Balancing the Budget

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 39, Summer 1999.

Governments may proclaim their commitment to gender equality, but to make it a reality they must put their money where their mouth is, examining how resources are allocated and rethinking their priorities. Here Debbie Budlender explains how the Women’s Budget Initiative in South Africa is documenting the impact of government budgets on women’s lives and supporting measures that improve their situation.

Budgets are about money and economics. Most people, at least in South Africa, think of men in suits when they think of the economy, and of economists. This is because men have for a long time had both the opportunities and the power to run the economy and the country. They have done this — and continue to do it — in a way that often ignores women. For example, economists measure things by how much they cost in rands and cents. So they do not measure all the unpaid work done in the economy. This work is mainly done by women. It includes looking after children and other family members, shopping, cooking, cleaning, fetching water and wood.

Government policies and budgets have a big effect on the economic independence of women. Governments can, for example, pass welfare laws about providing social services such as childcare so that more women can go out to work if they want to. It can have policies that make it easier for women to get training in the better-paying work that men usually have. It can insist that women are part of decision-making when it comes to land redistribution, and that land and housing are not registered only in the names of men.

But budgets are not only about economics. Every single policy of government depends on receiving adequate resources for its success. So it is not only women’s economic well-being and independence, but their lives as a whole, that are affected by government budgets. This is why the Women’s Budget is so important.

How it all began

The roots of the South African Women’s Budget Initiative can be traced back to before the first democratic elections of April 1994. Two years before that, in April 1992, women from different organisations and political parties came together to form the Women’s National Coalition (WNC). Rich and poor women, urban and rural, black and white, and women from different religions worked together within the WNC on the ‘Big Ears’ campaign. This campaign asked individual women and women’s organisations what they wanted, and what they thought should be done to bring about gender equality.

The responses were brought together in the Women’s Charter for Effective Equality, which was formally presented to President Mandela after the elections. The Women’s Charter proposed many important changes in how society should work. But it did not say much about how these changes could be achieved, nor where the resources would come from to effect them.

Birth of the Women’s Budget Initiative

South Africa’s first democratic elections in April 1994 gave important space to the women activists who became parliamentarians at national and provincial level. Before the elections, only 3% of all national parliamentarians were women, but after the elections, over a quarter were women.

A number of the new women parliamentarians who felt strongly about gender equality sat on the Finance Portfolio Committee. Members of this committee met with people from non-governmental organisations (NGOs). I was at the meeting where the idea of having a South African women’s budget was born.

The meeting decided to do research on different departments’ policies and budgets to see how women were affected. Parliamentarians and other people could then use this research to find out what government departments were doing to push for gender equality. The research could then be used to lobby the government to make changes that were important for women.

The research group does not have a fixed shape or form. It is a collaborative venture between three bodies — the NGO I work for, another NGO (Idasa) that does a lot of budget work, and parliamentarians in the form of the Committee on the Quality of Life and Status of Women. There is no office, letterhead, or anything. It is much looser than that, which is an advantage in many ways.

This core group draws on different researchers and reference group people each year, according to areas of expertise and interest. Many people have participated in the project. Each year members of a reference group assist researchers by providing advice and information and commenting on drafts. The reference group members include government officials, parliamentarians, and researchers and activists from civil society. By drawing on a wider group of people, the project hopes to both improve the quality of the work produced, and also to develop a bigger group of people who now know about gender-sensitive budgeting. By including economists and other more technically inclined people, as well as those with a developed gender understanding, the project hopes to share skills and promote new ways of thinking and understanding.

A few people have been involved for more than one year, but many have not. Some of those involved have taken the interest forward in their own work, in NGOs, in academia or in government. The most time-consuming part of the work is the research, which is heavy empirical work, mostly on primary data. The research looks at:

  • the position of South African women and men, girls and boys in relation to the sector covered by a particular budget;
  • the policy developed by the government institution to address that position;
  • whether the budget reflects that policy (assuming we think the policy is gender-sensitive); and
  • whether the budget reaches those whom it is intended to reach.

That is the ideal, but it all depends on what is available.

In the course of the research each year we have two or three workshops for researchers and the reference group where they present their progress, share problems, etc. We also exchange work and are meant to comment on each others’ work. Other work involves lobbying and advocacy around the Women’s Budget. I would love to leave this to parliamentarians, and they certainly play a strong role there, but others also play a role, both out of choice and because we get asked to give input since the Initiative has become quite well known.

The research from each year gets published in the form of a book. The First (1996), Second (1997) and Third Women’s Budget (1998) books have all been published. Each book focuses on different departments. By the third book, the Initiative had covered every budget vote of the national budget and, to a lesser extent, the provincial budgets. It also had chapters on budget reform, on public sector employment, on taxation, on a feminist understanding of economics and on intergovernmental fiscal relations (how national revenue is divided between national, provincial and local government). This year we will also have a popular book, looking at local government.

Despite attempts to avoid unnecessary jargon, the Women’s Budget books are written in fairly academic or technical language. With the relatively poor levels of education in the country, they remain inaccessible even to many parliamentarians. As a partial solution to this problem, in 1998 the Initiative produced Money Matters: Women and the Government Budget. Money Matters ‘translates’ a selection of chapters from the first two books into more accessible language so as to make it easily understandable to those with a few years of secondary education. The Project is also currently planning a workshop materials development project together with a network of gender educators and trainers.

In this, its fourth year, the Initiative will for the first time be looking at local government — the third sphere of government which encompasses approximately 800 municipalities around the country. It will also be looking at donor financing of government. Both of these topics are under-researched even in ‘non-gendered’ terms.

We hope these new initiatives will help women and men from NGOs, community-based organisations, local councillors, and provincial and government parliamentarians to understand our economy and government’s national and international plans for it.

What is a women’s budget?

