Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Gendering – Budgeting Gender Equality: The Israeli Central Bank and Finance Ministry, and the Covid-19 Crisis

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020 0

Orly Benjamin, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

In Israel, the Covid-19 crisis appeared together with a political crisis, so I feel that a lot of the protest potential against the horrible stingy measures of support offered to those with no income (with the unemployment rate already above 20%), is directed into protecting what is left of our alleged democracy.

However, as elsewhere the burden on women's unpaid care was maximised, and incidents of domestic violence rose immediately without enough places in shelters and lack of alternatives. Please remember that our demography means that Israeli Palestinian women, immigrants from Ethiopia or the former Soviet Union, and refugees from Sudan and elsewhere, all live with the intersectional trap of an ultra-patriarchal masculinity, poverty, and the racist policy of no support, either material or emotional, as all social services were shut down right at the beginning of the crisis, and the struggle at the moment [1] is for their recovery.

Like elsewhere, care-workers in long-term elderly care were defined as necessary workers, but were not equipped or trained to ensure their protection and, obviously, not even one penny was added to their very low income. In hospitals, only those working directly with Coronavirus cases were equipped with protective measures, but all others are expected to privately purchase whatever they can get or to come to work with no protection. The teachers were sent home and asked not to teach, but the struggle of their trade union forced the Finance ministry to agree to pay for home online teaching. Still, the Finance ministry seized the moment and made many teachers redundant. A left-wing Palestinian MK (Member of Parliament) was nominated yesterday [1] as the Chair of a welfare committee facing the crisis, and hopefully the struggle for more realistic measures of support will be collectively fought for. Unfortunately, our extreme neoliberal leadership still refuses to follow even the UK and Germany in giving some measures of support for employers in paying salaries. How should we think of all this?

Between 2013 and 2018, Israel had a female governor of its Central Bank. When the Covid-19 crisis began, she was interviewed about the required policy and said: ‘Israel has a debt/GNP relation that could allow it extensive government activity even at the price of a temporary rise of the financial deficit’. Throughout the rest of the interview, she said nothing about women’s conditions during the Covid-19 crisis, and instead recommended that the government ensures support for small businesses. Indeed, no action was taken to support working women, no protection was given to existing arrangements and interventions, but instead the opposite. In its allocation of the 90 billion Shekels crisis budget, no item seems relevant either to working women or to the education and welfare services systems. The 9 billion Shekels allocated to the healthcare system is fully taken up by the need for equipment and additional MD positions. In this context, an expert committee was appointed to plan the path towards coming out of the lockdown. Among its 30 members, only two research assistants are female. Facing this erasure of women as a category entitled for any specific protection or treatment, local feminists are outraged, and collaboration between women’s organisations and NGOs is showing unprecedented levels of solidarity. Many among the women involved in the struggle understand the rise in gender violence, the female poverty trap, and lack of relevant social services which the financial management of the Covid-19 crisis has created.

Those who collaborate in the struggle see now that women are the majority among those employed in healthcare and in elderly care, that they are the ones whose low salaries provide for the government budget managers their sense of ‘responsible economics’, and that they are the ones who are most likely to be contaminated because of so little concern for their protection. Women are the majority among the young people employed by the businesses that got shut down (restaurants, shops, malls). Women are the majority among the employed in precarious employment, involving low pay and temporary jobs. Women constitute the majority among those living in poverty. Single mothers are bound to experience even harsher levels of food insecurity and scarcity of necessary products. They are the majority of those dealing with debts and who find it challenging to pay bills, and they are the ones who continue to suffer intimidating gender violence routines at home and in their workplaces.

Obviously I connect to the proposal to call the crisis She-cession or Femcession (see Emily Peck, 2020). But the reason I connect to this term is not just the list of disproportional costs carried by women in general, and particularly women of the working classes, and more so, women of ethno-national-racial minorities. The reason I connect to these terms is my realisation of the gap between the rhetoric of ‘gender equality’ and the complete lack of influence that women currently have on the financial management of the Central Bank or the Ministry of Finance.

Let me shed light in more detail on the political-economic path which could have emerged during the crisis management, where budgeting ‘gender equality’ could become a central pillar of policy, and where the following five steps could be followed: (1) Appointing women, who have shown themselves to be committed to women’s standpoint, to all financial decision-making forums; (2) Increasing all allowances, including unemployment, and all welfare support, so that poverty levels are reduced rather than go up; (3) Taking back to work all previously released social workers, teachers and elderly care employees, ensuring quality employment primarily by increasing their income; (4) Applying in practice all government decisions on violence against women, including the provision of shelters to all victims of gender violence, ensuring the funding of expenses for all those who found new shelters after being evacuated from their previous arrangements; (5) Funding the operation of all welfare and education projects and interventions.

How to achieve such steps: In my vision, Covid-19 triggers broad feminist mobilisation, collaborating with unions and other movements, questioning the financial management of the Bank of Israel and the Treasury ministry. Such mobilisation would compel the popularisation of knowledge on the Central Bank’s activities and the range of their possible actions. This would generate a broad public disbelief in the current policy. Further, such a mobilisation will undermine the pretention of our economic leadership, including the chair of our central bank, to carry ‘the only responsible policy’. The strict policy of reducing public expenses would be replaced by the realisation that alleged economic stability protects only the corporations. For if current financial policy persists, corporations will wake up to a sunny day of government support (resembling the waking up of the rich family in the film Parasite, 2019), while the 99% of the population would reach devastating levels of vulnerability and scarcity (resembling the crowded games halls following the evacuation of the flooded homes in the same movie). Thus an outcry would force the Bank of Israel to use its reserves for funding the necessary expenses for protecting women and for the welfare, education and healthcare systems.

In Israel, we have a National Insurance Institute (NII) which is funded by a progressive tax, and pays all allowances. Yes, since the 2002 welfare reform, standards of suspicion and allowance deprivation were introduced. Nevertheless, the NII provides a safety network even if about 30% of the population live in poverty, and a fifth of them live in food insecurity. The NII is an enormous policy instrument with great feminist potential, but it is subjugated to a range of legislations that trim its allowances. Raising the levels of its allowances, the unemployment allowance and income insurance allowance, are necessary during the Covid-19 crisis, with so many left without alternative sources of income. Thus budgeting gender equality has to begin by legislation that would increase levels of allowances and would force the governor of the Bank of Israel to transfer a significant portion of its reserves to the NII for covering its fast-growing expenses. Without such transfer of money, the levels of poverty and vulnerability among women will reach frightening levels.

Budgeting gender equality means facing the major exclusion mechanism which currently operates against women: gender violence. Gender violence takes five forms within intimate relationships (physical, emotional, mental, sexual, and economic abuse); and three forms at the workplace (workplace bullying, sexual harassment, economic abuse of not respecting workers’ rights and employment contracts). Existing knowledge on each of these forms of gendered violence abounds. This knowledge has already infiltrated designed interventions, projects and programmes. These must be urgently funded and operated, otherwise women will continue to be marginalised by traumas and post-traumas, which are also often transmitted to their children.

The three urgent steps I described here could promote budgeting for ‘gender equality’, but not without sociologists’ voices. All sociologists, feminist sociologists in particular, must use their voices to question current economic policies. The 2008 crisis was utilised by neo-liberals to introduce austerity policies that operated against women. The Covid-19 crisis will have even worse ramifications for women if we do not work hard to question our financial leadership and to propose alternatives. This is a time of urgency where our sociological imagination should be used to undermine the current economic hegemony.  

[1] Date of this contribution: 14 April 2020.

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