In a period when fiscal austerity has strongly returned to the international economic agenda, Brazil started 2017 putting into practice a plan which has been considered one of the most rigorous ones currently in the world. This plan, approved by Brazilian parliament last year, freezes government spending for twenty years, being annually adjusted only by inflation. Although all society may be negatively affected by such an extreme measure, austerity is not gendered-neutral, and an even more troublesome time for Brazilian women might be on the way.
Brazil’s austerity plan does not come by chance though. Brazilian government debt, one of the largest among the developing countries according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has astonishingly increased along the last five years. Brazil’s Central Bank says public debt has risen from the equivalent to 51% of the GDP in December of 2011 to 70% in August of 2016. Unfortunately, this massive public debt increase has not been fully converted into public investments or social programs, but also into subsidized credit to big companies through the national investment bank (BNDES), cover of the pension system deficit and current government spending. The violation of government budget laws has been even one of the main reasons for the impeachment of Brazilian former president, Dilma Rousseff.
It is well established that periods of austerity tend to punish more the poor. By their turn, the particular effects of austerity on females have also been shared in the media and academic events. However, these gendered damages are usually addressed to developed countries, where women’s participation in labour market and policies to support families are generally better constituted. In a developing country like Brazil, which is living important demographic and social transformations, and just recently started implementing objectively gender-focused policies, twenty years of austerity may generate peculiarly more drastic effects on women.
Regardless the austerity measures, life as a Brazilian woman is unduly difficult in a country where they are assaulted every fifteen seconds and 43% of them have already suffered some kind of violence in their own homes. To make matters worse, Brazilian women also have to overcome enormous economic obstacles: according to a survey published by Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in 2010, in spite of being the majority of the population in working age in Brazil (53.6%), women are the minority in labour force (46%). Women are also the minority in all economic sectors, except in the public one (63.2%) and in the sector of domestic services (94.5%).
Thus, Brazil’s austerity measures come in a moment which has already been particularly arduous for women. The country is crossing one of its longest registered economic recessions, when women tend to be more penalized, since they normally occupy some of the most fragile job positions, such as the part-time contract ones in the service sector. Besides, informality is a common characteristic of Brazilian female labour market, given that 42.7% of Brazilian female workers are considered informal according to official data from IBGE. The consequence is that Brazilian women earn in average 32% less than men for any educational level and age, whilst their unemployment rate was in average 3% higher than for men in 2016, according to Brazilian Household Survey Data (PNAD).
The economic crisis also tends to shift many mothers into labour force in order to compensate their partners’ lower earnings. This arrangement is problematic in Brazil, where childcare provision is more commonly private and expensive, being accessible only by richer families. Particularly for single mothers, frequently there is no other option but to leave their children to improvised childcare services during their working hours, negatively affecting their children’s health, educational and psychological outcomes.
Brazil’s austerity plan can worsen this scenario even more, since many social benefits are paid to women and their freezing for two decades may revert much of the social progress made by the country along the last years. An example is the Brazilian cash transfer program Bolsa Família, which transfers income preferably to women because it potentiates the results of the program. Consequently, 93% of the beneficiaries of Bolsa Família are females, that leads them to economic and social empowerment. An eventual cut of the resources of this program would represent an interruption of this process.
Furthermore, Brazilian women can be specially affected if austerity reaches key areas of the welfare system, such as health and education. Brazil’s universal health public scheme includes specific programs to meet particular women’s needs, such as the provision of contraceptives and prenatal care. Similarly, according to the project Todos Pela Educação (Everybody For Education), the majority of the students in public primary education are girls, who are more likely to leave school in moments of economic struggle. The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) estimates that 1% of GDP fall reduces female primary education conclusion of 29%, whilst the same rate is 22% for males. Besides, it increases child mortality almost five times more among girls than boys. It means budget cuts on these areas may definitely generate gender-biased effects.
Although important for fiscal re-equilibrium, choices in austerity plans reflect political preferences, and in this sense Brazilian females are quite defenseless. Women are still much underrepresented in Brazil’s formal politics: in spite of composing about 52% of the electorate, only about 10% of the parliamentary seats are taken by women. The debate about sexism was present during former president Rousseff’s impeachment, and it was reinforced by the absence of females in the new government’s cabinet. Brazilian women’s lack of political power certainly influences the directions which the austerity plan has taken in the country.
The burden of Brazil’s austerity plan, like anywhere, tends to fall more heavily on the most fragile social groups – and women are definitely one of them. In Brazilian case, this burden on females can be particularly heavier, given the current stage of economic development the country is crossing. To move backwards after making such relevant steps forward regarding gender policies is already a shame. Let’s only hope that these hard coming years will not represent a complete change of direction compared to the previous approach.