‘There’s an inverse relationship between gender budgeting and violence’

Economist Lekha Chakraborty on gender budgeting in justice, the economic relevance of #MeToo, and how the media can help

Ananya Gouthi
Dec 11, 2019 · 12 min read
Economist Lekha Chakraborty has played a key role in framing gender budgeting in justice as a public good. Photo courtesy: The Levy Economics Institute, Bard College, New York

Economic marginalisation and lack of financial empowerment affects women negatively, and may increase their vulnerability to gender-based violence, says Lekha Chakraborty, a pioneering economist who has played a pivotal role in institutionalising gender budgeting in India.

Chakraborty is a professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy and a research associate with the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, New York. She has worked for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia (UNESCAP), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UN Women, and the Commonwealth Secretariat across countries such as Sweden, Canada, Morocco, South Africa, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Mexico.

In this interview with NewsTracker’s Ananya Gouthi, Chakraborty discusses what gender budgeting means, the impact it can have on the safety and mobility of women in India, and what role the news media can play in increasing its efficacy.

What is gender-sensitive budgeting?

If you look at the general budget you feel that it’s gender-neutral. But the thing is, there are many asymmetries in society — economic, social, political and in other realms. Unless we correct this through budgeting, we can be gender blind to these asymmetries.

There are groups of vulnerable people — why are they not accessing school? Why are they not accessing hospital? If you look at the ‘benefit incidence’ of public spending, you feel that not everyone is getting access. So, what are the logistical entry barriers preventing vulnerable people from accessing it? That’s where you have to use policies. Unless you remove that entry barrier, they cannot have access.

There, equality doesn’t work. You need equity. Gender budgeting is about equity. Applying a ‘gender lens’ to budgets is gender-sensitive budgeting. This is to translate gender commitments into budgetary commitments.

How do gender commitments get translated into budgetary commitments?

Whether gender commitments are translated into budgetary commitments and tangible outcomes — that depends on ‘fiscal marksmanship’. If promises are made in the budget and not backed up by adequate financial allocations, they are nothing but ‘rhetoric’ and ‘empty promises’. But if what you announce in the budget (reflected in the Budget Estimates) are translated into actual spending, then fiscal marksmanship is perfect. Many times, there are significant deviations between what is promised and what is the actual spending. These are fiscal forecasting errors. In the case of public spending related to women, the budgetary forecasting errors are huge.

THE INTRA-HOUSEHOLD BARGAINING POWER OF A WOMAN IS SIGNIFICANT WHEN IT COMES TO BODILY INTEGRITY. ECONOMIC MARGINALISATION AND LACK OF FINANCIAL EMPOWERMENT AFFECTS WOMEN NEGATIVELY

But higher Budget Estimates per se need not be higher spending. The Nirbhaya Fund was not effectively utilised, and there was a huge gap between the budget announced and what was actually spent.

Are these deviations between what is promised and what is actually spent a competency issue or a commitment and intention issue?

You can analyse whether this happens randomly or through bias through the research. On the Union level, technical analysis shows that it’s random for macro-fiscal indicators (as many commitments other than gender-based ones are not followed through). At the state level, it’s a mixture. The deviation between what you intend and what is realised could be the bias of the politicians or bureaucrats as well. If that is the case, then you need to fine-tune your budget forecasts. But if it’s random, it’s beyond the policy-makers’ domain and that’s — to an extent — okay.

What impact does the parity and economic marginalisation of women have on gender violence?

The intra-household bargaining power of a woman is significant when it comes to bodily integrity. Economic marginalisation and lack of financial empowerment affects women negatively.

The NIPFP (National Institute of Public Finance and Policy) has done a study on whether access to the government-run microfinance program could empower women. The findings were mixed. Women’s access to financial resources could strengthen their ‘agency’. However, when it comes to having a say in the household, women are not given space in the decision-making process.

I BELIEVE GENDER BUDGETING WILL HAVE A POSITIVE IMPACT… WE WILL SEE A CHANGE IN MOBILITY, SECURITY AND SAFETY OF WOMEN. A POSITIVE CHANGE IN DIGNITY. WHEN WOMEN WILL GET A SAFE SPACE, THEY CAN PERFORM AND THAT SHOULD INCREASE GROWTH

However, there is no empirical evidence yet of the link between gender budgeting and reducing societal gender violence. But gender-budgeting frameworks are aware of [a possible link], and it is a work in progress.

Also, all women are not equal. That should be the basic assumption of gender budgeting. Otherwise, there will be an ‘elite capture’ of gender budgeting, and marginalised women may not be able to access public budgets.

In what ways do you think gender-sensitive budgeting could potentially directly address gendered violence?

There are two studies looking at the impact of gender budgeting. One IMF study, conducted in the context of Indian states, shows that where gender budgeting is introduced, the gender disparity in education is reducing.

The other study is the impact of gender budgeting on spousal violence. The University of California researched this and found that in places where gender budgeting is introduced spousal violence is going down. All the women may not become entrepreneurs but the kind of agency given to women through their participation… it’s leading to some kind of empowerment. It may be giving them bargaining power in the house. There’s an inverse relationship between gender budgeting and violence.

