Closing the equity gap

Why addressing gender inequality is central to tackling today’s polycrises

Jeni Klugman

Nonresident Senior Fellow, Africa Growth Initiative, Global Economy and Development, Brookings Institution

As we enter 2023, the term “polycrisis” is an increasingly apt way to describe today’s challenges.1 Major wars, high inflation, and climate events are creating hardship all around the world, which is still grappling with a pandemic death toll approaching 7 million people.

Faced with such daunting challenges, one might well ask why we should be thinking about the gender dimensions of recovery and resilience for future shocks. The answer is simple: We can no longer afford to think in silos. Today’s interlocking challenges demand that sharp inequalities, including gender disparities, must be addressed as part and parcel of efforts to tackle Africa’s pressing issues and ensure the continent’s future success.

“We can no longer afford to think in silos. … Gender disparities, must be addressed as part and parcel of efforts to tackle Africa’s pressing issues and ensure the continent’s future success.”

The burdens of the pandemic have been unequally borne across regions and countries, and between the poor and better off. Inequalities exist around gender—which can be defined as the “socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, attributes and opportunities that any society considers appropriate for men and women, boys and girls” and people with non-binary identities.2 As Raewyn Connell laid out more than two decades ago, existing systems typically distribute greater power, resources, and status to men and behaviors considered masculine.3 As a result, gender intersects with other sources of disadvantage, most notably income, age, race, and ethnicity.

This understanding is now mainstream. As recently observed by the IMF, “The gender inequalities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic follow different paths but almost always end up the same: Women have suffered disproportionate economic harm from the crisis.”4 Among the important nuances revealed by micro-surveys is that rural women working informally continued to work through the pandemic, but with sharply reduced earnings in Nigeria and elsewhere.5 And as the burden of child care and home schooling soared, rural households headed by women were far less likely than urban households to have children engaged in learning activities during school closures.

Important insights emerge from IFPRI’s longitudinal panel study (which included Ghana, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Uganda) covering income loss, coping strategies, labor and time use, food and water insecurity, and child education outcomes.6

Among the especially adverse impacts for women were greater food and water insecurity compared to men, including worrying about insufficient food and eating less than usual, while a large proportion of women also did not have adequately diverse diets. Moreover, many women had to add hours to their workday caring for sick family members, and their economic opportunities shrank, cutting their earnings and widening gender income gaps.

While today’s problems seem daunting, there remain huge causes for optimism, especially in Africa. Over the past three decades, many African countries have achieved enormous gains in levels of education, health, and poverty reduction. Indeed, the pace of change has been staggering and commendable. As captured in the Women Peace and Security Index, which measures performance in inclusion, justice, and security, 6 of the top 10 score improvers during the period 2017-2021 were in sub-Saharan Africa.[GIWPS.2022. “Women Peace and Security Index” Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.] The Democratic Republic of Congo was among top score improvers since 2017, as the share of women with financial accounts almost tripled, to 24 percent; and increases exceeding 5 percentage points were registered in cell phone use and parliamentary representation. In the Central African Republic, improvements were experienced in the security dimension, where organized violence fell significantly, and women’s perceptions of community safety rose 6 percentage points up to 49 percent.

Looking ahead, efforts to mitigate gender inequalities must clearly be multi-pronged, and as highlighted above—we need to think outside silos. That said, two major policy fronts emerge to the fore.

Ensure cash transfers that protect against poverty, are built and designed to promote women’s opportunities, with a focus on digital payments.7 Ways to address gender inequalities as part of social protection program responses8 include deliberate efforts to overcome gender gaps in cell phone access by distributing phones to those women who need them, as well as private sector partnerships to subsidize airtime for the poorest, and to make key information services and apps freely available.9 Programs could also make women the default recipient of cash transfer schemes, instead of the head of household. Furthermore, capacity-building initiatives can be built into program design to give women the skills and capabilities needed to successfully manage accounts and financial decisionmaking.10

Reducing the risk of violence against women. Women who are not safe at home are denied the freedom from violence needed to pursue opportunities that should be afforded to all. In 2018, 10 of the 15 countries with the worst rates of intimate partner violence were in sub-Saharan Africa—in descending order of average intimate partner violence these were, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Zambia, Ethiopia, Liberia, South Sudan, Djibouti, and Uganda.

