My article for the Review of International Political Economy Special Issue on International Financial Institutions and Gendered Circuits of Labour and Violence investigates the gendered circuits of violence that create and sustain economic insecurities in Ukraine. In the article I argue that Ukraine is experiencing the mutually reinforcing effects of two gendered processes: the reduction of state-provided social welfare provision as a result of International Financial Institution (IFI)-mandated structural adjustment programs introduced in response to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC); and militarisation that justifies the elevation of the needs of the war in the Donbas over the needs of civilian society. The burden of filling the social welfare gaps created by austerity budgets falls disproportionately on households, and especially on women, at the very time that the war creates additional gendered labour requirements, including caring responsibilities for soldiers who return from the conflict with long-term physical and mental health needs that are not met by the shrinking infrastructure of state-funded health care.
The article traces context-specific gendered insecurities that reveal a great deal about the case of Ukraine, but it also has a much wider message about what we can discover when we actively seek out the gendered effects of policies and practices that may appear on the surface to have nothing to do with individuals or communities and instead are all about capital flows, financing, economic growth and macroeconomic trends.
This special issue reflects a growing interest among feminist scholars in bringing the insights of feminist political economy into conversation with those of feminist security studies. These are two thriving areas of research that have a great deal in common but have rarely sought to combine their efforts. As a contributor coming from a feminist security studies perspective, I was unfamiliar with the ways that the relationships between IFIs and state governments are constructed and develop. So while I was not surprised to find that women pay a heavy and usually unacknowledged price for the promise of economic gain that is to benefit the state and the nation as a whole, I was surprised at two important dynamics at work in the interactions between IFIs and successive governments in Ukraine that not only permit but actively encourage gendered economic insecurities.
First, I was struck by the explicit statements made by both the IMF and the World Bank that they exclude spending on the military from the conditionalities that they impose on state governments. Their justification for this position is that defence spending is inherently political, in contrast to the technical nature of the policy requirements that IFIs impose. This designation of defence budgets as political while other forms of state spending (especially social welfare spending, which is a common target of IFI-mandated austerity budgets) is somehow merely technical is, itself, both profoundly political and gendered. It is also a distinction that is particularly dangerous in times of war or heightened tensions around national security, when states and societies are most vulnerable to the pressures of militarisation. Under conditions where IFIs are closely monitoring state budget deficits, increases in defence spending create an incentive for state governments to further squeeze social welfare spending to meet overall targets for cutting the deficit.
Second, I had not fully grasped the implications of the negotiations that take place between state governments and IFIs over the pace and the order that governments can demonstrate compliance with IFI conditionalities. Since the 2008 GFC, IFIs have demanded that Kyiv make major reductions not only in social welfare spending and related areas such as state subsidies on domestic energy users, but also in the levels of corruption, which represent a serious drain on the economy. A consistent tone in IMF reports on Ukraine’s economic progress has been disappointment with the slow rate of change when it comes to the fight against corruption, but a willingness to accept the implementation of austerity budgets as a demonstration that Kyiv is taking its responsibilities to economic recovery seriously. In other words, Ukraine has been allowed to make trade offs between progress in achieving IFI targets in some areas to compensate for a lack of progress in others. The choice of which actors and communities should pay the highest price for the continued flow of IFI funds is gendered. To put it bluntly, IFIs have allowed the state to shield politically powerful men (namely oligarchs) and the masculinised sectors that they dominate from the worst effects of conditionalities by placing the burden disproportionately on households and especially on women. However, the IMF did not issue the tranche of funds due to be released to Ukraine in February 2021, citing Kyiv’s failure to make progress on structural reforms, especially those aimed at curbing and punishing corruption. Perhaps this is a sign that Kyiv is running out of “easy” cutbacks to make to social services. The question remains, however, whether Ukraine’s government is willing to pay a high domestic political price to secure the continued flow of international loans, or whether it will continue to protect the country’s most powerful and wealthy men at the expense of society as a whole.
Given the patterns of gendered economic insecurities identified above, it will come as no surprise that the measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Ukraine have further increased the risks to women’s economic security as well as to their health, compounding the effects of the virus circulating in a country with the lowest COVID vaccine coverage in Europe.
Ukraine has so far experienced three lockdowns since the pandemic began in spring 2020. During these periods the sectors that were most affected by shutdowns and layoffs were precisely those that are predominantly staffed by women, with a majority of business owners reporting that they have reduced the number of women that they employ. Women in Ukraine who work in the private sector are highly likely to be self-employed. But while all self-employed people are vulnerable to periods of reduced income, most self-employed men in Ukraine are farmers, and experienced no drop in the demand for their products during lockdowns.
In addition to being more likely to lose their livelihoods during the pandemic, women in Ukraine – as in many other countries affected by COVID – absorbed much of the increase in domestic labour caused by the closure of schools and childcare provision. Meanwhile, many of those women who still had jobs tended to be concentrated in low wage employment in areas of retail (such as grocery stores) and manufacturing (producing personal protective equipment), which stayed open throughout mandatory lockdowns. The other major category of women whose employment has continued unabated during the pandemic are health care workers. While the prevalence of women in the health and social care sectors is a global phenomenon, in Ukraine this trend is even more extreme: 82% of health and social care workers in Ukraine are women, in comparison to an average of 70% worldwide. If we consider the dramatic increase in reported incidents of domestic violence during the pandemic (a rise of 35% nationally and 50% in the Donbas war zone), a clear picture emerges of Ukraine as a country where one of the consequences of COVID has been that the lives and livelihoods of women have been in far greater danger than those of men.
The gendered economic insecurities in Ukraine created by COVID have only intensified those resulting from the mutually reinforcing processes of IFI conditionalities and wartime militarisation. The measures introduced to contain the spread of the virus have understandably been characterised by improvisation. But the lack of awareness by policymakers of their likely – indeed, predictable – gendered impacts is entirely consistent with the behaviour of successive governments of very different political complexions in Kyiv in response to IFI-mandated policy changes. As Ukraine has confronted a succession of crises in the 21st century – macroeconomic, invasion, occupation and war, global health emergency – the constant factor has been an ever-increasing dependence by the state on the paid and unpaid labour of women.