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Public debt hinders progressive realisation of women’s rights in Zimbabwe


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The discourse on public debt in most African countries and to be more specific Zimbabwe has undermined the responsibility of the government as duty bearers to make strides towards the progressive realization of fundamental human rights which include gender equality as well as social and economic rights. Nevertheless, in this whole matrix, it is women who suffer the most due to their gendered roles and progressive realisation of gender equality and social and economic rights is critical for women to lead sustainable, decent and prosperous lives.  It is unfortunate that the borrowed money has not been used to promote gender equality to ensure respect of women’s rights neither has it been spent in areas which advance women’s rights such as education, healthcare, water and sanitation. Furthermore, the acquisition of loans often comes with conditions from, especially, external creditors by which borrowing countries must abide by. More often the conditions undermine the ability of governments to development indigenous policies which resonates well with citizens and consequently citizens’ basic rights are abrogated. This short piece seeks to bring to light the disproportionate impact of public debt on women and proffer recommendations.

In Zimbabwe, women constitute 52% of the total population, therefore the loan contraction processes including expenditure of those loans should be conducted in a manner that is sensitive to the needs and rights of women. This is critical for the attainment of inclusive and sustainable development and failure to do so literally means rights of the majority are threatened. More importantly, this will ensure that commitments on gender equality and women’s rights made by government through signing and ratifying of international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on Social, Cultural and Economic Rights as well as the National Constitution provisions.

Implications of reduction in social expenditure on women

It is important to note that government social spending in education, healthcare, social protection, water and sanitation is an important and valuable way of advancing gender equality and women’s rights. Chapter 4 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe mandates the government to take all practical measures within the limits of the resources available to it to achieve the progressive realization of these rights. Furthermore, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also mandates government to mobilize the maximum available resources to implement public policies for the progressive realization of human rights including the rights of women and girls. This then forms the basis upon which the social contract between government and citizens is formed. Although, it is the responsibility of the government to mobilize resources to ensure the respect, promotion and protection of human rights, this has not been the reality on ground. According to the 2019 Policy Brief on Government of Zimbabwe Social Spending issued by the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development, the government has deliberately cut expenditure on social spending in order to create savings towards the repayment of debt as well as to meet conditionalities by external creditors. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) in particular have set conditionalities for both loan contraction and debt repayment by which borrowing countries must abide by. These conditionalities include trimming social spending for debt servicing, which then translates to non or partial -realization of citizens’ social and economic rights.  

It is worrying to note that the disproportionate impact of debt servicing is largely felt by women, when in the actual sense the funds borrowed would have been spent in ways that prioritize gender equality and the rights of women. It is women who shoulder the responsibility of ensuring services like water provision are met, the services which could have been rendered by the government were it not for debt servicing. This is a direct subsidization of the government by women and it is unfortunate that they are not remunerated for that. Evidence gathered by ZIMCODD from the Constituency Indabas that the organization is conducting in most parts of the country points out that citizens particularly women are at the receiving end of poor social service delivery by the government in their respective areas as evidenced by acute shortages of clean and potable water, massive power cuts as well as a collapsed health system.

Access to Health

The continuous deterioration of the health sector characterised by acute shortages of basic essential medical necessities as well as poor maintenance of medical equipment deprives citizens of their right to basic healthcare. According to the United Nations, maternal health related issues in Zimbabwe are responsible for the death of 12% of women aged between 15 and 49 as of 2010-2011. The major cause of this terrible situation is unaffordable maternal fees especially for women in rural areas. Furthermore, according to a 2011 report by Jubilee Debt Campaign, funds from the IMF and WB disbursed in 2002 to fund the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) has not benefited women in significant ways. The increase in number of women who died in childbirth increased from 390 to 670 per 100,000 live births between 1990 and 2000. Again, this is a clear indication that the loan contraction did not benefit women in ways that help in fighting maternal mortality rate. Although there is a 41% increase in sector resource allocation in 2019, budget allocation towards health delivery which accounts for 8.5% continues to fall below the minimum threshold of the Abuja declaration of at least 15% of the total budget. The impact of poor healthcare services is largely felt by women such that without meaningful disposable incomes, women are unable to access their specific health needs particularly reproductive health care .When healthcare services become poor and unaffordable, it is women who bear the burden of providing home-based care to their relatives affected and infected by various diseases such as HIV and AIDS and cancer as well as providing care for the elderly.

Access to Education

According to a 2011 Research on Uncovering Zimbabwe’s debt by Jubilee Debt Campaign, Zimbabwe continued to pay around US$600 million a year in debt repayment in the 1990s cutting social spending on basic services such as education. The sharp increase in school fess in the education sector has negatively affected female enrollment especially in the rural areas.  While Section 27 (2) of the Constitution guarantees measures by government to ensure that girls are afforded the same opportunities as boys to obtain education at all levels, women especially in rural areas have been deprived of this fundamental right. This is mainly due to societal and structural issues like gender discriminatory norms which prioritize boys over girls when it comes to access to education. The government has also not shown efforts in prioritizing education as budget allocation towards the sector in 2019 is way below both the 20% threshold under the Dakar Declaration on Education. The privatization of social services such as education has caused women and girls to be less likely sent to school as compared to their male counterparts. The burden of providing home-based care for relatives is often done at the expense of education.

Command Agriculture and the ballooning Domestic Debt

The government through the issuance of treasury bills has borrowed funds to fund the Command Agriculture Scheme where government has been providing seed, fuel, irrigation and mechanized equipment to both commercial and small-scale farmers. Expenditure in this sector reached 1,1 billion as at August 2018 against an annual targeted budget of 401 million. Although borrowing for agriculture has the potential to empower women in terms of providing food security and sustainable development, this cannot be advanced due to systematic and structural norms and power imbalances that deny women the right to own and control land. Most women in Zimbabwe continue to lack a critical asset that they need to sustain their families and livelihoods. Research findings presented by the Zimbabwe Land and Agrarian Network (ZLAN) on the command agriculture program implicated that the programme did not consider the young people and women as they do not have land entitlements thus making it difficult for them to access inputs.


For as long as Zimbabwe does not comprehensively deal with the crippling debt crisis through crafting and implementing a sustainable debt management framework taking a leaf from the one proposed by ZIMCODD sustainable development and realisation of gender equality in Zimbabwe will remain a pipe dream. This should be coupled by ensuring governance reforms which guarantees efficiency in the public sector towards the progressive realisation of women’s rights.

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Friday, October 11, 2019 - 16:00
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