Add Women and Stir: IMF’s Gender Mainstreaming Strategy

April 26, 2023

BY Nada Wahba

Illustration of a girl on a swing
Linoca Souza for Fine Acts

Five months after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) published its gender mainstreaming strategy that sets out to “operationalize gender in its country work”, it concluded a new agreement with Egypt. The 107-page document that details policies and conditions Egypt is to adhere to to be eligible for the loan makes a single reference to gender – in a footnote. It reads “some three-quarters of the direct beneficiaries of Takaful and Karama are women”. 

The IMF’s gender mainstreaming strategy sets out to address gender disparities in order to further the institution’s mandate of economic growth. If the accomplishment of the mandate requires measures that are known to widen gender disparities, the impact on those who bear the brunt of economic growth is softened and they are rendered “beneficiaries” of social protection programs such as Takaful and Karama.  

Takaful and Karama were introduced in 2015, a year before Egypt was granted the first of four loans from the IMF in the past five years, marking the start of Egypt’s economic reform program. Since then, its mention has become the most immediate line of defence utilised by the state, the IMF, or supporters of the program in response to concerns regarding the removal of subsidies, the decline in public expenditure and the introduction of VAT – all common conditions for countries to abide by after receiving an IMF loan, and according to the IMF gender mainstreaming strategy itself, are measures that widen gender disparities. 

The reason women are so well-represented in the Takaful and Karama program is because one of its core components is conditional cash assistance targeted at mothers of lower-income families. Similar to the instrumentalisation of the IMF’s gender mainstreaming strategy in only vouching for the reduction of gender disparities if it serves its mandate of economic growth, women “beneficiaries” in the Takaful and Karama program are only entitled to cash assistance if they can keep their children in school and take them for regular health check-ups. The stated goal of these conditions is to “break the cycle of intergenerational poverty”

State spending on health and education in Egypt has declined in real terms over the past five years. Both these sectors are female-intensive, and their diminishment also leads to lesser job opportunities for women in the market. Moreover, what spurs intergenerational poverty is not a lack of utilisation of available services but a lack of availability and diminished quality of the services to start with. The responsibility of breaking intergenerational poverty, however, according to the program, is one for women to take on. They bear this responsibility in addition to hours of unpaid work. In return, women “beneficiaries” receive assistance of 325 EGP (roughly 12 USD) a month: assistance that they would not need if the state had invested in health and education to begin with. 

This loop of the state relinquishing its responsibilities, which are then taken on by women, who are in turn dubbed as “beneficiaries” of programs that do not tend to the roots of the problem, is an old issue. It is with this same spirit that the IMF enforces conditions that exacerbate the root conditions of gendered economic inequality by cutting public expenditure, then allocates a dismal amount of 11 million dollars out of a 14 billion dollar loan to set up nurseries and improve public transport systems – that are nowhere to be accounted for seven years later – to increase women’s chances of being able to participate in the paid economy. 

Meanwhile, the Egyptian national women’s (The National Council for Women) communication machinery deploys reports of lower-income women becoming “beneficiaries” of microfinance programs so that they can fend for themselves in an economy that is increasingly rigged against us. This is in addition to cringe-worthy social media posts showcasing training the National Council for Women (NCW) is conducting to teach women how to differentiate between their wants and needs, at a time when purchasing power is in a downward spiral, and while making ends meet is becoming more impossible by the day. And in cooperation with donors and UN agencies who propose patch-up solutions to solving structural problems in the name of gender mainstreaming, and hold civil society actors accountable for implementing them.

It is a familiar story within the development ecosystem, and yet it still remains a wildly infuriating one.