“As the burden of child care and home schooling soared, rural households headed by women were far less likely than urban households to have children engaged in learning activities.”

Conflicts and crises multiply women’s risk of physical, emotional, and sexual violence. During the pandemic, risk factors like economic stress were compounded by service closures and stay-at-home orders, which increased exposure to potential perpetrators.11 Several governments responded by strengthening existing help services, including police and justice, supporting hotlines, ensuring the provision of psychological support, and health sector responses.12 Examples of good practice included an NGO in North-Eastern Nigeria, which equipped existing safe spaces with phone booths to enable survivors to contact caseworkers.

However, given the high levels of prevalence and often low levels of reporting, prevention of gender-based violence is key. Targeted programs with promising results in prevention include community dialogues and efforts to change harmful norms, safe spaces, as well as possibilities to reduce the risk of violence through cash plus social protection programs. These efforts should be accompanied by more systematic monitoring and evaluation to build evidence about what works in diverse settings.

Finally, but certainly not least, women should have space and voices in decisionmaking. This case was powerfully put by former President Sirleaf Johnson in her 2021 Foresight essay, which underlined that “economic, political, institutional, and social barriers persist throughout the continent, limiting women’s abilities to reach high-level leadership positions.”13 Persistent gender gaps in power and decision-making, not only limits innovative thinking and solutions, but also the consideration of more basic measures to avoid the worsening of gender inequalities. Overcoming these gaps in power and decision-making requires safeguarding legal protections and rights, investing in women and girls financially, and opening space for women in political parties so that women have the platforms to access high-level appointed and competitive positions across national, regional, and international institutions.14

Strengthening fiscal policy for gender equality

Caren Grown

Senior Fellow, Center for Sustainable Development, Global Economy and Development, Brookings Institution

Odera Onyechi

Research Analyst, Center for Sustainable Development, Global Economy and Development, Brookings Institution

It is often said that women act as “shock absorbers” during times of crisis; this is even more so in the current context of climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and increased geopolitical conflict. These three global crises have simultaneously stretched women’s ability to earn income and intensified their unpaid work. Well-designed fiscal policy can help cushion the effects of these shocks and enable women and their households to recover more quickly.

Over 60 percent of employed women in Africa work in agriculture, including in small-scale food production; women are the primary sellers in food markets, and they work in other sectors such as informal trading. At the same time, women are an increasing share of entrepreneurs in countries such as Ghana and Uganda, even as they face financial and other constraints to start and grow their firms.[Africa Gender Innovation Lab (GIL). 2020. “Supporting Women Throughout the Coronavirus Emergency Response and Economic Recovery.” World Bank Group.] In addition to earning income for their households, women bear the major responsibility for unpaid domestic activities such as cooking; collecting water and fuelwood; caring for children, elderly, and other dependents—so women are more time-poor than are men.

African women and entrepreneurs have been impacted disproportionately more than men by the triple shocks mentioned earlier. Extreme weather events disrupt food production and agricultural employment, making it harder for women to earn income.15 16 17 The pandemic and conflict in Ukraine further intensified women’s paid and unpaid activities.18 19 Beyond climate change and the war in Ukraine, localized conflicts and insecurity in East and West Africa exposes women and girls to gender-based violence and other risks as they seek to support their families and develop new coping strategies.20 21 22

“Responding to these shocks necessitates a large infusion of resources. In this context, fiscal policy can be deployed more smartly to advance gender equality and create an enabling environment for women to play a greater role in building their economies’ recovery and resilience.”

Responding to these shocks necessitates a large infusion of resources. In this context, fiscal policy can be deployed more smartly to advance gender equality and create an enabling environment for women to play a greater role in building their economies’ recovery and resilience. Public expenditure supports critical sectors such as education, health, agriculture, social protection, and physical and social infrastructure, while well-designed tax policy is essential to fund the public goods, services, and infrastructure on which both women and men rely.