Australia was the first country in the world to have a women’s budget. The initiative started there in the mid-1980s, when the Labour government came to power and a number of progressive women entered the bureaucracy. It was these women who initiated the women’s budget exercise inside government, and over time it spread from federal to state level. (In the last few years, under the new, more conservative, government, the initiative has been drastically cut back.) The Australian women’s budget, like the South African one, does not propose a separate budget for women. Rather, it asks the question as to the differential effect of the whole government budget, and each of its parts, on women and men.

So why focus on women? The Women’s Budget Initiative starts from the premise that women’s interests and needs are often different to men’s. Further, in many parts of their lives, women are at a disadvantage compared to men. We see this clearly in the paid and unpaid work women do, how much they earn, their access to property like land, how much violence is directed against them, and the traditional roles women are expected to play. Many government policies and budgets do not acknowledge how deeply this gender discrimination affects women. Women’s budget analysis proceeds from the understanding that budgets must follow policy. The first step is for departments to formulate policies that take women’s interests and needs into account. The second step is to ensure that enough money is allocated to these gender-sensitive policies so that they can be put into action.

In South Africa in particular, the initiative has not only been interested in the differential effect on women and men. It has also been interested in the effect on different groups of women and men. We are interested in women (and men, for that matter) to the extent that they are disadvantaged. The focus has therefore been mainly on black women, on poor women, and especially on those women living in the rural ex-‘homeland’ areas.

There are many areas in which women are not doing well — many areas in which policy makers ignore women’s needs. But I think we are also very lucky in South Africa, as gender is so much an issue in general political discourse that most policymakers know that they are meant to look at it. Sometimes it is more not knowing how to do it than being opposed to it. Of course there are different understandings of what gender means, or what we are aiming at.

The framework of the women’s budget

Rhonda Sharp is an Australian economist who assisted the government there to develop and implement the women’s budget. She proposed a useful three-part framework for analysing the gender-sensitivity of a government budget. Her framework emphasises the fact that it is analysing the full budget. The three-pronged approach involves:

  • Finding out whether government departments and authorities spend money on projects that are especially for girls and women. This could include, for example, finding out whether money is spent on women’s health programmes, special education projects for girls, and structures forming part of the national machinery (in South Africa, the Commission on Gender Equality, the national and provincial Offices on the Status of Women and gender desks within departments).
  • Seeing whether government departments and authorities spend money on equal employment opportunities for women. This could include, for example, finding out whether money is spent on training women in jobs that men usually hold, and whether childcare facilities and paid maternity leave are offered.
  • Looking at whether government spends money in a way that improves the lives of women. Here one would ask questions such as: ‘Does the education budget as a whole show that the department wants to achieve gender equality?’; ‘In the agriculture budget, who benefits from farming support?’; ‘In welfare, what hidden unpaid work (done by women) is the department relying on?’

The initiative spread to government

From early on in the project’s life, there was interest from influentially-placed women within government, as well as from some of the women activists who had gone to work in the bureaucracy. Then, in mid-1996, Gill Marcus became Deputy Minister of Finance. Gill Marcus had previously, as chair of the parliamentary portfolio committee on Finance, been a strong supporter of the extra-governmental women’s budget initiative.

In November 1996, South Africa attended the Commonwealth meeting for Ministers Responsible for Women’s Affairs, and became one of the three countries which would pilot gender budgets within government for the Commonwealth as a way of ‘engendering’ macro-economic policy.

The Department of Finance is leading the initiative within the government. This initiative is much smaller than the extra-governmental one. Its primary achievement to date was the inclusion of gender-sensitive discussions of sectoral policies within the Budget Review which the Minster of Finance tabled together with the budget of March 1998.

1999 was the second year in which the Department of Finance had its own parallel initiative to our outside-government initiative. (Many people do not appreciate that parliament is not the same as government as we understand it). I am the government ‘consultant’ for this work and was impressed, in going around to the different departments, in the improvement in quality and availability of the sort of gender-disaggregated data we need. So, even if we can’t see the difference in rand amounts, or it is difficult to know exactly where we exerted influence, I think that our initiative has generated a greater awareness of the importance of measuring whether you are reaching women or men, and black or white women or men.

Developments elsewhere

South Africa’s work in gender budgeting has inspired a number of other countries to engage in similar projects. In some countries the initiatives are led by parliamentarians, in others by NGOs, in yet others by government and in some by a combination of stakeholders. In Africa alone, gender budgeting has spread to Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

The differences reflect the different political and social conditions in the different countries. As the initiatives develop, they can hopefully learn from each other not only techniques of gender analysis, but also what makes sense politically in terms of promoting gender equity in government policy and resourcing. No matter how solid the research, the Women’s Budget Initiative is of little use if it does not empower people inside and outside government to push for policies that can redress some of the current inequalities — and to monitor their success in doing so.


The Women’s Budget has made an impact in terms of becoming well known both here in South Africa and internationally. It is also, however, often misinterpreted. I have seen it referred to as it if is about a separate budget for women’s development, which is exactly what it is not. This misunderstanding occurs despite our starting off each presentation or workshop by stressing this point.

In terms of actual programmes, we probably had some influence in the introduction of the child support grant (a grant for poor children which should reach African women and rural women better than the old one, and which also does not make any assumptions about nuclear families); support for small, medium and micro-enterprises; greater awareness of the need for different housing options if you want to reach the poorest; the battle of the Commission on Gender Equality to get a vaguely reasonable budget.

The South African initiative focuses on the lives of poor, black women. They are the most disadvantaged and therefore most in need of policies and budgets that will change their lives for the better. Women will only win freedom when they have economic independence and don’t have to rely on men for money. Government has an important part to play in making sure this happens and we hope that the Women’s Budget will continue to play an important role in informing government.