Debts and feminisms: an overview of the book project – first chapter

13 August 2018 by Camille Bruneau

(CC - Flickr - Renegade98)

Feminism and the situation of women is an ever-growing concern for the CADTM network, which becomes almost unavoidable in the broad fight against domination(s). Women are indeed impacted by debt in several ways; as the main contractors of micro-credits, as the caretakers that have a higher workload in times of austerity, as the main beneficiaries and workers of social services, and victims of various kinds of oppression and violence inherent to capitalism. Several recent analyses by members of the CADTM and other networks have claimed that women are in fact the first victims of debt and austerity measures, and have a harder time paying back loans (Vanden Daelen 2012, 2017). Clearly, one of the reasons for this disadvantage is patriarchy, which is closely linked to capitalism. We therefore felt that there was a need for this book, not only to fill a gap in the current literature but to display our determination to join a dynamic for radical change and real political debates, and to contribute to the global renewal of feminism, which is desperately needed today. We hope that this book will contribute to that struggle by producing some concrete written material to the feminist voice growing within the CADTM, notably by making some economic, sociological, political and cultural relations explicit; how capitalism and patriarchy work together to strengthen the oppression of women today. This book project is a collaborative effort coordinated by Christine Vanden Daelen, and following dynamics strongly anchored in the network by the very much missed Denise Comanne. While it is still evolving and slowly taking its final shape through the contributions of various members and sympathizers, we wished to give an overview of the work in progress on the first two chapters.

Second part: How do patriarchy and capitalism jointly reinforce the oppression of women?


The first chapter looks at the main reasons for feminist struggles and solidarities today. The second chapter looks at how patriarchy and capitalism jointly reinforce the oppression of women; far from being gender-neutral as many try to make us believe, industrialization, capitalism, globalization and the neo-liberal ideology in fact strengthen women’s oppression. The third gives a historical overview of feminist movements, from its “first wave” in the 19th century to the suffragette, black feminism, abortion right or ecofeminism. This allows us to show that far from being a straight and easy road, it was and still is a very bumpy and difficult one. This is why we talk of feminisms in the plural, because of the many fights, opinions, challenges, claims and contradictions that compose this large movement. As feminists around the world increasingly have claims linked to neo-liberalism and debt, we show, in the fourth chapter – which is the most important part of the book – how austerity measures and debt impact women, who in fact turn out to be the real creditors. Finally, the fifth chapter explores feminist alternatives. While this book is the result of a collective endeavor, we cannot claim that it is not subjective. It remains written by white European women, influenced by their own experiences. Despite many exchanges and attempts at getting rid of euro-centrism, it remains one voice in a rich and multiple struggle.

The aim of this chapter is to answer the question: why should we be feminist today? It is addressed by developing arguments in various fields such as economy, culture, violence or politics. The chapter starts by introducing the concept of debt and briefly explains why debt and austerity have a greater impact on women. As the CADTM has showed for long, it explains that debt is a powerful political and economic domination tool which serves western powers, and more generally, the rich in opposition to the poor. Indeed, often inherited from colonial times, debts are almost always illegitimate, and often odious, illegal and unsustainable. They actively participate in the impoverishment of nations and people. Indeed, every year, southern countries reimburse hundreds of millions more than what they have received in loans or aid. In Europe, the ECB ECB
European Central Bank
The European Central Bank is a European institution based in Frankfurt, founded in 1998, to which the countries of the Eurozone have transferred their monetary powers. Its official role is to ensure price stability by combating inflation within that Zone. Its three decision-making organs (the Executive Board, the Governing Council and the General Council) are composed of governors of the central banks of the member states and/or recognized specialists. According to its statutes, it is politically ‘independent’ but it is directly influenced by the world of finance.
and other creditors made increasing profits since the 2008 crisis, notably because of interest rates Interest rates When A lends money to B, B repays the amount lent by A (the capital) as well as a supplementary sum known as interest, so that A has an interest in agreeing to this financial operation. The interest is determined by the interest rate, which may be high or low. To take a very simple example: if A borrows 100 million dollars for 10 years at a fixed interest rate of 5%, the first year he will repay a tenth of the capital initially borrowed (10 million dollars) plus 5% of the capital owed, i.e. 5 million dollars, that is a total of 15 million dollars. In the second year, he will again repay 10% of the capital borrowed, but the 5% now only applies to the remaining 90 million dollars still due, i.e. 4.5 million dollars, or a total of 14.5 million dollars. And so on, until the tenth year when he will repay the last 10 million dollars, plus 5% of that remaining 10 million dollars, i.e. 0.5 million dollars, giving a total of 10.5 million dollars. Over 10 years, the total amount repaid will come to 127.5 million dollars. The repayment of the capital is not usually made in equal instalments. In the initial years, the repayment concerns mainly the interest, and the proportion of capital repaid increases over the years. In this case, if repayments are stopped, the capital still due is higher…

