responsibilities and their ensuing time scarcity. Unpaid care labor across the globe is overwhelmingly carried out by women, with one estimate suggesting that women contribute three times as much unpaid care work as men on a global scale (UN High Level Panel, 2016). Particularly for women and girls grappling with poverty in regions marked by inadequate infrastructure and under-resourced public services (such as limited or absent access to piped water, affordable childcare, or eldercare), this translates into a considerable depletion of their time, energy, and prospects, often commencing from an early age. This unequal and burdensome distribution of unpaid care labor has been acknowledged as a substantial impediment to women’s exercise of their human rights, encompassing political engagement, healthcare, employment, and education opportunities.

Labor Market Impact: Road to Women’s Unemployment

The IMF has unequivocally advocated for and endorsed essential measures aimed at elevating female labor force participation rates in developing nations. However, the IMF’s professed objective of promoting women’s employment is undermined by a pivotal element within its supported policies across all three countries: the reduction of the public sector’s scope, which primarily employs women, achieved by constraining public sector job opportunities and curtailing wages. The Fund contends that “elevated public employment has been a deterrent to labor force participation. Notably, higher levels of public employment have correlated with reduced labor force participation, both globally and regionally, particularly among women.”

According to the IMF’s perspective, this phenomenon arises from the presence of higher-paying and secure positions in the public sector that extend benefits to the entire household. This, in turn, might discourage other family members, particularly women, from seeking additional paid employment. Consequently, the assertion is that diminishing public sector employment and diminishing the protection (alongside rights) it provides could motivate women to enter the labor market, as they would be compelled to do so in order to compensate for the reduction.

Gender-Based Violence and Vulnerabilities

An analysis of austerity’s impact on women’s rights must encompass the intricate interplay between economic policies, social services, and the intricate fabric of gender-based vulnerabilities as it extends beyond economic realms, intertwining with increased vulnerabilities to gender-based violence. The reduction in public services and social safety nets often forces women to navigate precarious circumstances, amplifying their exposure to various forms of violence and exploitation. Austerity-driven cuts to essential services like healthcare and education can create conditions where women’s physical and psychological well-being are compromised. Moreover, economic strain resulting from austerity policies can escalate tensions within households, contributing to an elevated risk of domestic violence. The erosion of social support systems, coupled with limited access to resources, can heighten women’s vulnerabilities, further undermining their safety and impeding their ability to exercise their rights fully.

Policy Recommendations:

The persistent unwavering trust of policymakers in the ‘austerity-for-growth’ fiscal misconception carries genuine economic, political, and human rights consequences, which cannot be mitigated solely through band-aid social safety nets and targeted gender equality initiatives. To uphold the commitments of governments to human rights principles, ensuring human rights and advancing gender equality during times of fiscal hardship necessitates a broader approach than short-sighted financial restraint. It requires adopting a progressive strategy centered on redistributive measures that shift the burden of adjustments onto those with greater financial capacity, rather than penalizing low-income women and their families, who often lack representation in mainstream political spaces.  More specifically, the IMF should:

1. Acknowledge within an officially sanctioned policy stance that achieving gender equality, encompassing the comprehensive realization of women’s human rights and the eradication of gender-based discrimination, demands substantial and continuous public investments. This includes investments in social and caregiving infrastructure, emphasizing that advocating for a reduction in state financial commitment might impede progress in attaining gender equality and fulfilling women’s human rights.

2. Persist in endorsing benchmarks for social expenditure, while guaranteeing that these benchmarks are adequately substantial to drive meaningful advancements in upholding women’s rights. These benchmarks should also be in line with the minimum essential public spending required to achieve pertinent Sustainable Development Goals. For example, allocate around 5 percent of GDP for healthcare (in accordance with WHO recommendations) and approximately 6 percent of GDP for education (aligned with the Education for All initiative’s recommendations).

3. Acknowledge that conventional macroeconomic strategies and loan programs possess inherent gender biases, affecting women’s roles in both productive and reproductive spheres. Incorporate a gender lens in the formulation of policies and programs, integrating it as a core aspect rather than an incidental addition.

4. Encourage governments to adopt legislation that is attuned to gender considerations, safeguarding women’s interests within the workforce. Ensure equitable working conditions in the private sector for both women and men. Engage women’s groups, workers’ unions, and other civil society organizations in shaping social and macroeconomic policies. In order to facilitate this and ensure the inclusion of women’s voices, it is essential for the IMF to confirm that its programs do not inadvertently contribute to constraining civic engagement.

5. Advocate for gender-responsive budgeting, facilitated through the participation of women-led civil society organizations. This approach empowers governments to allocate adequate resources for the effective implementation of laws, policies, and initiatives that promote gender equality.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the repercussions of IMF-led austerity measures on women’s rights are both profound and complex. The fiscal policies, often underpinned by the ‘cut-to-grow’ approach, inadvertently exacerbate gender disparities and hinder progress toward gender equality. While the IMF has acknowledged the importance of women’s empowerment, its policies, particularly those targeting public sector employment and social spending, can have adverse effects on women’s economic prospects, access to services, and vulnerability to gender-based violence. To truly advance gender equality and uphold human rights, a transformative shift is needed. This entails adopting a more holistic and gender-responsive approach to policy-making, focusing on robust social investment, inclusivity, and equitable distribution of economic burdens. By prioritizing women’s voices and needs, the IMF can play a pivotal role in not only mitigating the negative impact of austerity but also fostering sustainable development that benefits all members of society, irrespective of gender.

Rameen Siddiqui
Rameen Siddiqui
I am a young leader and activist and my main focus areas are Sustainable Development, Political Economy and Advocacy. Also a Youth Member of United Nations Association of Pakistan (UNAP), Currently pursuing BS Economics and Finance from Greenwich University.