Debt: an infernal device at the heart of the feminization of migration

4 March 2021 by Christine Vanden Daelen

Image from the exhibition “Your clean toilets, our own papers!”made by the League of Domestic Workers (Brussels)

Inducing everywhere in its wake a social reproduction crisis, i.e. a dispossession of the resources necessary to the reproduction of life, debt plays a central role in women’s migratory paths. It forces them to leave their homes and conditions their jobs in the countries of emigration.

 Debt at the service of a gendered and racialized economy

Globalized capitalism, in which the “debt system” is essential, exacerbates unequal social relations. It feeds and accentuates inequalities linked to class, gender and “race”. In fact, capitalism itself is structurally patriarchal. It could not function without the exploitation of women’s reproductive work [1], work that is devalued, underestimated, invisible and therefore, very poorly paid or outright free. Moreover, it is based on racial logics establishing a hierarchical principle between “white” and “non-white” people. The latter are consigned to the bottom of the social ladder and the division of labor, which favors their overexploitation.

Thus, capitalism, patriarchy and racism intertwine and mutually reinforce their oppressions. Debt, a major tool for the consolidation of this patriarchal and racialized capitalism, attacks the most vulnerable and marginalized populations, to which precarious, migrant and racialized women undoubtedly belong. They are thus specifically concerned by the measures demanded in its name, accentuating the sexual and racial division of labor and gender-based violence.

 The forced exile of women as a result of debt system

Debt is not gender neutral. The destructions it generates have gender-specific impacts, forcing more and more women to leave their families, communities, cities, towns, villages and countries, not to engage in a project with emancipatory potential but to try to survive and ensure their subsistence as well as that of their loved ones.

The dismantling of the social state at the heart of austerity policies has multiple implications for women. The privatization and budget cuts imposed on public and social services affect them specifically as workers [2], users and beneficiaries of these sectors, but also as mothers, partners and daughters who must “compensate” for the loss or inaccessibility of these services. In fact, in order to carry out the tasks of care and education neglected by the public sector, they have no choice but either to reduce their paid work time or to take from their meager resources the funds needed to care for their children and dependent parents. We are thus witnessing a real substitution of the essential roles and responsibilities of the State towards the family sphere and thus towards women. In the name of the public debt, the concept of the “social state” has been replaced by that of the “social mother”. For many women assuming this additional burden is synonymous with the unavoidable necessity to join the migratory flows.

The “all for export” model, a flagship measure of structural adjustment Structural Adjustment Economic policies imposed by the IMF in exchange of new loans or the rescheduling of old loans.

Structural Adjustments policies were enforced in the early 1980 to qualify countries for new loans or for debt rescheduling by the IMF and the World Bank. The requested kind of adjustment aims at ensuring that the country can again service its external debt. Structural adjustment usually combines the following elements : devaluation of the national currency (in order to bring down the prices of exported goods and attract strong currencies), rise in interest rates (in order to attract international capital), reduction of public expenditure (’streamlining’ of public services staff, reduction of budgets devoted to education and the health sector, etc.), massive privatisations, reduction of public subsidies to some companies or products, freezing of salaries (to avoid inflation as a consequence of deflation). These SAPs have not only substantially contributed to higher and higher levels of indebtedness in the affected countries ; they have simultaneously led to higher prices (because of a high VAT rate and of the free market prices) and to a dramatic fall in the income of local populations (as a consequence of rising unemployment and of the dismantling of public services, among other factors).

, makes women, particularly rural women, highly vulnerable. Based on an unlimited extractivism of natural resources, this “model” deprives women of their means of subsistence and territories. Gradually, the intensification of export monocultures, generally in the hands of men, is replacing food crops Food crops Crops destined to feed local populations (millet, manioc, etc.), as opposed to cash crops, destined for export (coffee, cocoa, tea, groundnuts, sugar, etc.) that are often grown by women who have to withdraw to marginal lands. The “all for export” model also means the grabbing and intensive and extensive exploitation of land, rivers, lakes, and so on, by multinational corporations backed by governments and IFIs. Deprived of the means of production necessary for the reproduction of their lives, uprooted from previous non-market lifestyles that ensured food sovereignty for themselves and their families, more and more rural women in the South have to migrate to cities or countries of the North.

