The world is becoming more gender equal but not fast enough. Here’s why.
By Alison Holder, Executive Director
This International Women’s Day, if you tire of pink logos and “Girl Power” marketing campaigns, you might find it more satisfying to get real about the answer to the question “Why isn’t the world making faster progress towards gender equality?” I’ll give you a hint: the answer is a pervasive barrier affecting more than 85% of the world’s girls and women. And women’s rights activists, including Equal Measures 2030, are coming together (convened by Oxfam and NAWI among others) at the UN next week to shout about it.
That barrier is austerity and the systematic under-resourcing of public services and social infrastructure (including care infrastructure) in the vast majority of countries around the world.
We know that austerity hits women particularly hard because:
- The public sector in most countries is dominated by female workers, who bear the brunt of job losses triggered by austerity.
- Cuts in public services increase women’s care burdens and expose them to greater health risks and violence.
- Women are over-represented in precarious and informal work sectors, and any weakening of labour market rules only heightens their risks in the workplace, from exploitation to physical dangers.
- Finally, any dismantling of the welfare state will, inevitably, have a negative impact on marginalized women living in poverty.
We’re exactly one year on from the launch of the 2022 EM2030 SDG Gender Index, where we collected data from 144 countries and found that none of them have achieved gender equality. At the current pace of progress, gender equality won’t be reached globally until the year 2108 at the earliest.
Accelerating progress on gender equality requires resources and investments: Investments in universal public services and social protection. Investments in care infrastructure. Funds invested now in healthcare, education, welfare programs, and decent wages for public workers will pay off in the form of healthier, wealthier, and more sustainable societies for all.
And yet, recent research put out by the #EndAusterity campaign has found that, by 2023, 85 per cent of the world's population will live in the grip of austerity measures. Whether because of ideology, or conditions enforced by lenders like the IMF and World Bank, countries – no matter whether rich or poor and across all regions – are embarking on damaging cost cutting programs that hit the poorest and most marginalized girls and women hardest.
EM2030’s own SDG Gender Index data helps to illuminate how austerity is having a negative impact on gender equality and slowing global progress towards our equality goals.
- The EM2030 Index tracks how much countries are spending on their military (adjusted to take into account the country’s GDP or the country’s wealth). Why? Because this indicator helps show that austerity is a political choice rather than a fiscal necessity. Indeed, we found that between 2015 and 2020 two-thirds of countries increased their military spending. There is no “magic money tree”, except in the case of military expenditure, it would seem.
- EM2030 also tracks laws related to the strength of trade unions and labour rights. Our Index finds that more than 40 per cent of the countries studied weakened “freedom of association and collective bargaining” rights between the years 2015 and 2020. In light of these trends, it’s little wonder that so many countries have faced weak organised resistance to their austerity regimes.
The links between lack of progress on gender equality and austerity can be seen by looking at three country examples: Ecuador, Brazil and the UK are three countries that have faced decades of austerity measures and that are making ‘no progress’ or moving in the ‘wrong direction’ on the Index.
- Ecuador is one of just six countries in which gender equality (as measured by the EM2030 Index) moved in the ‘wrong direction’ between 2015 and 2020. And it is a country that has endured years of austerity (backed by the IMF), with public investment in the health sector falling 64 per cent in just two years from 2018 to 2020.
- Gender equality in Brazil stagnated with ‘no progress’ between 2015 and 2020. Over this same period, Brazil’s constitutional amendment (CA95) capped social expenditures and investments at 2016 levels for the next 20 years, with expenditures that benefit women reduced by 58 per cent.
- The UK also made ‘no progress’ on gender equality between 2015 and 2020, registering the worst performance amongst the Group of 7 (G7) countries in terms of gender equality progress. Over a similar time period, austerity has been linked to the fact that around 1 in 20 UK households needed a foodbank between 2016 and 2020. Even before the pandemic, in some areas of the UK ‘most’ children were living in poverty.
With the “austerity orthodoxy” throwing progress towards gender equality off course, it’s time to remember that International Women’s Day began has its roots in the working class struggles and suffrage movements of the early 20th century. If we want to accelerate progress on gender equality so that it can be reached long before our forecast of the year 2108, we must come together to push back against harmful cuts and promote real investment in a more equal, prosperous and sustainable future for all.