When #metoo revelations hit the global conscience as a compelling case for strengthening Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE), one crucial question that remains unanswered is what exactly the macroeconomic policy makers of our country think about it.
Can macroeconomic policy makers be indifferent to such issues, dismissing it as one which has to be exclusively dealt by the legislative fiat of the country? This conspicuous absence of involvement of macro policy makers in the debate may be because of the fact that social movements on women's rights and gender justice are hardly recognized as an economic issue, when it is indeed a “compelling economic issue”. It encapsulates the unhealthy power relations (it has many layers to analyse, when a man in power asserts sexual favours from his colleagues as his “rights” and when he cruelly transgresses) and associated economic costs. The harassment affects the productivity of a woman in multiple ways through day-to-day trauma in her work station. If the fastest and the smartest way to economic growth in a country is through strengthening women’s labour force participation, dismissing #metoo revelations as “non-economic” or “private” can result in adverse macro-economic consequences.
The researchers have been pushing their frontiers to integrate gender issues in the macroeconomic policy debates. However, macro-policy makers in general adamantly believe that ‘gender issue’ is not their cup of tea. To the macroeconomic policy makers, should ‘gender issues’ – especially sexual harassment at work - be confined to the decision making processes in an infinitesimally tiny world of ‘intra-household’ or largely “private” within the redressal mechanisms of her office space?
Even researchers - both men and women – are divided in their stance about gender in economics. It is a tug of war between hard core qualitative world of “compelling story telling” versus rigorous quantitative measurement of gender inequalities. It has been a struggle for feminist economists to push the frontier of empirical investigation from a marginalized treatment of ‘gender’ in economics, to “gender mainstreaming”.
To put it upfront, for instance, even budgets are not gender neutral. To be precise, what national and subnational budgets of a country consists of to address sexual harassment of women at work and violence against women, is a crucial ‘human rights’ question. How a country effectively translates the gender commitments into budgetary commitments is something which we cannot afford to postpone any further.
The empirical revelation that budgets can be a powerful policy tool to tackle gender inequalities in a country was first highlighted in the ground breaking study on ‘gender diagnosis and budgeting’ by National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP) in 2000. This history, we must not forget. Prior to that, the media debates on gender issues in budgets were broadly confined to whether Finance Minister(s) had referred to “tax cuts in cosmetics” as something he had significantly done for women. Otherwise Finance Minister(s) had focused only on their ‘core’ responsibility of managing ‘deficits’, ‘medium-term fiscal frameworks’, and other ‘macro-fundamentals’ that matter for their “business as usual”.
Given the gender budgeting frameworks on board within the Ministry of Finance, what exactly the Finance Minister of our country is thinking about #metoo revelations - from the perspectives of women’s economic empowerment (WEE) - is crucial to watch. Given the abysmally low levels of women’s labour force participation in India, it will be unfortunate if macro policy makers consider that #metoo revelations have nothing to do with the planning and budgeting policies to ensure women’s economic empowerment through judicious public policies. The ex-ante policies to prevent such instances are all the more relevant as #metoo cases are the end results of an accumulated neglect of women’s economic empowerment along with the failure of “rule of law” to ensure non-occurrences of such cases.
How much a country spends on women’s economic empowerment is now a compelling question, more than ever before. The Genie was out of the bottle, when NIPFP published that the estimates of specifically targeted public spending for women’s economic empowerment by Government of India has been only less than one per cent of entire Union Budget. The researchers at NIPFP also flagged that this one percent came from as high as around forty specifically targeted programmes designed in various sectors – in the Demand for Grants - for women. Though the situation has slightly improved about gender budgeting allocations, the ‘too many programmes with too little money’ immediately demand the attention of Public Financial Management (PFM) in India and calls for an urgent convergence of public spending in tackling gender inequalities, with significant budgetary provisions. As women in organized sector is around 4 per cent in India, ensuring macro policies to safeguard the safety and security of women in informal sector is equally significant for a holistic WEE.
The United Nations Secretary General has formed a high level panel for WEE, and gender budgeting has been identified as one of the powerful policy tools to strengthen WEE. Given the increasing reporting of sexual harassment of women at work, these policy tools should be used effectively to initiate “ex-ante policies” to prevent such instances.
What India needs more is “ex-ante” policies to address the high rates of sexual harassment faced by women at work in formal and informal sectors, in low-wage and high-wage sectors; and obviously not the “ad hoc” and “ex-post” interventions after the events have occurred.
The author is Associate Professor, NIPFP. Click here for detailed profile.
The views expressed in the post are those of the author only. No responsibility for them should be attributed to NIPFP.