How can we tackle the pain austerity inflicts on women? Start by really seeing and valuing the work they do

Anam Parvez Research, Violence Against Women and Girls, Women's Economic Empowerment

As Oxfam releases a new report highlighting austerity as a form of gender-based violence, Anam Parvez and Clare Coffey identify three deep-rooted attitudes at the root of this economic violence, including the idea that the work women do isn’t real work

wealth tax graphic
Oxfam’s campaign during the 16 Days against GBV is highlighting how we can and should manage the global economy differently to stop the harms to women and girls

By next year, 85% of the world will be in the grip of austerity. For anyone who cares about gender justice, this statistic is alarming. As Oxfam’s latest report released ahead of this year’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence campaign shows, austerity is a form of violence against women and girls. Through deep cuts to public spending and public sector employment alongside increases in regressive taxes, women, girls and non-binary people will be disproportionally harmed and at the same time, forced to pick up the pieces (Read a summary of the report here).

Here in the UK, after a decade of austerity, culminating in a cost of living crisis, we already know all too well who will be hit hardest in society. Those ten years of austerity in Britain since 2011 coincided with decreases in life expectancy among women living in the most deprived communities in England. This is gendered economic violence at its extreme.

This economic violence – experienced by women all around the world – doesn’t happen in a void but is rooted in deeply held beliefs about who and what matters in our economy. These beliefs are embedded in a sexist and extractive economic system which values wealth accumulation for a few, over work and wellbeing for all and thrives on the invisible, cheap, free or “unlimited” labour of much of society. And those at the sharp end of that are women from low-income, Black, minority ethnic and immigrant communities.

‘The narrative during the pandemic may have been an “economic shutdown” – yet the reality was women doing huge amounts of extra unpaid care at home, working overtime as “teachers”, “cooks” and “nurses”.

Approximately 1.3 billion women globally are part of the informal paid and unpaid care workforce, working in precarious, even hostile, conditions. Their work and contribution is taken for granted, ignored and uncounted.

In the UK, women do 35 hours of care work a week and 8 million women care workers are effectively invisible – erased from view by popular beliefs about what counts as ‘real’ work. Even though this work is essential to all our lives at different points, we hardly see and rarely stand up for it, nor do we challenge its invisibility and how poorly it is counted or invested in.

In this blog, we want to highlight three interconnected beliefs that lie at the core of undervaluing women and their work, beliefs that make it much easier for governments to inflict economic violence on them through austerity.

False belief 1: If it doesn’t produce monetary value, it doesn’t count

The first is the belief that the market economy is the entire economy and that the only activities that matter are those that produce monetary/market value. This leads to the millions of hours of unpaid care work done primarily by women being considered as falling outside of the economy, excluded from mainstream measures of progress and ignored in policy-making.

You could see how this narrative played out during Covid. We kept being told that there was an “economic shutdown” – yet the reality was women doing huge amounts of extra unpaid care at home, working overtime as ‘teachers’, ‘cleaners’, ‘cooks’ and ‘nurses’.

This focus on the monetary and market economy has also been behind the relentless pursuit of growth in outputs, or GDP, as our main economic goal, rather than growth in genuine well-being and in the sustainability on which the health of both people and the planet depend. There are very real costs – of carbon emissions, artificially cheap or unpaid labour, or cuts to public spending – related to boosting GDP growth and prioritising profits. These costs fall on people seen as outside the market economy – often women already experiencing intersecting inequalities – and on a planet that is on the brink.

False belief 2. Women’s work has less value

The second belief springs from patriarchal norms that see women and non-binary people as subordinate to men, and their labour as being inferior to men’s.

Racialised, ethno-centric and classist narratives of women – those living in poverty, from minority ethnic or religious groups, or from migrant backgrounds – being even less worthy of rights and dignity leave their labour seen as less valuable and more expendable.  Even when it is paid, women’s work tends to be underpaid and informal, and viewed as less skilled and productive than men’s work. For example, when domestic workers are paid, they are often seen as ‘helpers’, or worse ‘servants’, rather than employees with rights.

The systemic invisibilisation and undervaluing of women’s labour also leads to women being shock absorbers, their free or cheap labour and time effectively used to pay the consequences of decades of damaging decisions and inadequate investment.

False belief 3. Care work is women’s work

The third belief driving these policies is that care work is women’s work: that it is their natural role and duty to provide care, rather than care being a responsibility that should be shared equally within households, and between households, the state, market and community.

This attitude has led to decades of underinvestment in care by communities and governments. Women were already working extra unpaid hours in 2020. Despite this, less than 7% of all social protection and labour market measures in response to Covid-19 have addressed unpaid care. At the same time governments have agreed to massive bailouts for airlines and fossil fuel industries.

This belief also explains why, despite increases in women’s participation in paid work, men’s participation in unpaid care work has not increased in any substantial way. Instead, women have taken on the responsibility of paid work on top of their unpaid care duties, which is increasing their total working hours, and reducing their ability to rest or participate in public and political life.

It’s time to change how we see women and ‘women’s work’ in the economy

These deep-seated belief systems underpin and justify austerity policies that lead to pervasive economic discrimination, pretty much wherever you are in the world. Women and girls are more likely to have fewer assets, earn less money for the same work, have less education, and live in poverty in old age. They are also prevented from effecting change due to time poverty and exclusion of their voices. This discrimination is being compounded by multiple crises, pushing the world off track from its global 2030 goals including on gender equality. Government policies around the world should be addressing and reducing discrimination, yet they seem intent on reinforcing the beliefs behind it.

Piecemeal approaches that address the symptoms of inequality, or that try to get women to cope better or work harder to dig themselves out of poverty, are not what we need. Indeed such approaches, reinforce the invisibilisation and abuse of women and their labour! Especially when times are tough, we don’t need false solutions that compound past harms. What is required is a fundamental reprioritisation of who and what matters and of what we invest in: just 2% of what governments spend on military could end GBV in 132 countries.

What we need is a feminist economy that will boost all of our wellbeing.

Real-life examples of new thinking and alternatives to austerity exist and show us that a new way of running the economy is not only necessary and urgent but also possible and a matter of political choice and determination. In Bogotá, Colombia, the government has developed the Bogotá CARE System, which is leading to the reorganisation of how the city is planned and operates, centring women whose lives and work have previously been invisible, prioritising the wellbeing of both caregivers and the cared-for, and allowing women to take care of themselves knowing that their loved ones are receiving the best possible care.

The austerity policies being enacted by government across the world will be a devastating assault in a world that already fails women and women’s work. We urgently need a rethink of the economy, of workers and of the value of essential work, so that we can start to really see and invest in what matters.


Anam Parvez

Anam Parvez is the Head of Research at Oxfam GB


Clare Coffey

Clare Coffey is lead of the Valuing Women’s Work Workstream at Oxfam GB

Read the full report: The Assault of Austerity: How prevailing economic policy choices are a form of gender-based violence, published this week for this year’s 16 Days of Activism, which started on November 25.

This is the third in our series of blogs for 16 Days on Oxfam’s Views and Voices blog. Subscribe to keep up with the latest posts and also do follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn