“We don’t have to; it is capital and the state that owe us”: why feminist scholars and activists are working to de-stigmatize debt

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“We want to be alive, free and debt free.” With slogans like these, Argentine feminists try to expose the link between debt, global finance, labor exploitation and male violence. Lucía Cavallero and Verónica Gago are members of the collective Ni Una Menos and authors of the book A feminist reading of the deuda (A feminist reading of debt). They are committed to shedding light on debt practices to show that finance is not just an abstraction but something that oppresses people in a very concrete way. Being in debt forces people to work more and more, however precarious the conditions. Debt, in other words, produces obedience and affects women differently than men.

“All financial gain is based on exploitation. The question then becomes “Who paid the most?” Feminism allows us to think about finance with a body, with gender and race. It doesn’t affect everyone equally,” says Cavallero, who researched the topic for his doctoral dissertation. As she explains in an interview with Equal times, debt has become a key issue for the feminist movement in Argentina: “Our reading of debt was born in a particular context. On the one hand, the feminist movement has energized, we have given ourselves permission to engage in all kinds of issues and redefine many areas of life and politics. On the other hand, Argentina under Mauricio Macri [president from 2015 to 2019] experienced the most accelerated public debt process in its history.

Slogans like “You owe us, not the IMF [International Monetary Fund]!” and “My wretch [pension] contributions are held by the patriarchy” have been used in Argentina to “reverse the position of creditor and debtor. We don’t have to; it is capital and the state that owe us. We have to show them the bill for what we still haven’t been paid,” says Cavallero.

It refers both to the reproductive work that for centuries has been devolved to women – household chores, raising children, caring for the elderly and dependent – as well as to the financial mechanisms of value extraction that promote massive indebtedness. , which feminism declares to be illegitimate.

After researching debt with collectives such as Inquilinxs Agrupadxs and Asamblea Feminista de la Villa 31 y 31-bis in Buenos Aires, Cavallero, Gago and Italian-American feminist thinker Silvia Federici wrote the book ¿Quién le debe who is it? [Who Owes Whom?], which features contributions from members of the Debt Collective (USA), Instituto Eqüit (Brazil), and Instituto Amaq’ (Guatemala), among others. The book also touches on the subject of microfinance.

Microfinance as a strategy of dispossession

In 1983, Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus established the Grameen Bank, aiming to promote microfinance in poor communities. Microcredit would rapidly target women, considered better payers and whose family responsibilities often force them to go into debt in order to survive. In recent years, women from different countries have spoken out against high interest rates (30 to 40% and more according to the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debts, or CADTM, which has its headquarters in Brussels and has offices in various parts of Africa and Latin America). American countries), as well as the lack of information and the strong pressure they are subjected to by their creditors, in particular home visits and threats of imprisonment. CADTM links the spread of microcredit to high suicide rates among indebted women in countries like Morocco and Bangladesh. Women represent 80% of microcredit beneficiaries in Niger and Bangladesh, and 90% in Sri Lanka, according to the organization.

Microfinance “drives previously self-sufficient populations into ‘indentured servitude’ with banks”, writes Federici, who points to “an emphasis on capturing the unbanked” and an “ideology of entrepreneurship” that encourages women in precarious situations to go into debt in order to get their businesses off the ground. In practice, however, abusive conditions make normal repayment impossible and force them to resort to new loans to meet their repayment deadlines.

The proliferation in recent years of protest groups against microfinance should therefore come as no surprise, nor the fact that they are led by women.

Nearly 4,500 women demonstrated against microcredit in Morocco in 2011. In 2015, the CADTM launched a campaign entitled Here is the invoice! (Here’s your bill!) to make the government’s debt to women visible. In Senegal, the Réseau Droit au Développement pour d’autres Alternatives (REDA) and the Carrefour de la solidarité are calling for a policy of zero-interest loans, while community alternatives such as tontines, self-managed savings banks run by women , are booming.

