Photo courtesy of The Week UK
Every year in November the mainstream media is dedicated to economists for the analysis of the budget for the year. Because many of these analyses, which use a variety of technical terms, are difficult to understand, the budget exists as an abstract concept beyond our ordinary lives. Similar to previous years, this year’s budget is also a document filled with rhetorical flourishes. The failure of the economic policies and strategies pursued by all previous governments for the last 73 years is well illustrated in this budget. Significantly, none of the budgets have paid attention to how they affect women who make up 52% of the country’s population. This article attempts to understand the budget from a feminist point of view.
Several sections of the budget have been selected for this purpose. The first is the budgetary allocations made primarily for the Ministries. A significant feature of the 2022 budget is the total allocation of Rs. 525 billion for women and children’s affairs, health, agriculture, transport and labour sectors whereas Rs. 529 billion is allocated for the Ministry of Defence alone. More than Rs. 4 billion has been allocated for the Ministry of Defence than for all other sectors. Thirteen years after the end of the war, allocations to the Ministry of Defence have increased by 21% compared to the previous year while allocations for education, which has been in deep crisis for the past two years, have increased by only 1%. Unfortunately, allocations for the State Ministry of Women and Child Development, Pre-School and Primary Education, School Infrastructure and Education Services have dropped by 25% over the previous year. The allocation to the Ministry of Health has dropped by 4% and the allocation for Indigenous Medicine and Ayurveda has dropped by 14%, which is incomprehensible during a global pandemic.
It is no secret that the difference in these allocations is determined by the importance the government places on them within public policy. How do these emotionless numbers affect the lives of women? For example, the personal burden of education ultimately falls on the family. The burden falls on women when government spending on child care, the elderly, food production and all non-wage sectors is reduced. The lack of proper social security for children and the elderly is filled through the unpaid labour that women perform in the family. The disregard for this domestic labour as part of the national economy is, in fact, a fundamental principle for profit seeking in capitalist, particularly neo-liberal, economies. In reality this social reproduction labour is hidden from the national economy.
For example, according to calculations by the Department of Census and Statistics, the share of women in the labour market is 30% to 40%. Does this really reflect the work that women do? No. This means that women do not exist in the so-called formal labour market. But the contribution of women to informal and domestic labour, as well as self-employment, agriculture and business at home, is not calculated to the national economic figures. Although the words gender mainstreaming, gender budgeting and women are flung around liberally during pre-budget discussions, in reality there is no understanding of women’s work, labour and the impact of the budget on women’s lives. This is true not just for politicians but also for the majority of economists pontificating on the budget.
The second point is that serious everyday problems faced by the people have been bluntly ignored in this budget. For example, this budget does not provide for regulation of rapidly rising commodity prices. No policy has been put forward to address the fertilizer problems, crop destruction and reduced yields of farmers. This will inevitably lead to a major food security crisis in the coming years where women and children will be disproportionately affected. The low priority given to women in family food consumption is a common practice in South Asian cultures; malnutrition among girl children and women is a consequence. Providing a two-year nutrition package to pregnant mothers as proposed in the budget will not solve this serious problem. Food security requires systematic management in all areas, including access to land, that is, legal and financial access, seed security, fertilizer and water supply and proper product distribution mechanisms. Although it has been repeatedly stated in the budget that a ‘production economy’ will be established in the country, the budget does not provide the necessary steps and policies required to create such an economy.
The next issue is that the budget has not provided proper solutions to the problem faced by working women in particular due to the feminization of labour. The Covid pandemic led to the loss of thousands of jobs in the informal sector while many more lost their livelihoods due to the collapse of small and medium enterprises. It is estimated that in the garment industry alone, which somehow maintained a stable market, about 30% lost their jobs. It is mostly women who are engaged in the informal sector too. It is unfortunate that the budget does not provide any relief to women engaged in local and migrant domestic work. In line with this, the allocation made to the Ministry of Labour has been reduced by 30% compared to the last year.
Although it is stated in the budget that steps will be taken to uplift the household economy, there is no proper vision for that. What the country really needs is a new vision that treats the domestic economy as part of the national economy and allocates financial resources with equal importance. For example, the budget does not pay the slightest attention to address the microfinance problem that is plaguing hundreds of thousands of rural women. Will a small one-time payment to those involved in the businesses of school vans, three-wheelers, the tourism industry and the entertainment industry that lost revenue due to Covid be able to save them from the huge debt burden of debt?
The last issue is that of social security. Social security is the ability of all sections of society to live secure lives with equal access to law, justice and other services. On the one hand, the government has already deprived certain communities of social security by destroying the rule of law and arbitrarily interfering with the judiciary. On the other hand, we must repeatedly question the social protection afforded to all communities including children, women, same-sex and transgender communities, people who have lost their livelihoods, disappearances, displacements and who faced to violence for a variety of reasons. Finally, the budget will continue to exacerbate the problem Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa mentioned in his budget speech where the rich people and corporations are getting richer but the poor are getting poorer day by day.
The author is a member of the Progressive Women’s Collective