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Africa’s Lost Decade Women and the Structural Adjustment Programme

It has been more than 30 years since the Structural Adjustment era swept across the African continent, but its impact on various economies cannot be discounted. Many researchers now refer to this period as “Africa’s Lost Decade”, due to the erosion of economic gains made during the post-colonial years. Commentators on the post-colonial shift towards neoliberalism have maintained that African countries’ adoption of World Bank-recommended Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) were neither class nor gender neutral—a cursory glance at the implementation of these policies and their effects will reveal demographic disparities. Despite the impact on women being arguably one of the most devastating, it has received little scrutiny in mainstream discussions.

A Spiraling Race to the Bottom

It’s important to consider why the SAPs were necessary to begin with: while African countries experienced decolonization at different rates, nationalism was the constant sentiment felt across the post-colonial states along with development strategies that involved heavy government spending. These included government subsidies to support social services, such as free education and healthcare. In countries like Zimbabwe, in the 1980s, government expenditure expanded the country’s economy at an average of 4 per cent annually. This was coupled with impressive health indicators such as infant mortality declining from 100 to 50 per 1,000 live births over the same period. However, in other countries, government expenditure was more predatory than developmental. The President of the Democratic of Congo during this period, Mobutu Sese Seko, managed to accumulate public external debt of roughly $14 billion. At the same time, Mobutu extracted wealth from the country’s reserves and amassed personal assets worth $4 billion, while 70 per cent of his people lived in absolute poverty.

Generally, in the 1980s, many African states experienced large budget deficits as a result of high government expenditure either for developmental or non-developmental reasons. Weary of further incidences of government failure, pro-market policies like the SAPs were presented as an alternative approach to development for the continent. The preference for market-based principles, such as the elimination of subsidies, privatization and trade liberalization, was based on the premise that the market would allocate resources more efficiently than the patrimonial African state.

Unfortunately, however, these policies may have done more harm than good. For instance, not all African countries needed to adopt new policies so they could be bailed out of economic crisis—some countries undertook SAPs to jump-start the economy. In Zimbabwe, it was after the adjustment policies had taken effect that real GDP contracted by 8 per cent and basic social services became less accessible to the poor. In this case, economic crisis actually came after the implementation of structural adjustment policies. This reveals how attempts to correct state corruption and the resulting economic failures were based on misleading assumptions about the ways individuals interacted in society. So, assuming that all of society benefits from a smaller state presence ignores the fact that the market creates winners and losers—sometimes more of the latter.

Gendered Change: The Impact on Women

On the whole, African economies suffered from the adjustment policies but, demographically, women were the most affected. As the major consumers of social services (e.g. maternity care), women became shock absorbers of these adjustment efforts at an immense cost to their well-being. To understand how, consider the way the SAPs ushered in an era of user charges on education and health services.

In Côte d’Ivoire, between 1990 and 1995, per capita spending on education fell by 35 per cent as the government, under the guidance of International Financial Institutions (IFIs), attempted to improve its budget position. However, within this same period, the country’s debt burden still grew by 139 per cent. In Uganda, healthcare service prices rose much faster than the rate of inflation as the market was allowed to dictate the charges patients paid. And so, the impact of recommendations by the IMF and World Bank on more than 1.4 billion lives turned out to be more negative than positive. Given the preference for the male child in African countries, the commercialization of education had a direct and overwhelming impact on the literacy rate of African daughters. Faced with having to pay for their children to be educated under the SAPs era, many African households prioritized the education of their sons. By the early 90s, 61 per cent of boys of primary school age were enrolled in schools, compared to 57 per cent of their female counterparts.

Presently, it is estimated that 30 million African girls, many of them in rural areas, are out of school, were never enrolled, or have dropped out of the education system all together. Today, a female child is more likely to be pulled out of school before she turns 13 to assist with household duties while sons are free to carry on with their education. The consequence of this is fewer educated women in the labour market. Therefore, in the SAPs era, employment opportunities for women became those that were far from empowering as women, due to unfavorable educational disparities, generally lacked the skill-set to be employed in jobs with steadier sources of income and safer working conditions.

Similarly, introducing market-based principles to the healthcare services sector, another aspect of SAPs, had a significantly gendered effect. As was seen in Uganda, allowing the market dictate the price of social services can make them more expensive. For lower-income families, these expenses translate to additional burdens, especially for women—as female family members are usually expected to bear the responsibility of tending to ailing relatives. This relegation of women to the ‘care economy’ has the direct disadvantage of limiting available routes to meaningful empowerment.

Lean On to Lean In: the Price Paid by Poor Women

Rising costs and shrinking safety nets, two major effects of SAPs, had varying impacts on urban and rural women. Studies have revealed that only 45 per cent of girls from the poorest quintile of households in Côte d’Ivoire were receiving primary education in 1995. As the cost of education and healthcare rose, girls from middle and high-income households were less likely to be pulled out of school than girls growing up in poorer households. For these girls, education or quality healthcare did not put as much strain on total household income. However, this meant that as more women in the cities began to lean in to participate in the official labour market, they began to lean on rural women to perform domestic work. The fact that women were expected to fill this gap in social services even in urban cities stems from the deep-rooted belief that only women should carry out reproductive work (which is largely unpaid or underpaid). As such, women from low-income households were exploited for their labour and continue to be till this day.

Lugalla also argues that though the major objectives of the SAPs were to maintain macroeconomic equilibrium and harmonize the balance of payments (the difference between a country’s inflows and outflows), it led to “a system of progressive devaluation”. This effectively hampered the education and healthcare sectors—the largest employers of women as teachers and nurses. It then eroded real income rates of households and increased poverty. Lugalla also contends that it led to chronic malnutrition in children, increased maternal mortality and hastened rural-urban migration, making many African nations demographically unbalanced.

In Tanzania, for example, as at 1978, women constituted 52 per cent of the population and 86.7 per cent of Tanzanians lived in rural areas. Of this population, 97.8 per cent engaged in farm-related work. In 1981, the Tanzanian government prepared a stabilization measure called the National Economic Survival Programme (NESP), which catered to rural farmers. The NESP called for improvement of transport links, importation of mechanized farming machinery to improve imports and boost domestic food stability. This ran from 1981 to 1982 and was then integrated into the Structural Adjustment Programme between 1982 and 1985. However, the SAPs encouraged an export drive thus leading to a shift in expenditure from “the non-tradable domestic food sector to the tradable sector (cash crops)”. This led to massive changes in land allocation and use, and increased the burden placed on women, usually through increased workload and reduced welfare. For instance, according to Tibaijuka, switching land resources to export-crops constrained the amount of land available to women, as was the case with the introduction of tea in Tanzania’s Kagera region.

Going Forward

By exacerbating the divide between cultural norms that govern female and male economic activities, International Financial Institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank influenced the trajectory of African societies. It should come as no surprise that any form of socio-economic intervention will not have similar impacts across both genders. This is clearly a point that was missed during the adjustment era and, as a result, Africa’s Lost Decade meant grave losses for the continent’s women. To prevent such disparities, going forward, more intersectional approaches that recognize and highlight the constraints facing women in domestic and public domains must be embraced within policy prescriptions