Gender-responsive budgets, which exist in over 30 countries across the continent, can be strengthened. Rwanda provides a good model for other countries. After an early unsuccessful attempt, Rwanda invested seriously in gender budgeting beginning in 2011.23 24 The budget is focused on closing gaps and strengthening women’s roles in key sectors—agriculture, education, health, and infrastructure—which are all critical for short- and medium-term economic growth and productivity. The process has been sustained by strong political will among parliamentarians. Led by the Ministry of Finance, the process has financed and been complemented by important institutional and policy reforms. A constitutional regulatory body monitors results, with additional accountability by civil society organizations.

However, raising adequate fiscal revenue to support a gender budget is a challenge in the current macro environment of high public debt levels, increased borrowing costs, and low levels of public savings. Yet, observers note there is scope to increase revenues through taxation reforms, debt relief, cutting wasteful public expenditure, and other means.25 26 We focus here on taxation.

Many countries are reforming their tax systems to strengthen revenue collection. Overall tax collection is currently low; the average tax-to-GDP ratio in Africa in 2020 was 14.8 percent and fell sharply during the pandemic, although it may be rebounding.27 Very few Africans pay personal income tax or other central government taxes,28 29 and statutory corporate tax rates (which range from 25-35 percent), are higher than even the recent OECD proposal for a global minimum tax30 so scope for raising them further is limited. Efforts should be made to close loopholes and reduce tax evasion.

As countries reform their tax policies, they should be intentional about avoiding implicit and explicit gender biases.31 32 33 34 Most African countries rely more on indirect taxes than direct taxes, given the structure of their economies, but indirect taxes can be regressive as their incidence falls primarily on the poor. Presumptive or turnover taxes, for example, which are uniform or fixed amounts of tax based on the “presumed” incomes of different occupations such as hairdressers, can hit women particularly hard, since the burden often falls heavily on sectors where women predominate.35 36

Property taxes are also becoming an increasingly popular way to raise revenue for local governments. The impact of these efforts on male and female property owners has not been systematically evaluated, but a recent study of land use fees and agricultural income taxes in Ethiopia finds that female-headed and female adult-only households bear a larger tax burden than male-headed and dual-adult households of property taxes. This is likely a result of unequal land ownership patterns, gender norms restricting women’s engagement in agriculture, and the gender gap in agricultural productivity.37

“Indirect taxes can be regressive as their incidence falls primarily on the poor. Presumptive or turnover taxes … can hit women particularly hard, since the burden often falls heavily on sectors where women predominate.”

Going forward, two key ingredients for gender budgeting on the continent need to be strengthened. The first is having sufficient, regularly collected, sex-disaggregated administrative data related to households, the labor force, and other survey data. Investment in the robust technical capacity for ministries and academia to be able to access, analyze, and use it is also necessary. For instance, the World Bank, UN Women, and the Economic Commission for Africa are all working with National Statistical Offices across the continent to strengthen statistical capacity in the areas of asset ownership and control, work and employment, and entrepreneurship which can be used in a gender budget.

The second ingredient is stronger diagnostic tools. One promising new tool, pioneered by Tulane University, is the Commitment to Equity methodology, designed to assess the impact of taxes and transfers on income inequality and poverty within countries.38 It was recently extended to examine the impact of government transfers and taxes on women and men by income level and other dimensions. The methodology requires standard household-level data but for maximum effect should be supplemented with time use data, which are becoming more common in several African countries. As African countries seek to expand revenue from direct taxes, lessons from higher income economies are instructive. Although there is no one size fits all approach, key principles to keep in mind for designing personal income taxes include building in strong progressivity, taxing individuals as opposed to families, ensuring that the allocation of shared income (e.g., property or non-labor income) does not penalize women, and building in allowances for care of children and dependents.39 As noted, corporate income taxes need to eliminate the many breaks, loopholes, and exemptions that currently exist,40 and countries might consider experimenting with wealth taxes.

