Gender and tax justice

The heart of tax injustice is gender dominance, the language of secrecy, and an industry and culture which under free-market rules has normalised the subjugation and exclusion of women.

Liz Nelson
8 June 2015

Humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being…she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other. Simone de Beauvoir, 1949.

The otherness of women that Simone de Beauvoir described more than sixty-five years ago still plays out in international, global and UK economic and fiscal policy as lost opportunities, grinding poverty and premature death for millions of women and girls. The latest  edition of Tax Justice Focus is concerned with raising the visibility of gender in the context of tax justice issues.

It is important to stress that gender inequality in relation to fiscal policy and tax is not an ‘untold’ story. On the contrary feminist commentators, economists, and lawyers have been writing about these issues for many years. Among them, Diane Elson has written extensively on gender and economic policy; Kathleen Lahey has drawn up blueprints for tax policy that takes gender justice seriously; and Mae Buenaventura has campaigned to give gender justice its proper weight in both national policy-making and in the global institutions. But too often policy-makers and the experts and lobbyists on whom they depend for advice have been able to ignore this work. Back in 2007 Caren Grown and Imraan Valodia argued in Tax Justice Focus that, while some progressive regimes acknowledged the importance of gender-sensitive budgeting, there were too few examples where revenue raising initiatives articulated equality. Gender, they argued, was ‘overlooked’ in favour of administrative simplification or goals set by the institutions of financial liberalisation.

In 2015 the economic context in much of the world is very different. Several years of austerity have placed disproportionate burdens on women in gendered tax regimes. Neo-liberalism mixes with old-fashioned patriarchy to ensure that in many societies, north and south, the cards are stacked against efforts to secure gender justice.

It is time for a re-assessment of gender and taxation and of the gendered assumptions that hide in neutral-sounding technical language. We should not be deterred by the apparent complexity of fiscal and financial policy. As in any discipline it requires some effort to master unfamiliar jargon and to grasp key ideas. But the heart of tax justice is the demand for social justice, for the redistribution of wealth, and for equality; at the heart of tax ‘injustice’ is gender dominance, the language of secrecy, and an industry and culture which under free-market rules has normalised the subjugation and exclusion of women.

The relationship between the offshore world and the politics of gender also needs closer examination and exposure. Too little is understood; too little has been scrutinised.  Nicholas Shaxson, one writer in the tax justice world who has examined  the activity beneath several tax haven ‘stones’, describes them in this way:  ‘Tax havens aren’t just about tax. They are about escape – escape from criminal laws, escape from creditors, escape from tax, escape from prudent financial regulation – above all, escape from democratic scrutiny and accountability’. 

Islands, a play by Caroline Horton, invites us to press ‘our grubby noses’ against the glass that separates most of us from the offshore world.  In the place she describes there are no boundaries and no moral restraints. The Golden Rule is that those with the gold make the rules. And those with the gold are overwhelmingly men. In such an environment finding a place for the female perspective becomes a dramatic challenge in its own right. And Caroline’s experience of the development process tells a gender story, too, where in pre-production discussions her male collaborators acted out a ‘point-scoring frenzy’. Caroline’s description of the plan and of the production reminds us that gender inequality, privilege and subjugation have the ability to inhabit every aspect of society and culture, including its movements for reform.

The story of tax havens is incomplete. A gendered view of financial offshore centres can see behaviour and gendered codes as ‘naturalising’ the exclusion of women - whether in the ‘hiding’ of assets from spouses, or from intimacy and power of social structures. Beyond the raw statistics of capital flight, tax avoidance and tax evasion, financial secrecy plays out in the politics of the household as much as in the world of public administration. Overtly patriarchal attitudes have become increasingly unacceptable over the last three decades. At the same time the substance of patriarchy – from polygamy to the domination of children - has taken refuge in the opaque world of trusts.

At a macro-economic level the ramifications are pernicious. Illicit money alludes scrutiny and denies jurisdictions, often low income jurisdictions. The pernicious ramifications fall without redress on the poor. Women and girls feel these disproportionately.  In spite of what has been characterised as ‘major strides since 1990’, continuing discrimination against women and girls has profound ‘negative repercussions for development of their capabilities and their freedom of choice’.

"Excess female child mortality exists in some countries and maternal mortality and morbidity remain high in parts of Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean • Girls in the two most populous countries start off at a disadvantage. China and India are among the few countries where under-five mortality is higher among girls than among boys. In China, excess female mortality is concentrated among infants under one year of age. In India, mortality under age one is about equal for girls and boys, but it is higher for girls aged 1 to 4 than for boys of the same age. In both countries, preference for sons translates into delays in seeking healthcare for girls who are sick and poorer nutrition among girls, all of which contribute to their higher mortality relative to that of boys. Because of the weight of China and India, under-five mortality for Asia as a whole is higher for girls (61 per 1,000 in 2005-2010) than for boys (56 per 1,000)". - United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs • Population Division, No. 2010/4, April, 2010.

Tax justice requires that we engage in broad and inclusive discussions to understand the damage caused to women and children - and to most men - by regressive tax systems and by the global financial architecture. The latest newsletter of the Tax Justice Network looks at tax and gender from a range of fiscal, political, cultural and sociological perspectives. Collectively they show that gender is much more than a variable in fiscal policy and economic structures. Gender shapes institutions, systems and psyches. The struggle for gender justice is a struggle against the forms of unaccountable power that have taken shape offshore and in the circuits of neo-liberal policy-making.

As the United Nations embarks on the delivery of new set of universal development goals and as the public begins to question the justifications offered for steepening economic inequality, we must build on what has already been achieved to create new narratives and forge new communities to understand and advocate for gender justice. To revise a familiar slogan, fiscal policy is a feminist issue.

This article is the first in a series stemming from the latest edition of Tax Justice Focus


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