Austerity. From the left to the right, governments have only that one word on their lips. Confronted with fiscal deficits, many countries all over the world have embraced austerity measures, giving a growing number of citizens the feeling they are being left behind and provoking a crisis of representation and legitimacy.

Demanding budget cuts, which in practice have a direct impact on public services, is not only the bedrock of populism, authoritarianism or social unrest. It is also a frontal attack on women's rights. Women are more dependent on public social services, which have the capacity to shift the unpaid care burden that falls disproportionately on their shoulders. Cleaning, cooking and looking after dependent family members — children, elderly people and people with disabilities — are still “women’s affairs”.

Trapped at the bottom

Across South Asia, women report doing much more unpaid care and domestic work than men: 10 times as much in Pakistan; almost seven times more in India; and nearly three times more in Bangladesh.

Women and girls are also the most impacted when countries offer poor basic facilities. According to a report from UNICEF and the World Health Organisation, 2.1 billion people around the world have to fight every day to access clean, safe water. And the task of providing it falls disproportionately on women and girls, especially in rural areas.

In Laos, for example, women are 83.4 per cent of the water carriers for the 48.5 per cent of households that lack access it. It means that they have fewer opportunities for education, training and work, making their economic empowerment very difficult.

Even when women manage to work, they are often trapped in low-paid, poor-quality jobs, frequently in the informal sector. Many of them lack social labour protection and decent working conditions, adding to the already unacceptable gender pay gap of 33 per cent in South Asia. Women are less likely than men to receive a pension in old age, and their benefit levels are usually lower. In Bangladesh, for example, the Old-Age Allowance offers benefits of around $3 per month — corresponding to only 22 per cent of the poverty line.

Women´s access to social protection, quality public services and infrastructure is now a priority of the international community. It is actually the main topic of the United Nations 2019 Commission on the Status of Women, that will take place in New York from March 11 to 22. This meeting is not just a bureaucratic exercise; its conclusions will define the gender equality policies that countries aim to implement in the years to come.

Public Services International, an international trade union federation, will be there as part of a global union delegation of nearly 200 women and men. Jointly, we will point out the positive aspects of the report prepared by the UN Secretary-General, especially its emphasis on a universal and rights-based approach. But we also will call on governments to translate these principles into concrete strategies to eliminate gender inequalities.

Fiscal injustice

It is urgent to reform the global international fiscal system to put an end to all tax avoidance mechanisms. When corporations do not pay their fair share of taxes, there is less money to invest in public services, sustainable infrastructure and social protection, which are the key drivers of gender equality. Annual tax revenue lost by developing countries due to trade mis-pricing alone is estimated at between $98 billion and $106 billion, nearly $20 billion more than the annual capital costs needed to achieve universal water and sanitation coverage.

We also want to highlight the essential and primary role of the states as the guarantors of the human rights of all women and girls. Whenever private companies have wanted to take over basic public services and infrastructure, such as water and sanitation, or health and education facilities, this has always resulted in deterioration in quality, especially for the most vulnerable. In these troubled times when xenophobia is exploited by many unscrupulous political leaders, we also call on the representatives to commit to policies addressed to all women, including women migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Without voluntary policies such as these, it will be impossible for most of the countries to meet their commitment to gender equality through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Women will still struggle to remain in the labour market and secure social protection entitlements through employment. They will not find time for rest, leisure or political participation. Universal, rights-based quality public services are a feminist issue.

The writer is General Secretary of Public Services International