The nominal interest rate is the rate at which the loan is contracted. The real interest rate is the nominal rate reduced by the rate of inflation.
imposed on Greece. The debt system, governed by a neo-liberal logic, puts repayment of debt before human rights, as we see through 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).

plans and memoranda imposed by the IMF IMF
International Monetary Fund
Along with the World Bank, the IMF was founded on the day the Bretton Woods Agreements were signed. Its first mission was to support the new system of standard exchange rates.

When the Bretton Wood fixed rates system came to an end in 1971, the main function of the IMF became that of being both policeman and fireman for global capital: it acts as policeman when it enforces its Structural Adjustment Policies and as fireman when it steps in to help out governments in risk of defaulting on debt repayments.

As for the World Bank, a weighted voting system operates: depending on the amount paid as contribution by each member state. 85% of the votes is required to modify the IMF Charter (which means that the USA with 17,68% % of the votes has a de facto veto on any change).

The institution is dominated by five countries: the United States (16,74%), Japan (6,23%), Germany (5,81%), France (4,29%) and the UK (4,29%).
The other 183 member countries are divided into groups led by one country. The most important one (6,57% of the votes) is led by Belgium. The least important group of countries (1,55% of the votes) is led by Gabon and brings together African countries.
, or through the conditionality of new loans.

For many countries of the South, debt repayment represents between 25 and 50 % of national budgets while social services have generally fallen under 20 %. In Europe, austerity is bringing about similar consequences. As will become clear in later chapters, austerity and debt worsen the inequalities already imposed by the patriarchal context. There are several factors that explain this trend: privatizations of public enterprises (which often are directed at services that affect women such as kindergartens, family planning services, or healthcare), wage drops and job losses, as well as trends towards export which create unfair competition for small enterprises and food production, often managed by women. We therefore observe a feminization of poverty, of disease, a loss of job security for women and an increase in their unpaid work.

In the era of neo-liberalism, and the rise of right wing movements as well as religious fundamentalisms, the social rights gained by women are now threatened. The CADTM, in its struggle to free people from all types of oppression, recognizes the multiple oppressions that women undergo, including being at the front-line of debt’s consequences. We refuse a worsening of women’s oppression through debt.

Feminism is not a struggle against men, but against ideologies that naturalize, classify and hierarchize sexes, against patriarchy, which hurts women and men as well as those that do not fit in this binary division. It is not a women’s struggle, it is a societal struggle. It is set against a society where various oppression relationships (race, class, gender) crystallize the domination of rich white men. Women are the first victims of neo-colonialism, debt, austerity and environmental destruction. Beyond this impact, taking part in the feminist struggle means not being afraid of joining a fundamentally political struggle because it aims at deconstructing what is taken for granted, be it patriarchy or capitalism. With this book, we wish to contribute to that struggle.

The chapter as such starts by debunking the common idea that “feminism is outdated” – in the North, we hear that women still “want it all” while they already gained all their rights! In the South, we hear there are other priorities and that sex equality will be reached through poverty reduction and economic growth. We argue there is a difference between formal and real equality, and that the latter is far from being achieved: there are, in fact, very real setbacks in the domains described below in a summarized version.

