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International Day for Women’s Rights: Debt is not just a financial instrument, it is also a gendered tool
by Marie-Laure Coulmin Koutsaftis
15 March 2018

Wherever austerity and structural adjustment policies are implemented allegedly to face a foreign debt, they prevent women’s empowerment and destroy women’s rights whereas actually women are the true creditors at both national and international levels.

The #MeToo hashtag should not conceal the fact that the fight for women’s rights begins at the level of increased discriminations they have to suffer in the name of public and private illegitimate debts.

Indeed instead of preventing tax avoidance and tax evasion, which account for a lot of public deficits, austerity policies in the North and structural adjustment policies in the South further impoverish people on a global scale. Privatizations, liberalizations and fiscal restrictions that cut into social rights are put forward as though they were solutions to the crisis and directly affect the weaker and poorer people, among whom a majority of women.

Single mothers, women in all and every conditions whether young or old, migrant or local, living in cities or in the country, have to suffer a poverty that is sharpened by austerity, since it increases inequalities between genders and undermines feminist conquests. [1]

In France, for instance, women are hit by poverty more severely than men are. 57% of people having to rely on RSA (Revenu de solidarité active, or active solidarity income) are women, as indeed 82% of part time workers and 70% of workers living under the poverty threshold. [2]

To counter and deconstruct the claim that public debt would be the consequence of excessive spending for social protection in Europe as elsewhere, the CADTM emphasizes the notion of social debt, which refers to the fundamental right to quality social protection as recognized in international law. From this perspective women suddenly become creditors of the State’s social debt towards them.

Among the CADTM’s proposals, the setting up of citizens’ debt audit committees would highlight the social debt and provide accountable evidence that public debts are not some shameful disease contracted by countries that overspent but the consequence of unfair deliberate policies.

Health and care issues

Inequality in access to health care and backslide in the right to abortion

In the wake of the major social setback implemented in the name of public debt, women’s right to decide on what happens to their bodies has backslided in several parts of the world. States retreat from their mission in the health care public service and the possibility to get an abortion in good medical conditions is now out of reach for the lower classes.

While they are hit first by austerity measures and by layoffs, women also suffer stark inequalities as regards access to health care. Cuts in public services, hospitals, gynecological dispensaries, old people’s homes, particularly affect women both as patients and as caregivers, since in Europe in 2014 they accounted for 78% of the workforce in social and health services and for 60% of teachers in primary and secondary schools. [3]

Women are more exposed to poverty than men

In both the South and the North, women are a majority in precarious jobs (contracts limited in time, temporary and informal work), i.e. the first jobs to be abolished in case of redundancies and jobs that hardly allow workers to have access to good social protection.

Cleaning Ladies from the Ministry of Economy, Athens 2014. Photo CC CADTM - MLCK

Women’s salaries are still lower than that of their male colleagues in similar positions. In addition, they are a majority in part time jobs, which significantly reduces the amount of contributions for their retirement pensions. All these inequalities have become even more pronounced since the onset of the crisis and the implementation of restrictive fiscal policy measures.

While women in general are particularly vulnerable to poverty, the situation is worse for retired women, even when they have worked throughout their active lives. Not only is the retirement age for women postponed in several European countries, but the amount paid as pensions has repeatedly fallen under austerity programmes in France, Greece and several southern countries. Female pensions are on average 40% lower than those of men.

Also, the number of elderly women who are without resources and homeless has rapidly increased, particularly as the price of public goods has increased to the point of creating whole armies of women owing money to the State or to “public” services, whose semi-privatized services are subject to direct and indirect taxes that load the bills.

Precarious work and economic exile affect women more than men

Thrown by their millions into the pitiless world of precarious and undocumented work by globalization, wars and poverty, women have found themselves working primarily in the areas of personal care and, for the less fortunate, in prostitution. Too often they find themselves trapped in a vicious circle of dependence on a pimp, an employer, a husband or a business.

In Europe the phenomenon of women’s exile began just after the collapse of the economies of countries in the former Eastern Bloc, at the height of globalization, forcing women of all ages into exile to feed their families, accepting jobs in other countries on the periphery of Europe as low-paying housewives and carreers, in a similar way to what had happened to young women in the Philippines. With the debt crisis and the fall in middle class incomes, these “service women” as Jules Falquet called them [4] have seen their survival conditions deteriorate even further.

The Balkan states, which have recently joined the EU or are awaiting integration, also comply with the fiscal discipline imposed by the ECB. The resulting recession, unemployment and poverty combine to drive young people (with and without a university degree) into exile in countries of the centre; among them, young women are the majority.

They are also the first victims of armed conflicts caused by neo-colonialism, conflicts that use rape both as a means of warfare and as a tool of torture and coercion. Rape is also directed against men in order to break them, which is evidence enough of the deeply phallocratic nature of military and police power.

Private debts directly affect women

Students’ loans, which are becoming widespread in several countries of the North, choke young graduates in the chains of debt as they will have to repay for a long period before they can acquire financial autonomy, being thus compelled to make career choices based on a logic of mandatory profitability.

In countries where austerity plans have led to drastic income cuts, pre-crisis mortgages can no longer be honoured by households. As a result, an increasing number of families are threatened with eviction, as in Spain and Greece, where the government has begun to run online real estate auctions, to escape strong protests from civil society.

Women are the first victims of microcredit

On a global level, microfinance institutions are keenly interested in women, who account for about 70 % of their clients. Thus, the World Bank carries out a strategy of drawing new sectors of the population [5] into the banking system so as to enable financial capital to accelerate the integration of the two billion adults in the world who are not yet covered by the banking system, most of whom are poor and women, by expanding the basket of financial services to include money transfers, insurance, utility bills (water consumption, electricity, telephone, etc.). At the same time, the World Bank advocates drastically reducing the role of the state in guaranteeing public services by delegating them to the capitalist private sector, which transforms them into commodities. As a result, the poor have greater financial needs, especially women who are responsible for their households. They are thus offered as preys to micro-credit institutions, which camouflage as agents fighting poverty. [6]

Supported by Attac/CADTM Maroc, the struggles waged by women who are victims of micro-credit have reversed the deceptively positive image of microfinance organizations. [7]

The CADTM calls upon women to organize in citizens’ audit commitees aiming at the abolition of all illegitimate debts and in order to end the systems of patriarchal and capitalist domination.

We demand free quality public services, notably in the fields of education, health care, transport, banking, with a view to an ecofeminist energy transition.

Let us buttress our solidarity with populations that are the victims of microcredit, the policies implemented by financial Institutions and by all the vultures and leeches that drain our wealth and energy.

Let us fight together, against the debt system, the free-trade agreements and other economic ways of exploiting and humiliating women and men; of deepening inequalities, of looting and destroying nature; of driving people away on to the roads of exiles and evicting whole families, reducing them to poverty, mendacity, prostitution and suicide. [8]

Press contact: Marie-Laure Coulmin Koutsaftis - mlcoulmin at

Marie-Laure Coulmin Koutsaftis

Documentariste, essayiste et traductrice du grec moderne, militante CADTM.