In Ecuador, this model of community savings has flourished thanks to the work of collectives like Mujeres de Frente and Caja de Ahorro 1 de Mayo. As Andrea Aguirre of Mujeres de Frente explains: “The loan amounts depend on what we manage to save collectively. The guarantee is collective and we generate a system of dialogue with our members who, for one reason or another, cannot make a payment. The goal is to reach payment agreements without putting our association at risk. The only rule is not to disappear. Talking is how we maintain the guarantee.

Increased precariousness during the pandemic

In many countries, people from low-income populations who once went into debt to access certain goods or services – a television, a holiday – now resort to indebtedness to meet basic needs such as food and electricity. This has notoriously been the case in Brazil, as Graciela Rodríguez of Instituto Eqüit tells Equal Times: “Over the past decades, indebtedness in Brazil has spread to households and has become increasingly daily life. The expansion of the financial system in Brazil is linked to the growth of informal work throughout the country. This mainly affects women because they receive lower wages in the formal labor market and because they carry family responsibilities on their shoulders. They are forced to resort to credit to meet their basic needs.

The Covid-19 pandemic only accelerated this precariousness, while, according to Oxfam, the ten richest men in the world doubled their fortunes. “In Brazil, the rise in unemployment and informality has been spectacular. The government introduced a grant program for low-income people which turned out to be a double-edged sword, as it simultaneously implemented programs to facilitate debt collection. [editor’s note: while the government gave out the subsidies and the population received the aid, the banks launched programmes to facilitate the payment of old debts] . Much of this subsidy therefore ends up going back to the banks. [which, in turn, ends up generating new indebtedness] “says Graciela Rodríguez. “Going into debt to pay off debts has become an exhausting routine. People are using it to deal with the health crisis, to get food and medicine, to access essential services and housing, and even to deal with domestic violence which has increased during the pandemic,” adds she.

Feminist research highlights the link between debt and male violence. As Gago and Cavallero put it, “Debt keeps us from saying no when we want to say no.”

This is evident in housing, as highlighted in the joint manifesto of Ni Una Menos and the Argentinian collective Inquilinos Agrupados: “Today, the majority of tenants are in debt. For many people, ‘becoming homeless means going straight to the streets or returning to violent domestic situations from which they managed to escape’.

Members of the Plataforma de Afectadxs por la Hipoteca (PAH) in the Madrid district of Vallecas highlight the additional hardships that mortgage debt imposes on women victims of violence. In its publication Hasta que caiga el patriarcado y no haya ni un desahucio más. Deuda, vivienda y patriarchal violence (More evictions until the fall of the patriarchy: debt, housing and patriarchal violence), PAH Vallekas [the association spells the town’s name with a ‘k’] criticizes the gender bias of the mortgage crisis, which takes the form of practices such as “the inclusion of non-cohabiting female relatives in mortgage contracts as co-debtors [mortgage holders] instead of guarantors.

The feminist approach to the growing indebtedness of low-income people also calls for the politicization of issues that neoliberal discourse sees as private. People are said to have lived “beyond their means” and are therefore blamed for being saddled with debts they cannot pay. However, analyzes of the real estate market and public debt following the 2008 financial crisis and the bailout of banks in Spain, as well as irregularities in the debt acquired by Macri from the IMF in Argentina, illustrate the extent to which certain decisions policies have led to the acceleration of private indebtedness.

Debt carries a heavy moral burden and many women succumb to the pressure to repay their loans despite extremely precarious conditions. This is why the politicization of debt is so important, says Cavallero: “The function of debt is that each household bears the costs of the crisis, whereas adjustment is something that needs to be discussed collectively. This is why we need to de-stigmatize debt and show it for what it really is. In other words: household indebtedness obscures political responsibility – of a state by borrowing, and of financial institutions like the IMF by imposing cuts in public services and other structural adjustment policies – and amounts to say it’s the result of bad personal decisions.

This article has been translated from Spanish.


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