Sexual and reproductive rights

Sexual and reproductive rights are fundamental but they are, in practice, not respected in most parts of the world, especially for certain groups (poorer women, minorities, ...).

Sexual rights are relative to one’s sexuality and feelings. Anyone should be free to love and express his/her sexuality with whomever and however they want. Too many examples show that these rights are not guaranteed in 2018. Our western society is characterized by a strong heteronormativity which means that the norm is to be heterosexual and that people who do not fit into it are likely to be marginaliszd, discriminated against, etc. We see that through our language, which is full of insults referencing to homosexuals, but also through labor camps as in Chechnya or demonstrations opposing gay marriage. In many countries, being gay is illegal and people get killed (out of hate crimes) or legally executed each year. Despite campaigns for the right to pleasure and to knowledge about sexuality, many taboos remain, everywhere. Many people, everywhere, do not choose when and with who they have sexual relationships: they are still deprived from this fundamental liberty.

In terms of reproductive rights, the situation is alarming. While the right to contraception and abortion has been one of the main battles of 20th century feminism, this right is still far from granted in many places and we even have to notice worrying setbacks. In Europe, abortion is still illegal in Malta, Cyprus and Ireland. It almost became so in Poland, and the right was saved by huge demonstrations and international solidarity. De facto, there are also problems in countries where this right is granted, especially religious ones (e.g. Italy), where doctors arbitrarily refuse to perform abortions. In the USA, some of the first initiatives by Donald Trump were to make access to reproductive health more complicated (e.g. no more reimbursement of contraception) and to stop the financing of NGOs that work in reproductive health abroad, even if the projects do not include access to abortions. The result is a rise in clandestine abortions, especially for already marginalized women. Generally, this right is harder to enjoy in practice because of increasing social budget cuts.

In southern countries the situation is not better. About one South-African teenager girl in four misses one week of school per month because of they do not have the means to afford protection during their periods, which amounts to one full year of schooling! They are, from the moment they finish school, already disadvantaged. On the African continent clandestine abortions (because of laws but also traditions, social status, etc.) remain the norm (97 % of abortions in Sub-Saharan Africa according to the Guttmacher Institute) while diseases that could be easily avoided still thrive.

Rights and liberties acquired by women over time remain reversible, often because governments are still dominated by men, who make decisions according to specific political agendas / interests (e.g. the church’s support in Poland or Spain): It is about time to recognize the right for all to dispose of their bodies and lives without having to justify oneself. It is time to let go of obscurantism, taboos, discrimination and violence. Continuous attacks against those rights clearly show the need for feminist militancy today.

Economic autonomy

While many studies argue that a better economic situation for women would contribute to poverty reduction, and that financial autonomy is crucial for emancipation, it is far from being achieved, just as wage equality. In some countries, women still need the authorization from a male family member to open a bank account or a business, or to have a job. Although wage money is not seen here as an end in itself, it is a tool for autonomy. Not only does the sexual division of labor confine women into unpaid and invisible housework, when they have a job, they earn, on average, 20% less than men. The sexual division of labor also quarters women in the least-qualified and least-paid jobs, while wage equality is in many constitutions yet not followed by penalties when not applied by employers. In Europe, the situation is such that as far as wage income is concerned it is as if women stopped being paid on the second of November. This bears witness of the anchored patriarchal mentality which deems that women are inferior and that they “naturally” choose jobs that remind them of domestic work such as healthcare, cleaning or sewing, despite their better school results. The “glass ceiling” means that women, especially migrant women, rarely reach power circles or the highest position in any given organization, which also means the best paid one. Beyond the gender wage gap for working women which causes them to earn only 37% of the global GDP GDP
Gross Domestic Product
Gross Domestic Product is an aggregate measure of total production within a given territory equal to the sum of the gross values added. The measure is notoriously incomplete; for example it does not take into account any activity that does not enter into a commercial exchange. The GDP takes into account both the production of goods and the production of services. Economic growth is defined as the variation of the GDP from one period to another.
(many studies show how wage equality would benefit economies and poor women), it is estimated that women do over half of the world´s workload (care, food production, etc.). If included, their contribution to the GDP would rise substantially. Furthermore, as we see in the next chapter, there is also a number of critics to be made towards the concept and measure of GDP itself, which is a clearly gendered instrument. All this, beyond unfair economic structures, is related to the functions attributed to each gender in our mental representations, which justifies feminism today. Moreover, neo-liberalism is favoring precarious and unstable work for women. When some elected MEPs still claim that women should earn less because they are dumber, smaller and weaker, how can we expect any equality, especially in the economic and political spheres?


