Why the Panama Papers are a feminist issue
The world is talking about tax these days, so here's another tax
story for you. Asana Abugre has a small shop in Accra, Ghana where she
makes and sells batiks and tie-dyed textiles. Asana pays her taxes
regularly. Women like her, working in markets across the city, sometimes
pay up to 37% of their income in tax. Tax collectors come to their shops
to collect taxes, and there is no chance of them not paying, regardless
of how little money they might have made that day.
Successful business woman
and activist for gender equality.
Photo: Asana Abugre.Christian Aid / Sarah Filbey
Of course, this isn't the tax story that everyone's been talking
about. The release of the Panama Papers by the International Consortium
of Investigative Journalists is the biggest data leak in history, and
this time it's some of the world's most powerful people who have cause
to worry, with the spotlight finally falling on their own secretive tax
But the two stories are linked. When those at the top of the economic
pyramid find ways to pay little or no tax, the impact is felt hardest by
those at the bottom - people like Asana.
If you look at the names of politicians and business leaders in the
leaked documents you will see that those benefiting from using tax
havens are overwhelmingly male. This perhaps reflects the fact that
positions of power are currently mostly held by men. On the other hand,
we know that those who are worst impacted by the consequences of tax
dodging are the world's poorest, who are disproportionately women and
Financial secrecy and tax dodging, and the resulting lack of public
funds, threatens women's and girl's access to public services, increases
the care work they do for free and shifts the tax burden onto those who
can least afford it.
The Panama Papers provide further evidence of the scale of global tax
dodging, and of its impact on poverty and inequality, particularly in
the global south. Tax havens are estimated to be costing poor countries
at least $170bn in lost tax revenues every year. This is essential money
which could be paying for schools, hospitals, childcare or services to
address violence against women.
The realisation of women's rights is not going to be achieved for
free. UN Women have analysed country action plans on gender equality and
found that some are facing a shortfall of up to 90% in the funds needed
to achieve their goals. This is why the Panama Papers should be a
primary concern for feminists around the world.
And it's not just Panama. Recently the Center for Economic and Social
Rights prepared a submission to the United Nations body tasked with
scrutinising compliance with women's rights' treaties. It highlighted
the extraterritorial impact of Switzerland's opaque financial
legislation on the rights of women, especially in developing countries.
Financial secrecy and tax avoidance is a feminist issue for at least
three reasons. Firstly, when governments cannot raise enough revenue
from wealthy individuals and corporations they tend to hike indirect
taxes, such as VAT, which affect those on lowest incomes -
disproportionately women who, due to their gender roles, are tasked with
balancing house budgets. Secondly, a loss of revenue has a
disproportionate impact on women and especially women living in poverty
who can benefit the most from well-funded public education, healthcare
and social protection, but who are generally the first to miss out when
these essential services are not free at point of use, and when families
therefore have to make terrible choices about which family members are
to be given priority. Tax dodging starves countries of the funds that
they desperately need - meaning girls who should be in school are not,
and mothers who should have healthcare for themselves and their children
do not. For example an oil company paid Mossack Fonseca to try and help
it avoid US$400 million in taxes in Uganda. This is more than the entire
Ugandan health budget.
A third and fundamental reason is that those shifting and hiding
their wealth, whether they are individuals or companies, are failing to
pay back into the 'care economy' - the people who produce and reproduce
the workforce of today and tomorrow. Women and girls are carrying out
over 75% of this work, mostly unrecognised and unrewarded. Although the
richest benefit from this - they have a supply of workers who are
educated, healthy, fed and watered - they are failing to pay into tax
systems which can redistribute the responsibility and costs through
funding public services and social protection.
And evidence shows that when these services are cut back or never
invested in it is women who pick up even more of the slack and increase
the amount of hours they spend caring for others, depriving them of time
for study, paid work or rest.
Unfortunately this message on the centrality of tax justice for
women's rights is not reaching decision makers. Recently at the
Commission on the Status of Women, a draft UN agreement encouraged
member states to 'increase domestic resource mobilization by
implementing progressive tax systems that fully integrate gender
equality objectives,' and 'shift the tax burden to groups with higher
incomes, and by ensuring that corporations, the financial sector and
extractive industries pay their fair share'.
However, by the end of negotiations ,this call had been much
weakened. Our ambition is not, of course, to get to a point where there
are as many female as male billionaires able to dodge taxes. Instead, we
must fight for a fairer economy and a better politics in which both
extreme poverty and extreme wealth are consigned to the history books,
and in which women and men have equal decision-making power at all
levels. To paraphrase Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, it's 2016
and any other suggestion is ridiculous.
All our leaders - women and men - need to urgently prioritise women's
rights and economic justice - this means ending a tax system which
allows the richest to escape paying what is fair, and enables the
investments which gender equality urgently needs.