In July 2022, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released its inaugural gender mainstreaming strategy, which included policies and practices aimed at addressing the challenges faced by countries falling behind on SDG 5, focusing on Gender Equality. However, the IMF failed to acknowledge the impacts of its policies, programs, and conditioned loans on the 'care economy' and public services. This omission is significant because, as numerous feminist economists, trade unionists, and civil society activists have argued, the imposition of overly restrictive macroeconomic targets to curtail public spending results in tangible economic, political, labor, and human rights costs, with women bearing a disproportionate burden. Austerity measures, combined with the deterioration of public services, reinforce gender dynamics within households and communities, placing an increased burden on women when it comes to unpaid care work.
Using the case of the MENA region, where the IMF has been playing a major role in financing middle-income non-oil exporting countries, the situation reveals a less than favorable assessment of the IMF’s contribution to advancing gender equality through its programs. In fact, the region hosts the world’s lowest female labor participation rate, a disappointing 25% according to the World Bank, which is nearly half the global average. For example, while the IMF calls for the inclusion of women in income-generating activities in both Tunisia and Egypt, there is a noticeable delay in promoting policies that effectively address the severe and paralyzing lack of decent work opportunities. Although the IMF’s primary mandate does not encompass directly working with the private sector, the lack of decent work can be partly understood through the lack of pressure applied on governments to enforce regulations related to decent work in the private sector.
The gendered dynamics of inequality in the MENA region are partly reflected in the prevalence of discriminatory social norms. On one hand, these established norms place the overwhelming burden of unpaid care work on women, which often goes unrecognized and marginalized. On the other hand, these norms also contribute to occupational segregation, when it comes to the feminization of care-related paid work. Alongside a systemized underinvestment in public services, a practice aligned with the neoliberal agenda, these imposed realities have placed an increasing strain on women through the burden of unpaid work. Furthermore, as a result of the aforementioned dynamics, women are pushed into situations of underemployment, precarious working conditions, and informal employment. These factors heavily impact their economic security and hinder their ability to achieve financial independence and have ownership over their own lives.
The significant deficiencies in providing decent working conditions within the private sector, coupled with the lack of access to safe and affordable public transportation, the prevalence of unsafe work environments, and the limited or non-existent access to national childcare systems, further exacerbate the already challenging circumstances faced by women. As a consequence, women have increasingly sought employment in the public sector, which, unfortunately, has become a target for substantial downsizing due to macroeconomic austerity measures and the cuts in public spending promoted by the IMF.
The inability of these institutions to acknowledge and address their own actions and the negative consequences they entail reflects a blatant lack of accountability, a deficiency in self-reflection, and a disregard for the interconnectedness of their actions within their worldview. The subtle yet damaging process of capitalizing on unpaid work effectively transforms women into involuntary shock absorbers, as they are expected to compensate for the State’s withdrawal from providing public services by taking on the paid and unpaid labor associated with it. This increases their vulnerability, representing a regressive step for humanity as a whole.
It is a rather nice coincidence that the IMF declares its devotion to the gender equality cause – albeit two decades too late – at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has bluntly unmasked the inadequacies of healthcare systems globally and has highlighted the structural negative impacts of neoliberal policies on these systems. Cynicism is the weapon of the disillusioned.
The impact of COVID-19 in just a matter of months has starkly revealed the consequences of intentional underinvestment in public healthcare services, which has been driven by staunch proponents of the neoliberal agenda, particularly the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) led by the IMF. The IMF has consistently advocated for the privatization of public services, citing the goal of enhancing productivity, efficiency, and quality. However, this approach has disregarded the issue of limited access to quality healthcare services for a significant portion of the population, as prices increase and access becomes ‘elitized’. For instance, in the MENA region, many individuals have had to rely on NGOs, charities, and so-called “philanthropic” - adjective to be grasped with a pinch of salt – initiatives. Others have been deprived of proper professional healthcare altogether, thus intensifying the caregiving burden on women within households, whose essential ascribed role is to ‘care’ for those in need.
Interestingly, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 70% of workers in the healthcare and social care sectors worldwide are women. This aligns with the widespread reality where unpaid care work is predominantly assigned to women within households and communities. Paradoxically, the IMF’s conditionality measures aimed at reducing public services expenditure directly discriminate against the female labor force in these sectors by normalizing lower wages and imposing difficult working conditions. Additionally, these measures exacerbate the burden of unpaid care work on women in their private lives, resulting in less time available for income-generating activities. This, in turn, hinders their pursuit of financial independence and leaves them with less time for engaging in political, recreational, and spiritual activities that contribute to personal and communal growth.
Furthermore, COVID-19 has added another layer related to the widespread malaise of modern times: Time Poverty. This concept revolves around the lack of time to “live”, experienced by those burdened with the heaviest load of unpaid work and sometimes even the responsibilities of breadwinning, leaving them with little to no time to breathe. The majority of individuals afflicted with this are women. This process is directly influenced by policy choices and market dynamics, as well as the pervasive impact of social norms and gender stereotypes that dictate the division of labor within households and communities. Needless to say that, in almost all societies, women are expected to bear the weight of care-related tasks, which are often taken for granted on various levels.
In conclusion, while the “new” gender strategy of the IMF does provide a space for discussions on gender equality to emerge with recipient countries, – although this approach might have neocolonial undertones. It seems evident that this strategy falls short in acknowledging the extent to which the IMF’s core standards have negatively impacted unpaid care work, predominantly performed by women, as well as feminized occupations. Merely introducing a few specialized programs to provide compensation to certain women through targeted safety nets is not the path towards achieving comprehensive, sustainable, and transformative changes at a structural level.
Hind Hamdan is a feminist, an advocate for solidarity, and a passionate lover of the sea. With over 12 years of professional experience, she specializes in gender and socio-economic development. Additionally, she is a skilled trainer who focuses on transformative principles and processes.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.