Marginalized populations in Africa are facing a myriad of crises, that is, the debt crisis, the climate crisis and the health crisis caused by COVID 19. Across the continent, these crises have exacerbated gender inequalities, eroding hard-fought-for gains and achievements in the struggle for women’s empowerment.
Notably, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the unpayable debt burdens that many developing countries are now facing. This has limited the fiscal space of these countries, particularly in Africa, consequently diverting vital funds away from crucial public services. Besides widening the cracks in these economies, the pandemic also disproportionately affected household incomes. Certain workers, in particular, women in the informal economy have suffered and continue to suffer disproportionate job and income losses while their unpaid care and domestic work increased. Moreover, they already carry the burden of regressive tax policies as many African countries tend to rely on consumption taxes further disadvantaging low-income earners and their families.
Combined with the climate crisis, these multiple challenges have meant that women have to shoulder a larger burden, in countless settings, further deepening existing gender inequalities. While women continue to play a central role at the frontline in political, economic, environmental, and social crises as frontline workers, care providers, and leaders in response and recovery efforts, they remain unrecognized and un-prioritized, and their needs are often not explicitly addressed in response and recovery measures. Moreover, these individuals, the majority of whom are poor rural and peri-urban women working as small-scale farmers, laborers in flower farms and factories, and micro and small scale traders and vendors, have no access to social protection.
As we commemorate International Labor day this year, we reminisce on the history of this day, and in particular the history of socialism and the hard-won gains by workers who rose up and challenged exploitation by capitalists. We are encouraged by the organizing and unionizing for better working conditions against large corporations. This fight continues today in solidarity, and with a call on governments to reflect on the socio-economic impacts of COVID 19 on workers, and prioritize the provision of social protection, as these same impacts are already being felt as poor countries grapple to address their debt crisis and climate change.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines social protection as the set of public measures that society provides for its members to protect them against economic and social distress caused by the absence of a substantial reduction of income from work as a result of various contingencies, the provision of health care and the provision of benefits for families with children.
The importance of social protection in the face of varying crises cannot be overemphasized. However, investment in social protection has not been prioritized in many African countries and as such remains underfunded and perhaps largely misunderstood. A 2020 report by the World Bank revealed that on direct income support, Uganda spent only 0.14% of her Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while Kenya and Rwanda spent only 0.4% and 0.3% of their GDP respectively. This is far below the recommended social spending in low and middle-income countries, estimated at 3.3% of GDP.
Because of this, existing gaps in insufficient social protection systems that largely exclude informal workers and care infrastructure have intensified care burdens for women, reinforcing patriarchal gender norms. This has limited women from securing their own income, making them susceptible to shocks. Given that many African countries’ major social protection systems are contributory and mainly accessed through paid formal employment, women have less access to them given their low labor force participation. Moreover, cases of violence against women have been reported to be to rise during crises, with the majority of them unable to access domestic violence shelters. While responses often mainly focus on addressing the crisis-induced economic losses and damage, social protection is also essential to buttress vulnerable groups like women, People With Disability, people in precarious work, people living in hard-to-reach areas, and the elderly from the impact of non-economic losses and damages.
While debating the urgency for climate action, the need for economic recovery post-COVID 19, and the debt crisis, it is important to legitimize and ground the thinking around social policy and social protection. It is also important to connect this conversation to the larger issue of the welfare state and to challenge the neo-liberal economic ideology that advocates for the free market and limited government interventions, even in a crisis. This must be grounded in the social contract between the State and Citizen in order to equally explore radical reforms, that is state-driven, feminist, decolonial, and anti-capitalist.
We, therefore, call on governments to:
- Recognize and prioritize social protection as a critical component of well-being and a safety net for both workers and vulnerable people. Further, it needs to be resourced.
- Invest in social protection programmes that respond to women’s caregiving and maternity-related needs such as publicly funded daycares, extended maternity leave in line with ILO standards of 14 weeks, and flexible working hours. In sum, social protection should be deployed to lessen the burden of care work.
- Establishing domestic violence shelters and psychosocial support is critical. The ILO C190 has stressed that domestic violence is a workplace issue and therefore survivors must be protected. Crises like COVID-19 have shown us how critical this social protection platform is.
- Ensure inclusiveness in access and not have it tied to one’s participation in the labor force, which is the conditionality for most social protection and social policy programmes like the National Social Security Fund (NSSF).
- Maximize available resources through fair and progressive taxation to fund gender-responsive public services and social protection systems while ensuring the equal participation of women in decision-making, including in financial and economic decisions for achieving gender equality.
- Adopt genuine debt crisis resolutions and burden-sharing, addressing unsustainable and illegitimate debt including pursuing debt cancellation. Debt sustainability assessments are what undergirds fiscal consolidation. This is what ensures the payment of the debt to financers so that developing countries continue to seek external lending. With an exploding debt crisis around the world and African countries spending their dropping public revenue on debt rather than key social services, genuine solutions are urgent.