FRIDAY FILE - In this article, AWID takes a look at what the Eurozone crisis looks like now, and some of the gendered dynamics occurring as a result.
By Rochelle Jones
In the past four years, the Eurozone seems to have been constantly unravelled and re-knitted - like an old woollen scarf you can’t bear to part with, but that doesn’t stay together without substantial work. The bottom line is that billions of euros in loans have been agreed to between the ‘troika’ of the European Commission (EC)/European Central Bank (ECB)/International Monetary Fund (IMF), and struggling Eurozone countries such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal. These loans are conditional on governments making spending cuts at home – typically stripping down budgets perceived as ‘soft’ such as welfare and social spending, health and education. The result is that those already disenfranchised by gender, race and class, the elderly, the young, and single and migrant women are bearing the brunt.
How much money and to who?
It was in 2009 that the Eurozone’s financial problems increased in visibility and began migrating from one country to another, starting with Greece. Burdened with debt amounting to 113% of GDP - nearly double the Eurozone limit of 60%, this was the highest debt recorded in Greece’s modern history. In May 2010, the European Union (EU) and IMF provided €110 billion of bailout loans to Greece to help the government pay its debts. This was not enough and a second, €130 billion bailout was agreed early in 2012.The well-documented street protests in Greece were the outcome of initial austerity measures, and on 12 February this year, when the Greek government finally passed the unpopular austerity bill in parliament, there were renewed protests on the streets by Greek citizens.
In 2010, concern also started to mount over the other heavily indebted countries of Portugal, Spain and Ireland. Ireland was granted an €85 billion package of loans at the end of 2010 and Portugal €78billion in May 2011. Spain has also suffered from a sovereign debt crisis since 2009, with a €65 billion package of spending cuts announced mid-2012 aimed at easing the Spanish debt burden. Whether Spain will also ask for a loan package from the ‘troika’ is still uncertain, but some financial analysts believe an announcement will soon be made regarding a bail-out package.
So what has this meant for women?
Governments who are granted loans from the ‘troika’ are required to meet certain conditions imposed on their public expenditure. For example in Portugal, some of the austerity measuresthat have been put in place include privatization of some industries, public sector wage cuts, a reduction in public sector jobs and an increase in the national sales tax on some food products. In concert with these measures, unemployment levels have risen. The Portuguese seasonally adjusted unemployment rate rose to 15% in February 2012 from 12.3% registered in the same period one year ago. At the same time, youth unemployment was registered at 35.4%.
Ireland has similarly seen significant cuts to welfare, increased taxes on low incomes, reduced public service salaries and reduced pension entitlements. The UN High Commissioner on Extreme Poverty on her visit to Ireland noted that: “By adopting these measures, Ireland runs a high risk of excluding those most in need of support and ignoring the needs of the most vulnerable. In particular, due to multiple forms of entrenched discrimination, women are especially vulnerable to the detrimental effects of reductions in social services and benefits.”
In 2009 and 2010, AWIDcommissioned research into the impact of the global financial crisis on women’s rights. In AWID’s 2010 report on Western Europe, it was argued that government responses to the Eurozone crisis were not taking gendered impacts seriously enough. Specifically, the report said that “European Recovery Plans were ‘gender neutral’ with no plans to invest in care, community-based services, education or health. This gender blindness continues to be a feature of the economic crisis with little mainstream public recognition of what is happening to women’s economic activities including pay cuts, loss of work or the increase in unpaid care work and domestic work at home
Two years on, the same story looks to be the case. transform! - A European network for alternative thinking and dialogue - argued in their latest journal that, “women are doubly affected as the principal employees in the public sector and the principal users of social services… The cuts in social security and health services especially affect women to the extent that they have to assume the role of the main heads of the family. Women find themselves obliged to cover those services from which the state is withdrawing, which increases their difficulty in carrying out their family and professional lives. The increased unpaid work load in their private lives occurs at the expense of their jobs, which reinforces the gender inequalities on the labour market and in women’s schedules”.
While both women and men may lose their jobs in a crisis and have to deal with increasing prices, less public services and more tax – it is women more so than men who care for the ill, children and the elderly, do the cooking and the cleaning. It is women who take up the loose ends when public services are cut and increase their unpaid, domestic workload. As one commentator has noted: “Women’s labour not only replaces household income, but also subsidises the state”.
Adding to the direct impacts of the crisis are the indirect effects such as a failure to comprehensively and accurately capture women’s experiences. Underestimation of the crisis’ impact on women is exemplified in the labour market, where gender disaggregated data is not always available, and is usually collected in terms of who is ‘employed’ and who is ‘unemployed’. The ‘underemployed’, or the working poor who are working part-time and have had their hours reduced as an impact of the crisis – typically women - are off the radar and hence their experiences are not captured and considered.
Can there be recourse to action?
The European Commission’s Gender Equality Strategy has taken on board some of these issues, and according to the EC’s latest annual report on gender equality, “improving equality between women and men is essential to the EU's response to the current economic crisis”. Discussion, however, about how this translates into practice seems to focus mainly on achieving a greater percentage of women into the labour force and particularly into senior, economic decision-making positions – and that this could be achieved by providing adequate childcare and more access to flexible working conditions.
At the 2012 AWID Forum in April of this year, Women in Development Europe (WIDE Plus) hosted a session on how the European crisis is impacting women’s lives. Women from Spain, Italy, Greece and Germany spoke about how women in those countries are faring and stressed “a shared need for cooperation and for developing a critical European feminist voice in face of the ongoing debates in Europe”. Their report of statements from the AWID Forum panel is introduced by WIDE Plus as “a first contribution by WIDE plus toward a feminist Europe voice against the crisis”.
At the macro level, increasingly it looks like the economic crisis in the Eurozone is a crisis of existence – meaning that the very nature of the contract has come into question and the rules have to change in order for the euro to survive and thrive. In her statement at the AWID Forum for example, Christa Wichterich (Germany) argued how the crisis highlights “the internal contradictions of the EU and of European integration: common monetary policies but no common wage, fiscal and industrial policies; a growing gap between the real economy and the financial sector, a lack of employment equivalent to the huge amounts of financial capital; and high inequalities between countries.”
If this rings true, a strong feminist response to the impacts of the crisis, as well as feminist contributions to a potential restructure of the Eurozone is critical. Getting more women to the top ranks of decision-making as proposed by the EC in their report on Gender Equality in the EU is not going to ensure that women at the grassroots have their voices heard. Effective consultative mechanisms in combination with a louder feminist voice have a better chance.
The European Commission and the European Parliament are a place to start. According to their website, the Commission “has the right of initiative to propose laws for adoption by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU (national ministers)… Before making proposals, the Commission consults widely so that stakeholders' views can be taken into account. In general, an assessment of the potential economic, social and environmental impact of a given piece of legislation act is published along with the proposal itself.” Consultation with civil society is required as per the Treaty of Lisbon (Article 11 TEU), and this is an avenue for women’s rights organisations and individuals to advocate for change.
 For information regarding NGO-EU consultation see:
http://ec.europa.eu/yourvoice/index_en.htm - a portal for individuals and organizations wishing to take part in public consultations and/or comment on legislative proposals;
http://www.ngoeuconnect.ie/content.php?area=13 – an Irish-based website with useful information about how NGOs can connect with EU institutions.