Holding power positions has been, for centuries, reserved to men in most parts of the world; in this respect we show that gender parity is still not achieved at all. Different facts and numbers from the world show an alarming situation in many countries, and that even when women have a rather good access to political institutions, they remain mostly represented in health, education, or “gender equality” ministries and are excluded from the justice, economics and executive spheres, which are where the decisions that marginalize women the most are taken. They are, fundamentally, still seen as mothers. A lack of parity in every domain means that women have fewer chances to influence laws that might affect them. In many countries, women still do not have the right to vote. However, the right to vote is not a key to autonomy, as a number of factors presented in the chapter affect their autonomy and their ability to use their formal rights. However, although it is at the center of many concerns, parity itself does not mean much if the general culture is still one that demeans women. Women in power can also make the condition of women worse, as happened in Brazil, or what could have happened in France if Marine Le Pen had won the French elections. It is not about feminizing politics but about putting feminist politics into practice, which has no correlation with the proportion of women in any decisional instance. It is also necessary to stop accepting that “brilliant” or “progressive” politicians abuse women in their free time. Sex equality must structure every political decision and not be confined to small ministries. Rather than quotas (what is the point if the 50% of men are Donald Trumps and the 50% of women Angela Merkels?), what should be implemented is a refusal of racist, sexist and inhuman behavior, which is why we must continue to fight the idea that women are inferior.


An important argument is the different kinds of violence that women still face on a daily basis all around the world. Thousands of women are still humiliated, abused, forced into marriage, raped, beaten, exploited and killed, mostly by men. This violence takes place in every social class and in every country, but racism and capitalism make it worse. While it is legally condemned, impunity remains the norm. One of the most dangerous place to be for women remains their homes, and, unlike what many would like to believe, even in countries like France, most women face some kind of domestic violence, and one dies every three days. The public sphere is not a refuge either, as the street remains very dangerous as well, in terms of physical and sexual violence but also of psychological violence. This part also includes a discussion of violence against women in the context of militarization and war, as well as trafficking and prostitution, of mutilations, forced marriage, feminicides and cyber-violence.

Ordinary sexism

This part lays the theoretical base for understanding sexism, ordinary sexism and its reproduction. It firstly defines sexism, how it works and how it is manifested on a daily basis. It is a form of discrimination based on sex and gender stereotypes, that is, characteristics associated to men and women respectively. In the eyes of many, different characteristics justify domination of one over the other. We explain that we adhere to the constructivist perspective, which is based, among others, on the social learning theory and gender socialization theory. The former argues that behaviors are the result of an observation and reproduction process since the youngest age; generations after generations, kids learn what it means to “be a man” or “a woman”. Socialization means, similarly, that little boys and little girls integrate norms and values associated with their sex, and face different expectations by society.

From the age of 3, children have deeply integrated typical clichés and stereotypes. These are reproduced in families, at school, in the media. School is not an objective place but is where we learn the norms of a given society (Bousquet et al). Although school can be a place for the challenging of those norms, it remains where social inequalities and constructed roles are reflected, through the applying of different expectations (behavioral, regarding discipline, grades or the choice of courses as well as higher education). In families, we observe this applying of gender norms with the use of different toys, activities, treatments or expectations. The media are an important force of society which are often ruled by men. Men are indeed overrepresented in most cultural and media domains, be it the writing or directing of theater plays, movies or tv series. Mainstream media usually passes on strict gender stereotypes where women are repetitively objectified. The latter are very rarely invited to speak as experts but are overrepresented when it comes to shopping, beauty, health or diets. On tv, they are primarily identified by their family status and judged by their appearance.

