Feminist economics posts

New Wave of Austerity Puts Gender Equality (and the SDGs) at Risk

When Agenda 2030 was adopted in September 2015, women’s rights organizations were pleased to see much of what they had been advocating reflected in the new agenda. Moving beyond the narrow goals and targets of the MDGs, not only has the process of defining the new agenda been more inclusive, and its scope universal and grounded in human rights, but the goals and targets themselves reflect a far more variegated set of structural concerns.

Less clear are the policies needed to achieve these targets. Unfortunately, the “means of implementation” targets of the SDGs provide scant information on those policies or on how the resources needed to finance them will be generated.  Even more worrying are the looming austerity measures, which cast a dark shadow over the SDGs and their promises for gender equality.  A recent paper by the ILO draws attention to a new wave of contractionary shocks expected to hit in 2016 and continue until 2020 (Ortiz et al. 2015).

These austerity measures, if adopted, would work at cross-purposes with Agenda 2030.  Many of the measures being considered would make it particularly difficult for governments to advance gender equality.  

These gender-regressive impacts are already evident, for example, in the way cuts to healthcare budgets are impacting women. Cuts in health personnel and earlier discharge from hospital in countries such as Spain and Greece have increased the burden on women to provide unpaid care at home (Rubery 2015).

In developed and developing countries alike, public transfer payments, such as child and family allowances and pensions, tend to narrow (though not eliminate) the gender gap in personal income from paid employment (UN Women 2015, Figure 3.2). Hence, cuts to these payments are particularly detrimental for women (See WBG (2013) for evidence on the UK).

Although in many countries public sector jobs are being out-sourced, public services continue to provide an important source of relatively better quality employment for women. In the EU27 where cuts in public sector pay and employment took place during the last wave of austerity, women were highly affected, leading to larger declines in employment relative to men and widening gender pay gaps (EPSU 2013).

We don’t have comparable figures for developing countries, but public services suffer from severe staff shortages. According to the ILO (ILO 2014), 10 million additional health workers are required globally to ensure the delivery of health services for all, most of them in Asia (7 million) and Africa (3 million). If we add to this the much-needed personnel to deliver childcare and elderly care services, then we get a sense of the challenges countries face, but also the potential employment opportunities that can be harnessed if governments invest in these capability-enhancing services.

We need a profound re-think, and not just a re-jigging, of the dominant economic paradigm.  To be consistent with the newly adopted 2030 Agenda, three key measures would be needed to stimulate economic and social recovery that “leaves no one behind:

  • Job creation along with the extension of social protection measures to all;
  • Public investments in infrastructure and social services to support the unpaid care economy, build human capabilities and contribute to job creation; and
  • Effective regulation of global finance to avoid future crises, and to channel financial resources into building more stable, equitable and caring economies (see UN Women 2014 for more details).


Chief, Research and Data, UN Women. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the position of UN Women.

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