5 Questions: Voices from the Global South

Debt justice and debt cancellation are key to the fulfillment of Global South women’s rights

For Global South governments, they are shifting funds away from public spending and pouring the biggest shares of their revenues and budgets in debt service payments. As interest rates rise and the cOur Urgent Callsost of borrowing becomes more expensive, they continue to sink into worsening conditions of unsustainable debt – with dire consequences for people, communities and the environment. For peoples of the Global South, the debt crisis is permanent and ongoing in the many ways it has historically impeded our right to development, and to socio-economic and financial autonomy and self-reliance. The toll on women is especially harsh under persistent and worsening conditions of discrimination, violence and inequality in neoliberal societies and economies, where they continue to be exploited for cheap and unpaid labor within countries and across global care chains, where their contributions to economic activity remain invisible and under/unvalued.

1. Why do women fight for debt justice?
Debt justice means ensuring that lending and borrowing policies and practices are fair, transparent, accountable and that loans result in the benefit of the peoples in whose names they are incurred by governments. It also means that the violation of these democratic standards lays the grounds for affected peoples of the Global South to seek amends and redress, from stopping debt service to outright debt cancellation, especially at a time when public finances are meager and must urgently be channeled into funding essential public services, and our very survival.

Much of the public debts claimed from the Global South were and continue to be incurred in violation of basic democratic and rights-based standards. These include the absence of informed public consultations with women, workers, farmers, indigenous peoples, and the public at large, transparency in debt contracting and accountability and redress for harmful consequences. Many debt-funded projects in Asia and the Global South overall, particularly for fossil fuel projects, are contributing to worsening the climate crisis, irreversibly destroying biodiversity, displacing communities and eroding environmental resources and local livelihoods that grassroots women typically depend on.

2. In what ways does the burden of public debt impact the daily lives of women and people in general, and cause the wide ranging violations of their human rights?
These public debts come with strings attached or conditionalities by the lenders or creditors. Such 1 conditionalities that lenders impose to ensure debt servicing often involve austerity measures or cuts in public expenditure, that inevitably result in cuts to budgets for education, health, water and sanitation, public housing and other vital social spending needs. These also involve reducing or failing to provide budgetary resources for social protection systems and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality. Thus, with dire consequences for human rights, debt dependence has often led Southern governments to trade off adequate funding for social services, in favor of debt servicing in order to maintain creditworthiness before lenders.

Millions of women in Asia and other regions of the Global South where gender discrimination remains entrenched, are already in subordinate socio economic positions. Often in paid work, they receive lower wages than men for work of equal value and are forced by desperate situations or lack of opportunity to accept employment terms that offer no job security or social protection. Unpaid care work remains widely rendered by women, which has led to further multiplying their labors and deepening their time poverty as they fill up even greater gaps in public social service provision to maintain household and families as best they can. Under these conditions, the much-vaunted increase in women’s economic participation as an indicator of economic empowerment is cosmetic; if at all, multidimensional poverty in the Global South continues to be markedly female, with women facing more obstacles to the enjoyment of their rights and greater challenges to the long-term goal of emancipation from the gender-exploitative and oppressive conditions that have become dangerously normalized in neoliberal societies and economies.

3. Who are the drivers behind the increase in public debt burdens of the Global South?
Debt-dependent governments of the Global South that find themselves in ever-narrowing fiscal spaces, lead them to incur more public debt. Sharply accelerating in the last few years of COVID-19, the trend has long been established in decades past, of seeking more debt as the go-to solution to economic constraints. Feeding into a vicious cycle, more borrowings are incurred to comply with stringent terms of debt service by lenders, regardless of the steep price paid by the mass of ordinary people in terms of losses in public health and education services, unmet standards of health, water and sanitation services, unfulfilled promises of decent public housing, to name a few. In turn, women take up the slack in the delivery of public services through their largely unpaid care work, with long-term adverse consequences for their health, participation in public life and overall well-being.