Sexism can be hostile, such as in sexual harassment, sexist insults and comments, sexist jokes or physical violence but it can also be “benevolent” (“helping” women, opening the door), which in fact negatively affects women and their self-esteem by confirming they are weak, inferior, and need to be protected. The cases described in the chapter and other daily experiences are characterized by the pervasive presence of ordinary sexism. Ordinary because it becomes commonplace and so comfortably settled in the most common practices that we don’t even see it anymore. Because it has become close to invisible (to many people at least) it is a huge obstacle to equality and emancipation. It is a form of extreme symbolic violence, reaffirming, always, that men are dominant and women inferior. Ordinary sexism is everywhere, from politics to language, rape culture or laws attempting to control women’s bodies. Ordinary sexism is what allows the reproduction of gender inequalities by confining, from a very young age, people in strict and hierarchized categories. It is therefore necessary to deconstruct it!


A long part of the chapter is dedicated to the growing phenomenon of anti-feminism which threatens feminist achievements, both in practice and in public opinion. It is explained, on the one hand, as an attempt to preserve privileges in a social order based on sexual hierarchization. On the other hand, it stems from a flagrant misunderstanding of what feminism means. Anti-feminism broadly claims that feminism is harmful and therefore attacks feminist gains with actions such as the closure of abortion or welcome centres. Anti-feminism is strengthened by the rise in religious fundamentalism and right wing groups. They are strong vectors of social regression that wish to confine women in the private sphere. It is also using the myth that feminists are bad wives and mothers, certainly lesbians and possibly witches, therefore disturbing the natural order. This argument is of course nonsense as patriarchy in fact is a cultural order (socially constructed) and not a natural order.

We even see a use of feminist facades by right-wing groups to justify an underlying anti-feminism, racism or islamophobia, such as when Marine Le Pen claims to defend women’s rights by forbidding them to dress the way they wish to dress. More than an attack against women’s rights, it is hatred towards feminists, resented by both men and women. This hatred, largely present in the media, contributes to reproducing stereotypes that portray feminists as necessarily radical hairy women burning their underwear. On the internet, one finds forums that argue that women should not be given any rights (it would be dangerous as they are stupid and immature), or the “I don’t need feminism” hashtag, which has spread and gathers mostly white, middle class, educated (if one can call it so) and straight women. Their arguments amount to the fact they have not suffered certain types of oppression (I don’t need feminism because I have never been raped, because I don’t hate men, because I shave or because I’m not a lesbian). These appalling arguments bear witness to a sickening selfishness and of a clear misunderstanding of feminism. This hatred goes as far as attacks, threats, harassment and murders of feminist activists.

In the North, we observe the presence of a masculinist movement. The term was coined in 1989 by Le Doueff, who defines it as a movement centered on men and their own interests. Masculinism cannot be compared to feminism. The latter is a progressive attitude which wishes to achieve the fulfillment of all, while masculinism is about taking away and denying rights to a part of the population considered to be inferior. Feminism fights domination, while masculinism tries to perpetuate it. Another fundamental difference is that feminism embraces a constructive reflection which goes further than women’s condition but tries to address broader societal problems by including the racial or environmental question (e.g. eco-feminism). Masculinists are only interested about themselves and do not investigate the deeper reasons for their discontent. Understanding why the rate of suicide rises or why men usually do not have custody for their children could however be good bases for broader reflections. Indeed, their unhappiness can, as we see in the book, often be explained by patriarchy.

