Global Policy Forum

Removing "Unfreedoms": Women and Debt Cancellation

June 30, 2005

In 2005 the issue of debt cancellation has received an enormous amount of attention, with world leaders under pressure to deliver on what has been described as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to Africa's development. The argument for debt cancellation is that undemocratic governments contracted the debt and these debts are therefore illegitimate. Repayments prevent governments from channeling money into much needed social services such as health and education. This violates the rights of people to adequate health care, for example.

Continued debt repayments also make a mockery of efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which require substantial financial commitments. As long as governments have to continue paying large amounts to service their debt, the MDGs will remain a pipe dream. Many countries are so mired in debt that they can never realistically hope to fully repay their debts and live a debt free existence. Rich countries have also only been willing to write off debt subject to the adoption of certain conditions by debtor countries, such as Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), which have in turn had a devastating impact on the social fabric of the countries where they have been implemented.

This is why countless statements have been issued over the years calling for unconditional cancellation of third world debt. For example, the Dakar Declaration for the total unconditional cancellation of African and Third World debt adopted in Dakar, Senegal on December 14, 2000 stated that debt and structural adjustment plans (SAPs) constitute the principal causes for the degradation of health, education, nutrition, food security, the environment and socio-cultural values of African populations. Debt and SAPs, said the statement, are the cause of the aggravation of unemployment, the destruction of families, the worsening of women's socio-economic conditions, the ecological degradation of the continent and wars.

It has been clear for many years that the onerous burden of debt has an enormous impact on nearly every aspect of life and none more so than on the lives of women. As Barbara Kalima from the African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (AFRODAD) in Harare, Zimbabwe has previously pointed out, in Sub-Saharan Africa, women's roles have been increasing in scope because of the impact of economic reforms, wars and crises. Women are not only crucial to the economy, but also play a key role in delivering social services. But Kalima goes on to note that women often live in difficult social and economic conditions. This is amplified by a reliance on the formulations of the Bretton Woods Institutions: "The essence of adjustment conditionality denies women the right to participate in economic policy formulation and to identify the economic models that suit them. The international financial institutions are actively contributing in mortgaging women's well-being." Kalima states that women's economic rights must be fostered through engendered human development which means that gender biases are corrected through the process of developing people's capacity to enjoy a decent life and be educated.

The often poor economic condition of women is of direct benefit to the market. Yassine Fall notes that women's inequality has benefited the capitalist system. "Women not only represent a cheap labour force, but they also contribute to the survival of the economic system though their unpaid labour," she writes. Fall argues that the link between gender and debt can be explained in the impact of the macroeconomic policies such as SAPs on women. "The very things that can help raise their status - education, health care and employment - are being decimated as governments struggle to meet crippling debt repayments to the creditors."

While the United Nations (UN) Millennium Summit provided the international community with a clear set of development goals, Fall says meaningful development requires the removal of major sources of "unfreedom" - including institutional arrangements that deny people, especially women. "Alleviating poverty, ensuring food security, reducing population growth, improving the quality of a country's future labour force, and properly using the natural resource base all depend substantially on women, and thus major gender policy analysis should not ignore this fact. Without gender analysis, there is little chance that any efforts to reduce and manage external debt will bring about substantial poverty alleviation for both women and men."

Fall makes some recommendations to redress the gender and debt disparity. Governments should generate economic policies that have a positive impact on employment and income of women workers; governments should seek to mobilize new and additional financial resources in the form of grants and not loans; and explore more effective ways of integrating gender into debt management negotiations and monitoring processes.

How to avoid future manifestations of the debt trap? Gerald Mwale, in an article for One World Africa, argues governments must develop clear guidelines as to how loans will benefit men, women, and children. The location of control also needs to shift from the centre to citizens, who need to become the mechanism of control. "Governments should only obtain loans that are sanctioned by the people through their representatives (parliamentarians) and allow civil society to monitor them," he writes. Moreover, Mwale continues, debt negotiations ought to consider the link between debt and budgeting for social services. "Last but not least, complicity of borrowers and debtors plus the historical cause of debt must be included in debt analysis," he concludes.

If women have experienced the worst of the debt crisis in Africa, then their perspective is crucial not only in resolving the situation but also in participating in the process that results in redress and makes sure that history does not repeat itself. The Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, which clearly deals with women's political and economic participation, is an important mechanism in making sure that this happens.



1. Barbara Kalima: Gender, debt and development abstract paper; African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (AFRODAD), June 2002. (

2. Yassine Fall: Promoting sustainable human development rights for women in Africa., February 1998. (

3. Gerald Mwale : African women carry the debt burden, One World Africa. May 2005. (

4. World Development Report 2001: The vicious cycle: Aids and third world debt.




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