Asian countries are making women and carers pay a painful price for austerity

Myrah Nerine Butt Research, Violence Against Women and Girls, Women's Economic Empowerment

A recent analysis by Oxfam ranked Asia as the worst global region for investment in public services. In our final blog for the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, Myrah Nerine Butt spells out how such economic policy choices add up to structural violence against Asian women

Image from this year’s Oxfam 16 Days campaign, which reinforces the message that writing economic policies that promote austerity is also a form of violence against women

Asian countries are increasingly resorting to austerity to repay the national debts that spiralled in the COVID-19 pandemic. That austerity typically involves slashing public services. In this blog for the 16 days of activism, we set out how such polices amount to structural violence against women – and why Asian countries must change course.

Why austerity is also violence

Gender-based violence encompasses a wide array of harmful practices towards women and girls. When conceptualizing violence, we typically think of interpersonal, partner and physical violence. A less-discussed form of gender-based violence is structural economic violence. Economic violence is waged through the policy choices that disregard the needs of women, reduce the already inadequate services that they rely on, and deprioritise their safety and wellbeing.

Public services play a critical role in delivering feminist economic justice outcomes and addressing structural inequalities within society.  Women act as ‘shock absorbers’ as the responsibility of care shifts from the state to women when there are cuts to spending on services and social protection. As a result of their socially defined caring roles and unequal access to resources and income, women are more dependent on rights-based, publicly available and accessible services such as health, education, electricity, water and sanitation, and public transport. Given their disproportionate care work responsibilities, women are most affected by the cuts to services, including reductions in child and elderly care services, both directly and indirectly.

The evidence shows that prolonged austerity has led to increased child poverty and preventable deaths, and a growth in socio-economic inequality. Such austerity is an explicit policy choice that ultimately makes poor people – particularly women and other marginalised groups – pay the price of economic adjustment.

How Asia is lagging on the public services that are essential to gender justice

Yet Asia is the worst performing region in the public services part of the Oxfam index that ranks countries on their Commitment to Reducing Inequality (CRI). Our recent CRI report, Asia’s Extreme Inequality Crisis: Building Back Fairer After COVID-19 – Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index Asia briefing, shows that Asia now lags well behind Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) on investment in public services, with governments spending low shares of their budgets on education, health and social protection. This is particularly true in South Asia.  By 2025, 85% of the world’s population is likely to be living under the grip of austerity

As a result, in nine Asian countries, less than 10% of the poorest children complete secondary school; in 11, over 10% of the population spend over 10% of their income on health services; and only 43% of Asia’s citizens have access to any social protection benefits. Low spending and access by the poor mean that public services are reducing inequality by only 5.8%, compared with 8.8% in LAC. Only Mongolia, Maldives, China and Timor-Leste achieve reductions above 10%.

The scale of underinvestment can be seen across Asia where debt service is three times as large as health spending and seven times social protection. 25 of 28 Asian countries are facing spending cuts averaging 3% of GDP between now and 2027.  

International institutions make austerity worse

So why, despite the evidence of its devastating impacts, is austerity being widely implemented by governments in Asia and globally?

While some governments actively choose to implement austerity, it is often adopted based on advice from international financial institutions (IFIs). Such austerity is too often pushed by international financial institutions (IFIs). 87% of recent loans negotiated between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and national governments in various regions to respond to the COVID-19 crisis require these countries to undertake “fiscal consolidation”, ie austerity.  In these situations, and many others like them, the economic “recovery” might cause even more damage in the long term to their people and prosperity.

This reveals the unequal power dynamic between national governments and international institutions, which leads to a so-called economic “recovery” that may actually damage people and prosperity.

Asian countries and international institutions must rethink loan conditions that fuel austerity. Instead, we need social spending to be sharply increased. To fund such spending, tax systems need to be reformed to increase revenue in ways that are gender-responsive and fight inequality – such as enhanced taxes on wealth, and personal and corporate income. Asian countries can combat structural violence against women – and it is urgent that they now make the right policy choices to do that.


Myrah Nerine Butt

Myrah Nerine Butt is Gender Justice Advocacy Manager Asia, Oxfam in Asia

This is the fourth and final blog in our series for the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence. Find out more in Oxfam’s full report for 16 Days, which provides much of the material for this blog:  The Assault of Austerity: How prevailing economic policy choices are a form of gender-based violence