Liz Nelson ■ Do women go unseen in tax justice?

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Black and white photo of a blurred people crossing a road

Imagine if over 50 per cent of the world’s population were cast with an invisibility that impacts their birth, their childhood, their working life, their parenting life, their caring life, their mental and physical health and well-being, and their death? Less hard to imagine, perhaps, if you are one of the women represented in that majority.

On International Women’s Day the tax justice movement must ask: do we sufficiently acknowledge and address women’s invisibility as part of our tax ‘justice’ work. Here are three ways in which women go unseen.

The world’s great invisible economy: unpaid care work

There are over 2 billion people in the world in need of care – that’s more than the number of people on Facebook and more than the number of cars in the world. The majority of care work provided in the world, however, is provide by women and girls for no pay – often women and girls from already marginalised groups, ie unemployed, poor, disabled, uneducated. Care work is just one example of a substantive role played by women and girls which is highly undervalued to the point of invisibility. The ILO’s excellent report on this sets out the growing challenges, inequities and human rights issues within the so called care economy where:

“In 2015, there were 2.1 billion people in need of care (1.9 billion children under the age of 15, of whom 0.8 billion were under six years of age, and 0.2 billion older persons aged at or above their healthy life expectancy). By 2030, the number of care recipients is predicted to reach 2.3 billion”

In 2013 in Mexico, the economic value of unpaid care and domestic work as a percentage of GDP was greater than mining, construction, and transportation and storage combined.

The ILO report makes the point that unless these care needs are properly resourced, global inequalities will continue to grow. Women are not only undervalued for their care role, as mothers they are penalised because of the impact on short term earnings and lifetime earnings for having children. This is even the case in highly developed social democratic countries. It has a uniquely gendered impact. Until care work is seen and valued for its fundamental and growing importance, those in care, and the women providing unpaid care, will continue to need well-resourced social protections that are often largely absent.

Regressive tax cuts cut women out of the democratic process

The invisibility of women is perpetuated when women exist ‘outside’ the tax system. The continuing populist trend in many countries of lowering income tax thresholds means the tax system fails women in its vital role of strengthening the bond between citizen and government in representative democracy. Tax underpins the social contract and for many women that is a right denied them. As countries’ tax bases shrink, so does the space for addressing gender inequalities and holding government accountable.

The erasure of women via the erosion of income and corporate tax is compounded by women’s invisibility in decisions to increase VAT to make the difference. The lack of gender disaggregated data means the true impact of regressive tax regimes on women goes unseen. According to the UN, only 13 per cent of countries dedicate any budget to compiling gender statistics.

New tools for speaking up, old rules for who speaks

As people across the world go online to mark and celebrate International Women’s Day, it’s worth highlighting how traditional gender roles continue to play out undisturbed in digital communications:

“Gender norms infiltrate digital communication today as powerfully (and as detrimentally to women) as they do in-person, show decades of linguistic analysis.”

Gender bias can both shadow and be engrained in new and different forms of digital communication. The ‘mansplaining’ in the networking meeting, the ‘manel’ at the conference, both are behaviours that can be mirrored in digital spaces. These spaces are ours for communicating, for creating, for sharing knowledge and expertise.  They are amongst our most important tools for moving our work forward. Regardless of the place or the space, we limit the nature of tax justice without challenging old patterns of gender bias

We need to be better, more rigorous in measuring women’s lives and we need to do this before when we recalibrate a system which is not fit for purpose. We need to challenge ourselves and others and be better at ‘seeing’ women’s invisibility in our advocacy and in our practice, in our institutions as well as in those we seek to influence.

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