International Women’s Day, March 8, marks a year from the start of widespread lockdowns in response to COVID-19. As an IMF blog warned back in July, women have borne the economic and social brunt of the pandemic. With many governments preparing budgets for the next fiscal year, we now have a golden opportunity to counter this inequity. We offer a starter kit for gender budgeting to help countries focus resources on women, and ensure future budgets are better for them than previous ones.
Government actions work
Examples abound of the disproportionate impact of lockdown policies on women and girls: one million Japanese women left the labor market when the pandemic hit, while labor force participation by men changed far less. In Chile, 76 percent of women reported spending more time on domestic chores since COVID-19 began. Mexico saw a 53 percent increase in emergency calls related to violence against women. The Malala Fund estimates that 20 million girls in developing countries may never return to the classroom after pandemic-related school shutdowns.
Bad as this is, it could have been even worse but for government actions. The UN’s COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker shows countries enacted nearly 1,000 policy measures to address challenges related to gender. These include paid leave for women, job protection measures, more flexible work, and income/in-kind support for the vulnerable households.
IMF research concludes these measures work. They increase women’s employment which, in turn, improves economic well-being for all. Such policies should be built upon. Failing to do so risks long-term scarring that will cement women’s disadvantage and harms the prospects for recovery.
Gender budgeting—a guide
But adopting such policies is only half the battle. Their impacts can be further amplified as part of a coherent gender strategy that is based on need, effectively designed, aligned with the budget process, and monitored and evaluated to improve implementation. This is the essence of gender budgeting.
Gender budgeting brings the powerful tool of national budgets to bear on gender inequalities. It integrates gender into the policies and processes of public financial management.
While strengthening gender budgeting is a continuous and long-term investment, we lay out an actionable toolkit—no matter a country’s previous experience—to jumpstart the process.
The starter kit
First, assemble evidence to assess the impact of the pandemic and lockdown on women and girls. A response without a sense of the size or location of the problem is like throwing a dart in the dark. How are the country’s female-dominated sectors faring? Do women rely more heavily on scaled-back public services?
Presenting the evidence in a single document, such as a Gender Needs Assessment, can focus efforts. UN-Women shows it can be done quickly. In just one month, at the start of the pandemic, the agency performed a Gender Needs Assessment in Ukraine based on phone and online surveys.
Better by design
This evidence can be used to focus policy responses. However, the best policy intention in the world cannot overcome poor policy design. Gender Impact Assessments can strengthen that design by assessing the proportion of female beneficiaries, and potential barriers to access—in Austria and Canada, they are now part of all new budget proposals.
Such assessments can also highlight unintended gender bias. For example, a wage subsidy scheme might leave out informal sector workers—often predominantly female—or a tax policy could discourage women from working.
Third, it is crucial to allocate sufficient resources to gender policies to transform goals into action. The IMF has supported increasing allocations towards women. For example, the IMF’s Egypt program included measures to support higher budget allocations for targeted cash transfers (many to women), and to improve public childcare services.
As governments prepare budgets for next year, anchoring gender policy goals through Budget Circulars and Gender Budget Statements ensures sufficient resources are channeled to these goals. An added benefit: they also provide confidence and transparency to the public. Philippines’ 2021 Budget Circular incorporates priority policy areas, including in health, nutrition, and social protection, that support women.
Track and evaluate
Finally, track expenditures and evaluate impacts. Tracking gender-focused funds in the budget, light-touch policy evaluations, and gender performance audits can provide timely feedback to course correct where needed, and ensure that policies are working. For example, Sierra Leone’s real-time audits effectively responded to the Ebola epidemic and highlighted issues in drug distribution and duplicated payments.
The IMF remains deeply committed to gender equality and has worked with 113 member countries on implementing budgetary practices, allocations, and tax policies to promote gender equality. Since the start of the pandemic, over 55 countries have invested in gender budgeting training with the Fund.
Almost all countries have gender equality goals, but an IMF survey finds only half have legal frameworks to carry them out. Only a quarter use established practices such as Gender Budget Statements and Gender Impact Assessments.
Some countries have already implemented gender budgeting, while others are novices, but all have room for improvement. Recovery from the pandemic is an opportunity to accelerate progress and reap the dividends.