In terms of indirect taxes, most African countries do not have single-rate VAT systems and already have zero or reduced rates for basic necessities, including foodstuffs and other necessities. While it is important to minimize exempted sectors and products, estimates show that goods essential for women’s and children’s health (e.g., menstrual health products, diapers, cooking fuel) should be considered part of the basket of basic goods that have reduced or zero rates.41 And while African governments are being advised to bring informal workers and entrepreneurs into the formal tax system,42 it should be noted that this massive sector earns well below income tax thresholds and already pays multiple informal fees and levies, for instance in fees to market associations.43 44

Lastly, leveraging data and digital technologies to improve tax administration (i.e., taxpayer registration, e-filing, and e-payment of taxes) may help minimize costs and processing time, and reduce the incidence of corruption and evasion.32 Digitalization can also be important for bringing more female taxpayers into the net, especially if digital systems are interoperable; for instance, digital taxpayer registries linked to national identification or to property registration at the local level. However, digitalization can be a double-edged sword if privacy and security concerns are not built-in from the outset. Women particularly may need targeted digital financial literacy and other measures to ensure their trust in the system. Recent shocks have worsened gender inequality in Africa. It is therefore important now, more than ever, to invest in strengthening fiscal systems to help women and men recover, withstand future shocks, and reduce gender inequalities. While fiscal policy is not the only tool, it is an important part of government action. To be effective and improve both budgeting and revenue collection, more and better data, new diagnostic tools, and digitalization will all be necessary.