Southern governments, however, are not solely to blame. For years, the IMF and the World Bank and other international financial institutions, and Northern governments in the Group of 7 and 20 countries, have aggressively peddled loans and hugely profited from interest payments alone. In more recent years, private lenders (commercial banks, asset and investment firms, etc.) as public debt sources have outpaced multilateral borrowers in several countries in Asia despite their higher interest rates. This trend exposes already debt burdened South countries to even greater risk, such as, more expensive loans, fluctuating market conditions, an utter lack of environmental and human rights safeguards, transparency and accountability, and impunity in refusing to participate in even minimal debt relief efforts.

4. What have lenders offered so far?
More of the same debt relief mechanisms in the past that stubbornly viewed the debt problem as one of liquidity and insolvency alone. The absence of a global process and mechanism for sovereign debt resolution continues to allow lenders, composed of a handful of powerful countries, institutions and private entities, to make decisions in an undemocratic manner and impose their terms on the rest of the world. The debt relief tools offered by lenders – from the Debt Service Suspension Initiative to the current Common Framework — have proven flawed and false in promising debt reduction, and have in truth, turned out useless in stemming the tide of more debt accumulation. There can be no relief where…

  • Women’s rights and gender equality as well as climate vulnerabilities are absent in the debt sustainability framework of lenders
  • Debt-afflicted countries are pushed to take on more loans (even on concessional terms) at the expense of cutting back on essential social services.
  • The impunity of private lenders remains privileged by IFIs and North governments not to participate in their debt relief schemes, in effect bailing them out.
  • Loans continue to pour into climate exacerbating fossil fuel projects.
  • The scope of debt relief cannot be widened to include middle-income countries now similarly situated as low-income countries.
  • There is no real recognition of the systemic nature of the debt problem, a problem that goes beyond liquidity and requires transformative steps towards profoundly changing the debt governance architecture.

5. What do we want?
The unresolved and worsening public debt problem directly and indirectly violates the fulfillment of many basic human rights. We thus urge the members of the Commission on the Status of Women to call on governments, especially Southern governments, to pay heed to their international human rights obligations. As State Parties to core treaties, including the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, they have a legal obligation to bring laws, policies, programs, practices and budgets in line with these instruments. Under the principle of state accountability and the right to effective remedies, states parties are bound to take legislative, administrative and other measures to stop and prevent further violations by both State and Non State actors, investigate and take action against those responsible, provide accessible and effective mechanisms for redress by those whose rights have been transgressed.

These also include the obligation to progressively provide resources for the fulfillment of these core treaties, which means that human rights and women’s rights should not be compromised by debt servicing. It remains the right of sovereign governments to unilaterally suspend or stop debt service payments, especially for loans tainted by fraudulent practices or whose spending involved undertakings that led to human rights violations of individuals and communities, and environmental destruction.

Our Urgent Calls
Noting the CSW’s current theme of accelerating the achievement of gender equality and the  empowerment of all women and girls by addressing poverty and strengthening institutions and financing  with a gender perspective, we reiterate our calls for: 

  • Unconditional cancellation of public external debt of the Global South by all lenders – bilateral,  multilateral and private lenders. 
  • Use resources freed from debt to address immediate needs for essential services and the  realization of human rights. 
  • Establish a multilateral legal framework under the auspices of the UN that would comprehensively  address unsustainable and illegitimate debt, including through extensive debt cancellation. 
  • Advance the establishment of a UN-hosted sovereign debt workout mechanism covering all lenders  – international financial institutions, bilateral lenders and private lenders. Its mandate should  include national and global review and changes in lending, borrowing and payment policies and  practices aimed at preventing the re-accumulation of unsustainable and illegitimate debt,  strengthening democratic institutions and processes, and upholding human rights and peoples’  self-determination. 
  • Payment of reparations for the damages caused to countries, peoples and nature, due to the  contracting, use and payment of unsustainable and illegitimate debts and the conditions imposed  to guarantee their collection.

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