How can gender budgeting improve internal security and criminal justice? What could its impact be on women’s safety?

Government ministries such as Home or Transport were all seen as ‘gender neutral’, and they would ask, why do you want to do gender budgeting? But as more research happens, those notions are less mystifying. I believe gender budgeting will have a positive impact because it is linked to the mobility of women. An increase in mobility is the first step for development. We will see a change in mobility, security and safety of women. A positive change in dignity. When women get a safe space, they can perform and that should increase growth.

What do you think of the Delhi government’s decision to make public transportation free for women (currently only buses are free but metro likely to follow soon)? It has caused a lot of debate over whether or not it will improve women’s safety. Is this the kind of ‘gender budgeting’ we want, or not?

Providing free public transportation is not gender budgeting. ‘Earmarking budget’ for women is a second-best principle of gender budgeting.

WOMEN ARE NOT LOOKING FOR SUBSIDIES, BUT FOR EFFECTIVE PUBLIC SERVICES IN PHYSICAL AND SOCIAL INFRASTRUCTURE SECTORS

Mainstreaming gender in budgets, including in the infrastructure sectors such as transportation is gender budgeting. This has to start right from the level of programme design. Women are not looking for subsidies, but for effective public services in physical and social infrastructure sectors.

In your work, you discuss how the Bill of Rights lays out a framework for gender budgeting with regard to ‘internal security’.

Yes. The Bill of Rights in the Justice Verma Committee report has provided a comprehensive framework for gender justice, in addition to recommendations for reforming laws related to sexual violence, harassment, and trafficking. But this has not yet transformed into public policy.

GENDER BUDGETING IN JUSTICE… NEEDS EFFECTIVE PLANNING AND FINANCING STRATEGIES — MORE THAN JUST ANNOUNCING A ‘NIRBHAYA FUND’ IN NATIONAL BUDGETS AS RESPONSE TO VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

How we can integrate the Bill of Rights in legal fiats and fiscal frameworks are discussed in my paper, which talks about gender budgeting in justice as a public good. That needs effective planning and financing strategies — more than just announcing a ‘Nirbhaya Fund’ in national budgets as response to violence against women.

What do you mean when you say gender budgeting is a public good?

Public good means it’s non-excludable and non-rival for everyone. You can’t prevent somebody from enjoying it. Conceptually, I feel that human development or gender development and justice for gender — that’s a public good. Human rights are a public good. So, gender empowerment or gender development, for me, that’s a public good.

When you talk about gender budgeting in terms of justice and as a public good, you talk about planning and financing strategies that are beyond just a separate fund or individual scheme. Could you give me an example of gender budgeting which is integrated into mainstream policy?

The Philippines announced that 5 per cent of all the development sectors need to be earmarked for gender budgeting, so everybody has to do it. It’s mandated through the law. But earmarking, as mentioned earlier, is a ‘second best principle’ of gender budgeting. In Korea, they have national finance laws. Within those finance laws they have articles directly linked to gender budgeting, the process of gender budgeting. That’s a very good example of how we can legally mandate gender budgeting. In India, this is the next step. Nobody can question the efficacy of gender budgeting once it is legally mandated.

When did the conversation about gender budgeting start?

In India we started this conversation in the early 2000s. But at that time the main issue was that we couldn’t contextualise gender budgeting to India. There were four stages: the first was knowledge-building, which was done in a think tank, the NIPFP. The second stage was how to translate this research into policy because we didn’t have institutional mechanisms to implement gender budgeting. This stage was innovation. Once these mechanisms were built, the third stage was capacity-building across sectors and various government levels.

Right now, it’s time for monitoring. India is right now in the fourth stage. I look at gender budgeting as a fiscal innovation which passes through these four stages.

Would it be fair to say you’ve seen all four stages through your career?

Absolutely! We have grown up together, I think. On the first day of my job, I was given this TOR (Terms of Reference) by my boss and I was told, you’re going to do gender budgeting. That time at NIPFP — it’s a complex public finance institute — gender may have been coming in for the first time and my colleagues asked me, what is gender budgeting? Is it because of your gender that you’re going to work on gender budgeting? So, it was a mixed feeling.

THE FIRST SEMINAR WE GAVE ON GENDER BUDGETING INTERNALLY IN NIPFP, THERE WERE SERIOUS PROTESTS. THE PROFESSORS TOLD US TO ROLL BACK THIS PROJECT. BUT… WE PRESENTED AT OTHER FORUMS ON THE MINISTRY LEVEL, AND IN REGIONAL UN MEETINGS. THEN SUDDENLY IT BECAME LIKE A STAR PROJECT.

The first seminar we gave on gender budgeting internally in NIPFP, there were serious protests. The professors told us to roll back this project. But the top was open and sensitive to this new project. Then we presented at other forums on the ministry level, and in regional UN meetings… then suddenly it became like a star project. The Economic Survey of India, for the first time ever, incorporated a chapter on gender, based on our study report, in 2001.

Do you think your gender made it more of a challenge?

