“We are not the ones who owe; it’s capital and the state who owe us”: why feminists scholars and activists are working to destigmatise debt

“We are not the ones who owe; it's capital and the state who owe us”: why feminists scholars and activists are working to destigmatise debt

In 1983, Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus created the Grameen Bank, aimed at promoting microfinance in impoverished communities. Microcredit would quickly shift to targeting women, who are considered to be better payers and whose family responsibilities often force them into debt in order to survive. In this picture, a woman in her workshop in Nepal.

(Sunil Pradhan/Anadolu Agency via AFP)

“We want to be alive, free and without debt.” With slogans such as these, Argentinian feminists are attempting to expose the connection between debt, global finance, labour exploitation and male violence. Lucía Cavallero and Verónica Gago are members of the collective Ni Una Menos and authors of the book Una lectura feminista de la deuda (A Feminist Reading of Debt). They are committed to shedding light on debt practices to show that finance is not merely an abstraction but something that oppresses people in very concrete ways. Being in debt obliges people to work more and more, no matter how precarious the conditions. Debt, in other words, produces obedience, and it affects women differently to men.

“All financial gain is based on exploitation. The question then becomes, ‘who has paid the most?’ Feminism allows us to envision finance with a body, with gender and race. It doesn’t affect everyone equally,” says Cavallero, who researched the topic for her doctoral thesis. As she explains in an interview with Equal Times, debt has become a key issue in the feminist movement in Argentina: “Our reading of debt arose within a particular context. On the one hand, the feminist movement was energised, we gave ourselves permission to get involved in all kinds of issues and to redefine many areas of life and politics. On the other hand, Argentina under Mauricio Macri [president from 2015 to 2019] saw the most accelerated process of public indebtedness in its history.”

Slogans like “You owe us, not the IMF [International Monetary Fund]!” and “My paltry [pension] contributions are held by the patriarchy” were used in Argentina to “invert the position of the creditor and the debtor. We are not the ones who owe; it’s capital and the state who owe us. We have to present them with the bill for what we have historically not been paid,” says Cavallero.

She is referring to both the reproductive work that for centuries has been assigned to women – household chores, child-rearing, caring for the elderly and dependents – as well as 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 the Italian-American feminist thinker Silvia Federici put together the book ¿Quién le debe a quién? [Who Owes Whom?], which features contributions from members of the Debt Collective (United States), the Instituto Eqüit (Brazil) and the Instituto Amaq’ (Guatemala), among others. The book also addresses the subject of microfinance.

Microfinance as a strategy of dispossession

In 1983, Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus created the Grameen Bank, aimed at promoting microfinance in impoverished communities. Microcredit would quickly shift to targeting women, who are considered to be better payers and whose family responsibilities often force them into debt in order to survive. In recent years, women in different countries have spoken out against high interest rates (30 to 40 per cent and higher according to the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debts, or CADTM, which is based in Brussels and has offices in various African and Latin American countries), as well as the lack of information and the strong pressure to which their creditors subject them, including home visits and threats of imprisonment. CADTM links the spread of microcredit to high suicide rates of indebted women in countries like Morocco and Bangladesh. Women account for 80 per cent of microcredit recipients in Niger and Bangladesh, and 90 per cent in Sri Lanka, according to the organisation.

Microfinance “drives previously self-supporting populations into ‘indentured servitude’ with banks,” writes Federici, who highlights an “emphasis on capturing the unbanked” and an “ideology of entrepreneurship” that encourages women in precarious situations to take on 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 in order to meet their repayment deadlines.

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

Nearly 4,500 women demonstrated against microcredit in Morocco in 2011. In 2015, CADTM launched a campaign called Voilà la facture! (Here’s Your Bill!) to render visible the state’s debt to women. In Senegal, the Réseau Droit au Développement pour d’autres Alternatives (REDA) and Carrefour de la solidarité are calling for a policy of zero-interest loans, while community-based alternatives such as tontines, self-managed savings banks run by women, are thriving.

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 as a collective. The guarantee is collective and we generate a system of dialogue with our members who for one reason or another are unable to make a payment. The aim is to reach payment agreements without putting our association at risk. The only rule is not to disappear. Talking is the way we sustain the guarantee.”

Increased precariousness during the pandemic

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

The Covid-19 pandemic has only accelerated this precariousness, all while, according to Oxfam, the world’s ten richest men doubled their fortunes. “In Brazil, the rise in unemployment and informality has been dramatic. The government implemented a subsidy programme for low-income earners that has proven to be a double-edged sword as it simultaneously implemented programmes that 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] . A large part of this subsidy thus ends up going back to the banks [which, in turn, ends up generating new indebtedness] ,” says Graciela Rodríguez. “Getting into debt to pay off debts has become an exhausting routine. People are using it to deal with the health crisis, to provide food and medicine, to access essential services and housing, and even to deal with the domestic violence that has multiplied during the pandemic,” she adds.

Feminist research is shedding light on the connection between debt and male violence. As Gago and Cavallero put it: “Debt prevents us from saying no when we want to say no.”

This is evident with regard to housing, as the joint manifesto of Ni Una Menos and the Argentinean collective Inquilinos Agrupados emphasises: “Today, the majority of tenants are in debt.” For many people, “being left without a place to live means going directly to the street or returning to the violent domestic situations from which they have managed to escape.”

Members of the Plataforma de Afectadxs por la Hipoteca (PAH) from the Madrid neighbourhood of Vallecas highlight the additional difficulties that mortgage debts place on women who suffer from violence. In its publication Hasta que caiga el patriarcado y no haya ni un desahucio más. Deuda, vivienda y violencia patriarcal (No more evictions until the patriarchy falls: debt, housing and patriarchal violence), PAH Vallekas [the association spells the town’s name with a ‘k’] criticises the gender bias of the mortgage crisis, which takes the form of practices such as “including non-cohabiting female relatives in mortgage contracts as co-debtors [mortgage holders] instead of guarantors.”

The feminist approach to growing indebtedness among low-income people also calls for the politicisation of problems that neoliberal discourse considers to be private. People are said to have lived ‘beyond their means’ and are thus blamed for being saddled with debt they cannot pay. However, analyses of the real estate market and public indebtedness following the 2008 financial crisis and bank bailout in Spain, and of the irregularities of the debt Macri acquired with the IMF in Argentina, illustrate the extent to which certain political decisions led to the acceleration of private indebtedness.

Debt carries with it a strong moral burden and many women succumb to the pressure to repay their loans despite extremely precarious conditions. That’s why politicising debt is so important, says Cavallero: “The function of indebtedness is for each household to assume the costs of the crisis, when the adjustment is something that should be discussed collectively. That’s why we have to destigmatise debt and show it for what it truly is.” In other words: the indebtedness of households obfuscates the political responsibility – of a state by borrowing, and of financial institutions such as the IMF by imposing cuts in public services and other structural adjustment policies – and comes to say that it is the result of bad personal decisions.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Brandon Johnson