As the main providers of family needs, women feel harder the effects of rising prices of everyday consumer goods resulting from the devaluation Devaluation A lowering of the exchange rate of one currency as regards others. of local currencies, the increase in VAT or even the end of commodity subsidization, a package of policies prescribed to ensure debt repayment. In order to continue to provide for the basic needs of their families, they must, often at the cost of their physical and mental health, increase their free work and/or resort to private debt. It is no coincidence if microcredit, with women as its favorite target group, has grown tremendously in adjusted economies [3] . To escape their creditors, some of them will leave their homes and communities.

The promoters of great extractivist projects supported by the IFIs (e.g. food processing, large-scale mining or energy exploitation,...) do not hesitate to call on armed groups to “protect” the sites that they monopolize. These “men-at-arms” frequently use sexual violence against women to push them and their families to leave the coveted territories and resources. Often at the forefront of resistance to these mega-projects, women face high levels of repressive violence. The increase in debt-financed military spending also accentuates specific violence against women, often used as “spoils of war.” For these women, migration is often the only way to escape these multifaceted forms of violence and to save their lives.

 Migration paths padlocked by debt

In an increasingly globalized capitalism, migrant women (documented and undocumented) represent the majority of workers in employment sectors whose development is intrinsically linked to debt policies. Focus on two of them.

Fta: free trade zones or free exploitation of women zones

The proliferation of these free trade zones (also known as “free zones”) is one of the direct results of the dissolution of all labor rules, of all regulation, promoted by the IFIs. They massively attract multinationals that take advantage of a very low-wage labor force that is essentially female and “exploitable at will”. In these export factories (mainly textiles and electronics) to the Global North, working conditions are akin to modern slavery [4] , workers endangering their health for wages that barely allow them to survive. When they organize and formulate demands, companies lay them off and/or relocate into new areas, leaving millions of people in the lurch. The fact that these jobs with rapid obsolescence and appalling working conditions generate large flows of rural and international female migration shows the extent of misery they are fleeing or trying to make up for.

Women at the service of social reproduction

The destruction of the social state where it existed, implying budget cuts, commodification and privatization of public services essential for the reproduction of life (care, education, early childhood, social sectors), has led to a call for women workers from the South to ensure social reproduction. The jobs that guarantee it, whether formal or not, are systematically devalued because they are naturalized as “feminine”, regarded as not being “real work” and therefore poorly paid, flexible and precarious. Unattractive to national workers attempting to resist, they form a job niche for women at the intersection of class, gender and “race” oppressions: migrant women. In the private sphere, facing the scarcity or inaccessibility of public services and social protection, the persistent refusal of men to share Share A unit of ownership interest in a corporation or financial asset, representing one part of the total capital stock. Its owner (a shareholder) is entitled to receive an equal distribution of any profits distributed (a dividend) and to attend shareholder meetings. domestic tasks and the rapid aging of the population, in order to safeguard their access to paid work, women who can afford it, externalize part of the social reproduction work to migrant women. The latter, in turn, entrust to women who are poorer and/or more vulnerable than themselves the reproductive work they can no longer provide within their own families. We thus witness what feminists have called the “global chain of care” that maintains and reinforces the order of domination and the patriarchal and racial capitalist structures that it serves.

Lastly, there are no limits to the cynicism of the “debt system”: Women who migrate to alleviate the crisis of social reproduction orchestrated by structural adjustment, whose exploitation has become crucial to safeguard the maintenance of life in the North, are net providers of foreign currency for their home countries, funds that are used partly to repay debt or contract new loans... The infernal spiral of debt thus reaches its paroxysm and shows how much any emancipation strategy will gain from including the abolition of illegitimate debts in its demands.

Translated by Melissa Baleka Da Silva and Christine Pagnoulle


[1Reproductive work comprises all work done to reproduce human life. From a capitalist perspective, it refers to the care necessary to provide a person with the ability to work. This labour of (re)production of labour power is indispensable to capitalism: without it there is no commodity production and reproduction, and thus no capitalist accumulation.

[2Women represent two-thirds of women workers in the health, education and social services sector, mainly in “subordinate” positions.

[4Working days of more than 12 hours without any real break, often extending into the night, with imposed overtime, in noisy and insalubrious surroundings with poor lighting, very strict regulations, fines, body searches, mandatory pregnancy tests, etc.

Christine Vanden Daelen

chercheuse en sciences politique

Other articles in English by Christine Vanden Daelen (4)




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