Tuesday 28 May

There are many avenues to address gender inequality – the Budget is one

gender budget

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Daily Maverick
Matshidiso Lencoasa


A gender-responsive Budget could be a meaningful way for the country to wield the power of fiscal policy to redress gender inequity.

ith fewer than seven years to go to achieve the National Development Plan (NDP) 2030, our country continues to face the triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment. These socioeconomic ills are carried disproportionately by women, meaning that South Africa is not on track to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 5: Gender Equality by 2030 either. The gap between women and men in the cycle of poverty has widened in the past decade – a phenomenon known as the feminisation of poverty. 

The Borgen Project reports that while women-led households in the country are 40% poorer than ones led by men, the gender imbalance is more pronounced when one considers that “48% of the women-led households support extended family members compared to 23% of their male counterparts”. 

There is a feminisation of unemployment, too. While there has been an increase in the participation rate of women workers since 1994, job creation has lagged, resulting in higher unemployment rates for women than men. According to Statistics South Africa, 47% of South African women were recorded as economically inactive compared with 35.6% of men in 2022. Much of the work available to women is precarious, and they are underpaid and work in difficult conditions. And while girls tend to achieve better matric results, this does not translate after school: the face of unemployment in South Africa is young, black and female. Without intervention, this can only get worse.

The Borgen Project reports that while women-led households in the country are 40% poorer than ones led by men, the gender imbalance is more pronounced when one considers that ‘48% of the women-led households support extended family members compared to 23% of their male counterparts’. (Photo: Gallo Images / Jacques Stander)

Although neither the Constitution nor the NDP explicitly envision the role of National Treasury in advancing human rights, fiscal policy interventions have been used in addressing the socioeconomic crises in the country. In 2014, South Africa was celebrated by the World Bank for applying such interventions to lift millions of people out of extreme poverty and halve the rate of extreme poverty. The Child Support Grant in the country has been touted globally, with the Center for Global Development describing it as significant in levelling the playing field for indigent children and low-income care workers who receive the grant, 98% of whom are women. In the context of a worsening economic climate, we need to extend the successes of such interventions and wield the power of fiscal policy to alleviate socioeconomic disparities that hinder the realisation of gender equity in the country. We need a gender-responsive budget.

A gender-responsive budget works for all

In an Oxfam report, Mary-Anne Stephens best describes a gender-responsive budget as one that works for all, that proactively considers the effect of budget decisions on gender norms. A gender-responsive budget would reflect on the effects of fiscal policy interventions in entrenching gender and racial inequality in South Africa. While gaining mainstream support, this concept is not new to our context. gender-responsive budgeting dates to 1995, when the South African Women’s Budget Initiative (SAWBI) began working on gendering budgets for a post-apartheid transition and launched the first women’s Budget in 1996. In 2005, the Department of Justice published a Gender Mainstreaming and Gender Budgeting Package to redress the “accumulated disadvantage” they said defined women’s lives, a reality that persists today. Fast-forward to 2019, the Cabinet-approved Gender Responsive Planning, Budgeting, Monitoring, Evaluation and Auditing Framework formalised South Africa’s strategy giving Treasury the mandate to lead its implementation.

South Africa’s National Budget has been criticised for its heavy-handed austerity measures, cutting funding to social sectors such as basic education and healthcare in real terms while debt-servicing costs continue to soar. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Fiscal framework entrenches gender inequality

Despite persistent calls for a budget framework and process that serves all South Africans, the current fiscal framework continues to disadvantage us. The National Budget has been criticised for its heavy-handed austerity measures, cutting funding to social sectors such as basic education and healthcare in real terms while debt-servicing costs continue to soar. In 2018, United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights experts expressed concern that the austerity measures introduced in our Budget could further exacerbate inequality and restrain the redistributive capacity of our fiscal policy.

The 2023/24 Budget cuts healthcare funding by 4.9% and basic education funding by 2.4% after accounting for 4.9% Consumer Price Index inflation. While the social cost of these austerity measures is felt by all, the gendered nature of poverty, inequality and unemployment means that this fiscal framework further entrenches gender inequality in the country. This is compounded by gender norms that place the burden of care on women and as such, cuts to healthcare and education programmes mean that women fill this gap through their unpaid care work. This fiscal framework is a missed opportunity to empower women to participate meaningfully in the economy, an intervention that could be a liberator for women who are compelled to stay in abusive intimate relationships out of financial insecurity. 

Poor quality of Budget spending is gendered

As women rely more on social services, the gendered cost of reduced social spending is compounded by poor-quality spending of the allocated funds as well as corruption. Poorly executed budgets hinder our access to good-quality public services and entrench inequality. For example, the Gauteng health department underspent R1.6-billion of its 2022/23 district health services budget, including on HIV/Aids treatment. It is women who are most disadvantaged by this underspending owing to its disproportionate prevalence. Even well-funded gender-responsive programmes – such as the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) which received a 9.1% increase in funding (well-above Treasury’s projected food inflation rate of 7%) – are jeopardised by poor implementation (see reports that millions of pupils either received no food or rotten food in KwaZulu-Natal). The NSNP is a powerful tool to alleviate the burden of feeding children, which women bear disproportionately

As women rely more on social services, the gendered cost of reduced social spending is compounded by poor-quality spending of the allocated funds as well as corruption. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

As such, for a budget to alleviate the burden of poverty, inequality and unemployment on us, both the quantum and implementation of the budget need to be bolstered. While ensuring that social sectors receive adequate funding to redress gender inequity is crucial, we need strong state capacity to use this funding and to effect meaningful consequence management for underused budgets and fruitless and wasteful expenditure. Furthermore, while the mandate for gender-responsive budget rests with Treasury, social-sector departments like Basic Education and Health need to ensure that its implementation and programmes reach the women intended to benefit from these interventions.

Budget accountability has been found to be effective in reducing corruption and enhancing public service delivery. Treasury’s commitment to budget transparency is welcomed and could be advanced by strengthening public participation throughout the budget process. This can bolster accountability and create a budget that works for all South Africans. In the 2023/24 Budget, Treasury announced the completion of the development of gender-responsive budgeting guidelines. A public workshop of these guidelines could be a powerful step in empowering South African women to shape fiscal policy that serves us all.

Women’s Month is an opportune moment to reflect on the socioeconomic disparities that hinder the realisation of gender equity in the country and the actions we must take to correct this. While our economy carries the shame of being the most unequal in the world, a gender-responsive Budget could be a meaningful way for the country to wield the power of fiscal policy to redress gender inequity, alleviating the disproportionate social burden carried by us, the women of this country. DM

WDA