In the South, we compile a sadly non-exhaustive list of feminists that have been murdered in public (just as in the North) and remind us of the alarming scope of feminicides today, a desperate attempt to silence the voices that actively defend emancipation, such as the Ni una Menos movement, which has a huge impact (but also violent repercussions) for women from Argentina to Italy. A very interesting study of the political landscape of Madagascar shows how a resilient anti-feminism is operating in the shadow of otherwise respectful public declarations. Based on myths and erroneous interpretations of history, as well an odious overlooking of colonial influences, many people in Madagascar conclude that women have never had a problem with accessing political power as there were queens two centuries ago (Rabenoro 2012). Those in power therefore dare speaking in the name of gender equality in order to justify a complete lack of attention towards women, and even, a clear anti-feminism. While women in African countries have played a great role in various social and liberation struggles, they were almost systematically forgotten afterward (Palmieri 2013). Anti-feminsism in the South is also easily seen in the too regular attacks on girls’ education. Another explanation for anti-feminism which is worth noting is that feminism is sometimes associated with western influence and neo-colonialism, therefore not compatible with traditions (Aichatou 2014). It is important to keep that in mind and for western women and feminists to remember that women across the world do not 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. the same needs and aspirations and that putting forward unique demands is a factor for fostering anti-feminist sentiments. However, those dissident voices can and have also be at the origin of important debates (like intersectionality) or movements, such as black feminism or decolonial feminism. All those reaffirm the multiplicity of women’s identity and encourage local groups to flourish in order to allow women to emancipate, in whatever way they consider coherent.

Anti-feminism clearly is a threat to advances for women and is another reason to be a feminist today. Unlike simple sexism, anti-feminism is especially dangerous because it is not only men hating women but also women resisting emancipation. It is also dangerous because they do not claim to be against women, they even advocate political parity and so on… as long as what they do does not significantly affect current power relations.

Poverty and precariousness

Last but not least, women’s poverty and precariousness must be added to the list of reasons for feminist militancy today. Poverty is a central theme at the CADTM, not out of charity, but because poverty is the direct result of domination relationships and political decisions. While some pretend to be graciously giving “development aid” to so called “under-developed countries”, the latter are in fact financing the former through debt repayment and extractivism. Poverty rises while the rich benefit from capitalist globalization. Violently forced into this model and faced with structural adjustment plans, many countries have to cut social budgets. We need feminism today because women are the first victims of poverty and austerity. Indeed, the services mostly affected in recent decades are those of education and health, which concern women mostly, both as beneficiaries and employees. The risk to fall into poverty is bigger especially for elderly women which do not necessarily benefit from social security as they did not have a continuously paid job. This makes them very vulnerable. They are also particularly affected by agricultural policies and left behind by globalization. Generalized poverty also increases the rate of violence against women. Their integration in the capitalist production process also places them in the most precarious jobs; domesticity in the North and sub-contracting in the South.

Although men also suffer from poverty, gender discrimination means that women have fewer opportunities to get by. Discrimination is both a cause and consequence of poverty. In the time of globalization, many people are separated from their means of production. We witness what Federici (1999) calls the new international division of labour. This means that a new global hierarchy is crystallizing, with the poorest producing for the richest. Roughly speaking, the South produces for the North, and women are overrepresented in precarious jobs in the South. This unbearable reality allows institutions to pretend that women are emancipated since they work more – they are in fact over-exploited and do not have a choice as liberalization has deprived them from their previous means of subsistence. Migration is intensifying this division, with the least privileged women taking the responsibility for the reproduction of society. The poorest women are in fact precisely the ones that reproduce the order that marginalized them in the first place.

Men are poor too. They are poor as a consequence of a political and economic system itself created by white, rich, privileged men. Therefore, it is about time to hear women’s voices to enforce a fairer system, for all.

This chapter attempts to show that sex equality is far from achieved. It is even in great danger at a time where blind faith in growth and capitalism becomes the norm. Despite a rather negative overview, this book does not lean towards resignation. On the contrary: globalization also implies the globalization of social movements, with feminism becoming ever more conscious of its plurality and integrating more and more struggles. Feminist women and men increasingly realize that it cannot remain a separate struggle but must offer a transversal analysis in order to really address the conditions of people. Feminism is not an ideology, it is a struggle, and we wish to carry it together.

Second part: How do patriarchy and capitalism jointly reinforce the oppression of women?



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