  1. 1. Martin Wolf. 2022.“How to think about policy in a policy crisis”. Financial Times.
  2. 2. WTO. 2022. “Gender and Health”. World Health Organization.
  3. 3. Connell RW. 1995. “Masculinities”. Cambridge, UK. Polity Press.
  4. 4. Aoyagi, Chie.2021.“Africa’s Unequal Pandemic”. Finance and Development. International Monetary Fund.
  5. 5. WB.2022. “LSMS-Supported High-Frequency Phone Surveys”. World Bank.
  6. 6. Muzna Alvi, Shweta Gupta, Prapti Barooah, Claudia Ringler, Elizabeth Bryan and Ruth Meinzen-Dick.2022.“Gendered Impacts of COVID-19: Insights from 7 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia”. International Food Policy Research Institute.
  7. 7. Klugman, Jeni, Zimmerman, Jamie M., Maria A. May, and Elizabeth Kellison. 2020. “Digital Cash Transfers in the Time of COVID 19: Opportunities and Considerations for Women’s Inclusion and Empowerment”. World Bank Group.
  8. 8. IFPRI.2020. “Why gender-sensitive social protection is critical to the COVID-19 response in low-and middle-income countries”. International Food Policy Research Institute.
  9. 9. IDFR.2020. “Kenya: Mobile-money as a public-health tool”. International Day of Family Remittances.
  10. 10. Jaclyn Berfond Franz Gómez S. Juan Navarrete Ryan Newton Ana Pantelic. 2019. “Capacity Building for Government-to-Person Payments A Path to Women’s Economic Empowerment”. Women’s World Banking.
  11. 11. Peterman, A. et al.2020. “Pandemics and Violence Against Women and Children”.Center for Global Development Working Paper.
  12. 12. UNDP/ UN Women Tracker.2022. “United Nations Development Programme. COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker”. United Nations Development Programme. New York.
  13. 13. McKinsey Global Institute .2019. “The power of parity: Advancing women’s equality in Africa”.
  14. 14. Foresight Africa. 2022. “African Women and Girls: Leading a continent.” The Brookings Institution.
  15. 15. One recent study in West, Central Africa, East and Southern Africa found that women represented a larger share of agricultural employment in areas affected by heat waves and droughts, and a lower share in areas unaffected by extreme weather events. Nico, G. et al. 2022. “How Weather Variability and Extreme Shocks Affect Women’s Participation in African Agriculture.” Gender, Climate Change, and Nutrition Integration Initiative Policy Note 14.
  16. 16. Carleton, E. 2022. “Climate Change in Africa: What Will It Mean for Agriculture and Food Security?” International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).
  17. 17. Nebie, E.K. et al. 2021. “Food Security and Climate Shocks in Senegal: Who and Where Are the Most Vulnerable Households?” Global Food Security, 29.
  18. 18. Sen, A.K. 2022. “Russia’s War in Ukraine Is Taking a Toll on Africa.” United States Institute of Peace.
  19. 19. Thomas, A. 2020. “Power Structures over Gender Make Women More Vulnerable to Climate Change.” Climate Change News.
  20. 20. Ibid.
  21. 21. Kalbarczyk, A. et al. 2022. “COVID-19, Nutrition, and Gender: An Evidence-Informed Approach to Gender Responsive Policies and Programs.” Social Science & Medicine, 312.
  22. 22. Epstein, A. 2020. “Drought and Intimate Partner Violence Towards Women in 19 Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa During 2011-2018: A Population-Based Study.” PLoS Med, 17(3).
  23. 23. Stotsky, J. et al. 2016. “Sub-Saharan Africa: A Survey of Gender Budgeting Efforts. IMF Working Paper 2016/512.
  24. 24. Kadama, C. et al. 2018. Sub-Saharan Africa.” In Kolovich, L. (Ed.), Fiscal Policies and Gender Equality (pp. 9-32). International Monetary Fund (IMF).
  25. 25. Ortiz, I. and Cummins, M. 2021. “Abandoning Austerity: Fiscal Policies for Inclusive Development.” In Gallagher, K. and Gao, H. (Eds.), Building Back a Better Global Financial Safety Net (pp. 11-22). Global Development Policy Center.
  26. 26. Roy, R. et al. 2006. “Fiscal Space for Public Investment: Towards a Human Development Approach.”
  27. 27. ATAF, 2021.
  28. 28. Moore, M. et al. 2018. “Taxing Africa: Coercion, Reform and Development. Bloomsbury Publishing.
  29. 29. Rogan, M. 2019. Tax Justice and the Informal Economy: A Review of the Debates.” Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing Working Paper 14.
  30. 30. African Tax Administrative Forum (ATAF). 2021. African Tax Outlook 2021.
  31. 31. Stotsky, J. et al. 2016. “Sub-Saharan Africa: A Survey of Gender Budgeting Efforts.” IMF Working Paper 2016/512.
  32. 32. Coelho, M. et al. 2022. “Gendered Taxes: The Interaction of Tax Policy with Gender Equality.” IMF Working Paper 2022/26.
  33. 33. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 2021. Gender and Capital Budgeting.
  34. 34. Grown, C. and Valodia, I. 2010. Taxation and Gender Equity: A Comparative Analysis of Direct and Indirect Taxes in Developing and Developed Countries. Routledge.
  35. 35. Joshi, Anuradha et al. 2020. “Gender and Tax Policies in the Global South.” International Centre for Tax and Development.
  36. 36. Komatsu, H. et al. 2021. “Gender and Tax Incidence of Rural Land Use Fee and Agricultural In¬come Tax in Ethiopia.” Policy Research Working Papers.
  37. 37. Ibid.
  38. 38. Lustig, N. 2018. “Commitment to Equity Handbook: Estimating the Impact of Fiscal Policy on Inequality and Poverty.” Brookings Institution Press.
  39. 39. Grown, C. and Valodia, I. 2010. “Taxation and Gender Equity: A Comparative Analysis of Direct and Indirect Taxes in Developing and Developed Countries.” Routledge.
  40. 40. Cesar, C. et al. 2022. “Africa’s Pulse: An Analysis of Issues Shaping Africa’s Economic Future.” World Bank.
  41. 41. Woolard, I. 2018. Recommendations on Zero Ratings in the Value-Added Tax System. Independent Panel of Experts for the Review of Zero Rating in South Africa.
  42. 42. It is important to distinguish between firms and individuals that are large enough to pay taxes but do not (which include icebergs, e.g., which are registered and therefore partially visible to tax authorities but do not pay their full obligations) and ghosts, e.g., those which should register to pay but do not and there invisible to tax authorities) and firms and individuals that are small and potentially but not necessarily taxable such as street vendors and waste pickers. Rogan, M. (2019). “Tax Justice and the Informal Economy: A Review of the Debates.” Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing Working Paper 14.
  43. 43. Ibid.
  44. 44. Ligomeka, W. 2019. “Expensive to be a Female Trader: The Reality of Taxation of Flea Market Trad¬ers in Zimbabwe.” International Center for Tax and Development Working Paper 93.


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06 | Climate Change Adapting to a new normal