Yeah, it was not my ‘gender’ per se — the thing is that I was handling a pioneering project, so acceptance was a challenge. Also, my own growth in this place… when my colleagues contributed macro-public finance research and I provided research on fiscal policy and gender, there were moments in which it was thought that my contributions were not enough. At the same time, it was a pioneering project. It was my struggle for acceptance and recognition when everyone else thought my contribution to public finance was not significant, as I was working on ‘gender and budgeting’.

Later, perspectives changed, but still it’s a story of ups and downs. Now gender budgeting has reached the world stage, with the UN Secretary General’s high-level panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment accepting gender budgeting as a powerful tool. The IMF has started integrating gender budgeting in PFM (public financial management) — I in fact directly contributed to their efforts, leading the project from the Asia Pacific region.

I am a macroeconomist, but my work on gender started getting more recognition than my contributions in the macro-fiscal field. At times, I’d worry that my professional skills in gender budgeting and hard-core macroeconomics were ‘neutralising’ each other! But that worry has no space now, since I am increasingly recognised now as an economist who knows two worlds — macroeconomics and gender. We are a rare breed!

As a woman, how is to work in the field of economics in India? There have been reports from other parts of the world that the field is rife with sexual harassment and gender bias.

We do not have a forum yet for women economists in India, and there is no empirical evidence available yet. However, globally, there is a positive movement towards addressing such issues. I attended the American Economic Association’s meetings in January 2019 in Atlanta to present my invited paper, where in one panel women economists openly discussed the issues they faced working in this field. The former chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen was also there, and she openly talked about the issues of women in economics.

SOME WOMEN ECONOMISTS SHARED THAT THEY DID NOT WORK ON GENDER IN THE FORMATIVE STAGES OF THEIR CAREER AS THEY FEARED BEING SIDE-LINED WHILE THEIR PEERS WORKED ON HARD-CORE ECONOMICS.

There was a sense that working on gender-related issues can be double discriminatory. Some women economists shared that they did not work on gender in the formative stages of their career as they feared being side-lined while their peers worked on hard-core economics.

How does harassment in the workplace impact the economy?

Harassment affects the productivity of a woman in multiple ways — considering that she is facing trauma day after day at her work station. If the fastest and the smartest way to boost economic growth is through strengthening women’s labour force participation, dismissing #MeToo revelations as non-economic is incorrect. Without a safe environment, women may just quit. Imagine the loss of resource and talent — it’s huge. You cannot even compare the loss of talent to the price it costs the firm to ensure safety and an enabling environment — you know, things like providing transportation for late nights at the office. They should not be thinking that retaining women employees is a liability — compared to the loss of talent, it’s nothing.

IF THE FASTEST AND THE SMARTEST WAY TO BOOST ECONOMIC GROWTH IS THROUGH STRENGTHENING WOMEN’S LABOUR FORCE PARTICIPATION, DISMISSING #METOO REVELATIONS AS NON-ECONOMIC IS INCORRECT

Another thing is that even educated women are not taking work. The main reason is the care economy burden of women. The care economy is the work there is in the household which is non-monetised (for example, childcare, elderly care, cleaning). That care economy is statistically invisible. Care economy policies are very crucial to getting women to enter the workforce.

What is the response you get about these issues from corporates, government and other stakeholders?

Over the years, things have changed. Gender budgeting is accepted now, but in the early 2000s it wasn’t. They would say, we don’t want to hear these stories. But one compelling story may be worth running millions of economic models. There was more qualitative information at that time but they want numbers, this requires quantitative data — for example, addressing questions like ‘what is an alternative measure to GDP to measure gender-aware human development’, or ‘if you invest in a daycare centre or other care economy infrastructure, by what percentage points is the women workforce participation in your country going to go up ?’

THE MEDIA CAN HELP BRIDGE THE GAP BETWEEN A POLICY BEING INTRODUCED AND THE PEOPLE BEING AWARE OF IT

This kind of research is now happening because people wanted more empirical evidence. The attitude is changing — earlier it was tougher to speak about it, and now its accepted as a framework.

How important do you think it is for companies to pay attention to the #MeToo movement. How do you think we get attitudes to shift further?

We need more men on board, women alone cannot make this change. We need to talk about feminism, it’s a question of human rights. We need feminist men to come on board.

How can the media contribute in encouraging and bolstering gender-sensitive budgetary policies?

While this is a governance issue, we do need to generate awareness programs. Even if it’s a five-minute byte or a 15-minute documentary. Gender budgeting exists in this country but there’s a lack of awareness. It plays a very significant role, it’s the last mile. The media can help bridge the gap between a policy being introduced and the people being aware of it. This can be done by highlighting the significance of the qualitative and quantitative aspects of gender budgeting and its impact on women’s economic empowerment.

The media can also make people aware that despite the stringent fiscal rules framework and fiscal austerity measures, how effective gender budgeting is as a tool to address humanitarian concerns.

There are very efficient people in the media… I have found there are many people in the media who can really do this. That’s a positive thing. They have a ‘gender lens’. The sensitivity is there, which I find very promising.

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Ananya Gouthi

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