Taxes are the key building blocks of societies. They pay for the vast array of public services that societies rely on, and that people living in poverty so badly need. But when tax dodging starves public services of funding, it’s women and girls who pay the highest price. Why? Let's take a look.
Campaigners march to Barclays headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, to protest tax dodging.
Healthcare, education, childcare, water, sanitation, electricity, police, roads, street lighting - you name it - it's tax that makes (or should make) all these services possible.
Right now the global tax system is not working for women and it is making the world more unequal.
Tax could help to fund better schools and hospitals, yet it is estimated that developing countries lose an estimated $200 billion a year to tax avoidance by big companies. To put that in perspective, it is more than they receive in international aid.
The lives of women living in poverty
Most of the poorest people in the world are women and children. This is no coincidence. Men still dominate positions of power, whether in local communities or international institutions, leading to discrimination against women and placing less value on their time, their work and their voices. Women are less likely to have a paid job and girls are less likely to be allowed to go to school.
As a result, women have to take on the vast burden of unpaid care - walking hours for water and carrying back heavy containers; preparing food on an open stove; and caring for the sick and the elderly. As well as having a devastating impact on their lives and their ability to re-shape the communities they live in, this means women are even more dependent on underfunded public services.
Who needs healthcare? Women and girls.
Childbirth means that women are far more likely to need life-saving healthcare than men. The appallingly high prevalence of violence against women globally, such as domestic violence, female genital mutilation, acid attacks and rape, also violates women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. It means that women are at far higher risk of infections, STIs, HIV/AIDs, and complications from childbirth - all of which are potentially fatal without adequate medical care or treatment.
As women commonly bear the responsibility for care of children, the sick and the elderly, it’s also women who will be desperately seeking healthcare for the young and the vulnerable.
Kenya has some of the highest maternal and child mortality rates in the world, with one in 20 children dying before their fifth birthday. Millicent Ouma is head nurse and director of a clinic in Kibera slum, Nairobi. People here rely on clinics as there are no public hospitals in Kibera.
"Kibera is totally neglected in terms of public service. The government do not collect enough taxes and therefore they have to prioritise where to spend money. The shantytowns are some of the losers – we lack everything in terms of health service. We do our best at my clinic, but we need more resources."
If companies paid a fair amount of tax, more could be invested in good quality hospitals, more doctors and nurses and cheaper services that would save lives and improve the health of women and girls.
The government do not collect enough taxes and therefore they have to prioritise where to spend money.
Who needs education? Women and girls.
Education is key to women’s empowerment, to being able to engage in decision-making in society, to challenge gender discrimination and to get a decent job. A child born to a literate mother is 50 per cent less likely to die before the age of five. Every extra year of education is estimated to increase a girl’s earning power by up to 20 per cent. Girls who have completed seven years of education will marry on average five years later than uneducated girls.
Increasingly more and more communities are recognising the importance of sending their daughters to school, but if fees are expensive – it is often girls’ education that is sacrificed. Lengondwe lives in Chiozga village in Malawi and has four children. She really wants them all to go to school, but she can only afford to send one.
Lengondwe says, "I really want all my children to be in school and get educated so they will be able to support themselves. I also worry that [if they don't go to school] they will be forced to get married early and will still be dependent on other people. If they delay their marriages, it means they will stay in education and can have delayed pregnancies and get better jobs."
For girls who are in school, many are not getting a quality education due to the shocking lack of resources. Rosemary Mpapa is a student at Ndege School in Zambia. The school is very basic and resources are scarce. Many children don’t have desks and students struggle to focus in such a poor learning environment.
“The classrooms are very small and we sit three to four at each table that is made for only two people," Rosemary says. "We are 55 students in my class. I want the Government to help the poor instead of putting the rich first. I know they don’t have enough money, but they should put the children and the sick first with the little they have.”
Rosemary clearly needs a far better learning environment. But good schools cost money. Lots of it. Zambia’s government wants free education but without funding this is impossible to achieve. ActionAid’s ‘Sweet Nothings’ report revealed how Zambia Sugar, the second largest sugar company in the world, had been paying less than 0.5% tax. So there is lots of money, it's just that it's being drained out of the country. If big companies paid their fair share of tax there could be much more to invest in education.
I really want all my children to be in school and get educated so they will be able to support themselves.
Who needs safer cities the most? Women and girls.
Across the world, one in three women will experience violence in their lifetime. Poor women living in poorly policed, ill-lit slums are often at increased risk of violence and harassment, and face greater barriers to accessing justice.
Jaqueline, from Sao Paulo in Brazil who is studying at college, explained: “If I attend college in two years I can get do what I like, which is working with children. I’m only afraid of the way I have to walk to college, because it is very dark. The fear has never stopped me going to class because I have a major goal. But I go all my way praying, asking God to protect me, because I am afraid of being robbed and raped.”
Ensuring big companies pay their fair share of tax could mean greater investment in public services like policing, public transport, street-lighting and support services for survivors of abuse, delivered to meet the needs of women. This is fundamental to tackling violence, so that women can participate as equal citizens of society.
Last year the women of Heliopolis in Sao Paulo were celebrating. Their streets now have more lights, helping all residents, especially women, to return to their homes safely at night. Their victory was a result of intense campaigning for safe cities for women with support of the region's Women's Movement and in partnership with ActionAid Brazil.
I’m afraid of the way I have to walk to college because it is very dark. I go all my way praying because I am afraid of being robbed and raped.
Who pays the price?
When governments fail to make big businesses pay their fair share or fail to ensure that money raised is spent on public services, it is the rest of society – especially women and girls – who pay the price.
Local business can’t copy the offshore arrangements used by some global companies. While half of small business owners in Malawi are female, nine out of every ten billionaires are men. The majority of global shareholdings are held by men.
In a bid to maintain revenue, many countries rely heavily on taxes on products – like VAT – which hit women hardest. Taxes applied to basic goods such as soap, salt and sugar hurt women more, since in caring for their families they spend more of their wages than men on basic goods.
And when governments don’t have enough money to provide essential public services, or choose to cut spending, it is women who fill the gap by providing unpaid labour and care.
Where will the money come from?
So, whether you want to support better hospitals; stop violence against women and girls; make cities safe for women; ensure more girls get a quality public education; and support women’s economic equality by reducing the burden of unpaid care – it all needs adequate funding.
So, where will the money come from? This question should concern all activists for women’s and girls' rights. Too often governments claim there isn’t enough money. But reforms in tax policy could help raise the revenues countries need to fund better public services.
No more corporate tax dodging
Right now the global tax system is not working for women and it is making the world more unequal.
The way the international tax system works means that many big companies are not paying their fair share in poorer countries. IMF research estimates that developing countries may lose $200 billion a year to corporate tax avoidance. How much is this? Enough to:
- educate all 59 million children who currently don’t go to primary school,
- AND provide the agricultural investment (US$42.7 billion) needed to achieve a world free from hunger,
- AND meet international goals to reduce ill health more than twice over (US$58.9 billion).
Feminists and women’s rights organisations have been demanding change for decades. We want women and girls to have better access to healthcare, education and work; for the burden of unpaid care to be reduced; for them to have a life free from violence and discrimination; and an equal voice in their community.
We’re demanding that multinational companies pay their fair share of tax, and that governments invest that revenue in services so that women and girls can enjoy their fundamental human rights.
ActionAid is campaigning for a democratic global tax system that gives developing countries a voice, helps them to find a sustainable route out of poverty and prioritises women and girls.
Will you help us?
Piers Benatar/Panos Pictures/ActionAid
Jason Larkin/Panos Pictures/ActionAid