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Don’t Cut Women’s Programs. Embed Them!

September 25, 2017
Jemimah Njuki

Jemimah Njuki

Senior program specialist, IDRC

Every line in a budget — like electricity, water, and roads — affects women and girls differently than men and boys. This is why governments should practice “gender responsive budgeting.”

In the last few months, we’ve heard that the Trump administration has proposed funding cuts to several women’s programs, such as the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues. And he isn’t alone. A recent assessment of the EU budget showed that funds allocated for gender equality had significantly been cut down between 2015 and 2016.

Some might say that President Trump is anti-women. But even if that’s part of it, there is a more structural reason why it’s so easy to cut funding to women-focused programs.

It would be a more difficult task to cut gender equality funding if it were embedded in the government budgeting process and not treated as separate or “special” programming.

A better way to address gender equality and the empowerment of women is through what some call “gender responsive budgeting.” The idea behind this approach is recognizing that every line in the budget can have very different impacts on women and girls than on men and boys.

Take water issues in Africa as an example. A study of 24 sub-Saharan African countries found that 17 million women and (mostly female) children spend more than half an hour every day fetching potable water for the household. Typically, governments think of water in terms of big infrastructure projects such as dams or large-scale irrigation systems. But more often, getting water to the “last mile” can be even more challenging.

When the Ministry of Water in Tanzania built gender considerations into their budget, resources to the ministry as a whole doubled. Rather than treating gender separately or relegating them to NGOs, the additional investment was embedded in the water budget.

There was clear acknowledgment that gender issues must be considered when thinking about water access.

Meanwhile, India has changed budget allocations to support gender equality in infrastructure by considering women’s sanitation needs as part of public infrastructure expenditure. This includes providing women’s toilets in public places like markets or transportation hubs. Investments like these matter because without them, women limit their participation in these public spaces, and thereby their economic prospects.

Decisions on what goods to tax can have different impacts on men and women and their households. In South Africa, one analysis found that removing taxes on certain foods and household fuels was comparatively more beneficial to women, while reducing taxes on alcohol, tobacco, and transport fuel resulted in higher benefits for men. This analysis led to the removal of taxes on paraffin, a main source of cooking fuel especially in poor households in the country. With women being the primary decision makers in households for food and nutrition, cheaper fuel translates into more money available for better and more nutritious food.

Despite the potential impact of gender responsive budgeting, most governments continue to fund gender equality and women’s empowerment as separate special programs and not as part of mainstream government budgeting processes. In Kenya, for example, the Women Enterprise Fund is set up as a semi-autonomous government agency to provide accessible and affordable credit to support women to start or expand businesses.

Some argue that these special programs are critical for closing persistent gender gaps. This may be true to an extent — but evidence shows that these programs are often the first to get cut. A 2010 survey conducted by Oxfam on the impact of the global economic crisis on the budgets of 56 low-income countries found that nearly two thirds had cut programs affecting gender equality.

Despite the power of gender responsive budgeting, many countries have not adopted them — or the programs remain mainly on paper.

But we are seeing some progress. In Canada, in a first critical step, the 2017 budget included a gender statement that identified the ways in which public policies affect women and men differently. The feminist international assistance policy announced in June gives a specific focus on gender equality and empowerment of girls, while also prioritizing women and girls in other key areas such as environment and climate action, inclusive governance, peace and security.

Political will is also required to ensure that countries embed gender responsive budgeting in their fiscal policies. While it may be more politically expedient for a government to announce they have set aside a couple of million dollars on a women’s fund, it is more sustainable in the long term to ensure all government funding has a positive impact on women and girls and on gender equality.

This op-ed was first published in The Development Set on July 27, 2017.

Jemimah Njuki manages a portfolio of agriculture and food security, and women's empowerment projects at IDRC.