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How to Finance a Gender-Equal Recovery to COVID-19

The following remarks were given by Maria Alesi at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s July 6, 2021, session on gender-equal socioeconomic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Read their summary on the UN Human Rights Council website.

Excellencies, distinguished delegates and panelists, dear colleagues.

It is an honour to speak at this meeting.

From the onset of COVID-19, we knew that women, —especially women working in the informal sector facing multiple and persistent forms of discrimination in middle and low incomes countries and communities were going to be most affected by the social and economic effects of the pandemic.

We knew this because these women have always borne the brunt of social and economic outcomes.

Now, as the world—or, at least, some parts of the world—moves toward recovery, there is a growing need to center the lives of women and all groups pushed to the margins of development. This is the only way we can achieve equal recovery at local, national, and international levels.

A key pillar for equal recovery, is gender responsive financing. Gender responsive financing is not about funding small village projects for women. It is financing targeted at dismantling structures and system that create and reinforce inequality.

There are five immediate issues that must be at the forefront of any gender-equal recovery effort: canceling debt, financing the informal sector, fair taxation, accountable governance, and vaccine justice.

The public debt in Africa currently stands at 350 billion U.S. dollars and 3.3 trillion US dollars for Latin America. When countries are highly indebted, they are forced to impose austerity measures and sacrifice public services at the altar of debt repayment.

In countries like Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi, and Angola, debt repayment is either the highest or among the highest line items on their national budgets.

Additionally, the pandemic has forced-, middle- and low-income countries to borrow more to meet the emerging needs.

They are borrowing from international financial institutions that behave worse than loan sharks lending at exploitatively high interest rates further burdening the citizens.

By cancelling the debt burden on low- and middle-income countries, we will free up resources to invest in public services and social protection to drive gender equal recovery.

We need to finance the informal sector.

Currently, most of the economic recovery plans exclude women because they do not intentionally target the informal sector.

The reason given by many governments is that the informal sector is not organized.

However, this is not true because the informal sector is self-organized into different associations and groups through which governments can extend the necessary support if they dared to be creative enough.

Support to the informal sector must include more than just business recovery loans.

It must also cover social protection measures that will protect workers who continue to face grave risks due to the pandemic and its long-term effects.

Policy makers must also develop and implement progressive tax regimes.

Many national tax regimes continue to place the burden on lower-income earners—the majority of whom are again women. In Uganda, for example, the government has introduced a 12 percent tax on internet.

The internet, as we all know, has become a key enabler for both social and economic progress. By increasing the tax on the internet, many women are automatically excluded from the access to information and opportunity—two things that are critical for equal recovery.

Policymakers must focus on taxing wealth and income instead of taxing individuals. This way, governments can raise money to meet their development obligations without pushing women further to the margins.

But my fellow world citizens, taxation is not only a national issue.

We must also consider the way that taxation limits equal recovery at the regional and international levels. All these spheres are important to ensuring that women are not left behind in the post-pandemic recovery.

In the recent past, members of the G7 agreed to a 15 percent minimum tax. But who does this tax actually benefit besides rich countries?

I urge you to demand that this unfair fiscal direction be brought before the UN and discussed at the international level. This is the only chance we will have to ensure fair tax policy beyond national borders.

For the post-pandemic recovery to be gender equal, countries must also do more to ensure inclusion, accountability, and transparency in governance.

To deliver economic recovery we must protect space for civil and political engagement.

The achievement of social and economic rights cannot be separated from the protection of civil and political rights and liberties.

We cannot deliver gender-equal recovery if corruption, violence, and shrinking civic space continue take root.

When governments are not accountable to their citizens, social and economic service delivery breaks down and always disproportionately affects women. Today, this is seen in the way women carrying the burden of broken health care systems; the burden of food insecurity and the lack of access to clean water on top of trying to survive a pandemic.

Governments must be accountable in their dealings especially in terms of budget expenditures for women to actually thrive.

Finally, and before I leave this platform, I must speak to the current epicenter of inequality: access to vaccines.

None of the measures I have mentioned today will succeed if people are not vaccinated. As Africa and parts of Asia grapple with a third wave of the pandemic, these countries still have no access to the vaccines.

In the past weeks, countries and institutions that have been hoarding vaccines are now pledging to “donate” their extra doses.

The World Bank is even offering loans to already highly indebted states so that they can purchase vaccines from companies in countries that have refused to share.

How can we talk about gender-equal recovery when women in middle- and low-income countries   cannot access the single most critical technology for human continuity today?

I call upon the powers that be—you know who you are—to do better by us. Vaccine justice is the least that you can do.

As Arundhati Roy said, the pandemic is a portal.

Instead of returning to the systems and structures that have pushed women in middle- and low-income countries and communities to the margins, we can use it to deliver equal recovery through canceling debt, financing the informal sector, fair taxation, accountable governance, and vaccine justice.

Let us center the lives of women in middle and low countries in our response and we will ensure gender-equal recovery. Thank you.

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