The gender bias of neoliberal policies

Kristina Lunz writes about the impact of programme lending policies in sub-Saharan Africa following fieldwork in the region

Programme lending (PL) by international financial institutions (IFIs), such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), was introduced in the late 1970s to stimulate developing countries’ economies. These loans were conditional upon the implementation of neo-liberal policies by recipient countries in the belief that a market-oriented philosophy would help them adjust to macro-economic problems. However, numerous studies have criticised such policies for inadvertently harming disadvantaged groups. Consequently, IFIs changed their PL strategies in 1999 to follow the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). Current policies are now designed support socially vulnerable groups, including women, and female empowerment in the workplace and the wider economy has become a condition in its own right for IFIs. Unfortunately, programme lending remains criticised by activist groups for being anti-poor, anti-equalitarian, and gender-biased.

This article will shed light on the impact of PL on women’s rights and economic situation. For this purpose, key figures from political institutions, NGOs, and international organisations were interviewed in Accra, Ghana, in July 2014.


The Structural Adjustment Participatory Review International Network (SAPRIN) report (2004), a cross-national study involving NGOs from nine countries and (initially) the World Bank, found detrimental effects on local populations from trade liberalisation policies, financial sector liberalisation, labour market reforms, privatisation, agricultural sector adjustment policies, mining sector reforms and public expenditure reforms on education and healthcare. PL has contributed to increased impoverishment and economic inequality due to the one-size-fits-all approach of adjustment policy implementation.


In most societies, women fulfil core social roles as producers, home managers, mothers and community organizers. With the exception of the first, these burdens are not equitably shared between men and women, resulting in a disproportionate amount of female unpaid work. These socially constructed expectations have led to a variety of outcomes, including women’s disproportionate involvement in unpaid domestic work. In every region worldwide, women spend twice as much time working in the household than men do, and in some parts of the developing world this is up to five times as much. Worldwide, women work more than men when unpaid domestic work is taken into account, and an increase in women’s paid employment over the past decades has not been accompanied by men’s increasing participation in unpaid domestic work (UN, 2010). This alone disadvantages women with regards to economic indicators such as unemployment rates since men have more flexible schedules and domestic commitments when seeking work. Neoliberal economic policies have led to an increase in unpaid domestic work due to budget cuts and austerity measures that disproportionately affect welfare and social security programmes. A side effect of this is that women are forced to devote more time and resources to carrying out domestic duties, inhibiting their involvement within the formal economy.


Under the Washington Consensus, Western lenders are pressurizing developing countries to remove price controls, lower food and fuel subsidies, and reduce social spending on health and education. Such policies amount to a redistribution of wealth from socio-economically disadvantaged groups to economic elites. Much of the burden of overcoming these difficulties falls upon women due to their socially ascribed roles as ‘mother’ and ‘home manager’. As household incomes fall in real terms, women are forced to undertake more unpaid domestic work or find additional revenue streams in the informal sector. Recent studies have demonstrated that women working in the informal economy are less likely to enjoy equal pay and are disproportionate more likely to fall into the poverty trap. At the same time, they are denied access to the basic modicum of social security, job protection and labour rights. Moreover, neo-liberal policies disproportionately harm women due to cuts in wages and retrenchment in the public sector. Women working in the formal economy are six times more likely to work in the formal public sector than in the formal private sector. In both instances, women on average are paid between 60-90% of male wages for performing the same work, affecting both female workers and families.


Ghana offers an excellent example of the baleful impacts that programme lending can have on socially disadvantaged women. Since 1983, the country has been subjected to a series of structural adjustment programmes by the IMF and World Bank. Whilst generally considered to be a success story by foreign experts, headline statistics have obscured a more complex picture which suggests that the gains of economic growth have not been equitably distributed across society. Over the course of July 2014, your correspondent interviewed 14 experts from state institutions, local activist networks and transnational NGOs in Accra. A majority of these interviewees expressed greater ambivalence about their country’s economic success than expected, with many bringing up the increasingly unequal distribution of economic gains across society as a potential problem.


To specifically investigate the deterioration of women’s economic rights and status under PL, the interviews focused on Ghana’s privatisation process since the 1980s. By 2001, 70% of the country’s SOEs had been divested, leading to the country’s poster-child image within international financial institutions. However, privatisation often leads to substantial job losses through the elimination of subsidies, corporate reorganization and higher prices. Indeed, it has been blamed for higher unemployment and the growth of Ghana’s informal sector, which grew from 200% of the formal economy to over 1000% in the last two decades of the 20th century.


One interviewee stated that women have been disproportionately pushed into the informal economy because of their low educational attainment, making them more vulnerable to mass lay-offs. Therefore, even though absolute redundancy numbers may be higher for retrenched men (because in absolute terms more men were employed in state-owned enterprises), the impact of their redundancies was small because they found it easier to get employment in the private sector due to their higher educational levels. An estimated 88 percent of Ghana’s workforce is now employed in the informal economy, 65% of which are women. Lacking state support for their businesses, poor infrastructure, healthcare provision and sanitary facilities, adequate vocational training and educational opportunities, these workers are disproportionately likely to be stuck in relative poverty. At the same time, local activists have raised concerns regarding non-existent job protection, labour regulations and social security.


For women, these problems are especially troubling. Low levels of state spending on sanitary facilities and healthcare affects women during menstruation and pregnancy to a more severe extent. In the absence of state capital and start-up funds for new businesses, women encounter significant difficulties in starting or expanding enterprises. Within deeply patriarchal societies, formal financial institutions remain distrustful of female lenders, especially those who lack collateral or other resources. Female employees in the workplace have reported high rates of sexual harassment, with victims distrusting the police for fear of official stigmatisation. In the absence of maternity protection, women working in the informal economy often find it difficult to reconcile conflicting demands. Not surprisingly, both interview and empirical data suggest that female workers often feel marginalized by both the state and formal economic institutions.


In conclusion, neo-liberal policies by the IFIs such as privatisation are not the cause of inequality and the deterioration of women’s economic rights and status, but their gender-blindness has exacerbated the plight of women.Gender-blind policies harm women and economic growth will never lead to substantive gender equality as long as gender stereotyping prevails. That said, the case study on Ghana – a so-called PL success – further demonstrates, that as long as discrimination and societal roles prevail, economic globalisation will neither improve women’s life nor foster gender equality. Ultimately, a culture of mutual respect may only be achieved after the structural causes of systemic discrimination within society have been eradicated.