IFI governance


The IMF Gender Strategy – Making the Economy Work for Women?

13 April 2022 | Minutes


  • Moderator: Emma Burgisser, ChristianAid
  • Panelist 1: Bhumika Muchhala, Third World Network
  • Panelist 2: Mariama Williams, DAWN
  • Panelist 3: Jessica Mandanda, For Equality
  • IMF Speaker: Ratna Sahay, Deputy Director of the IMF’s Monetary and Capital Markets Department


A video recording of the event can be found here.

Emma Burgisser: *Welcomes and introductions*.

We’re just over two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, which has brought to the fore the many ways in which macroeconomic conditions and policy decisions shape the lives and realisation of the rights of women across the world. As the IMF has noted, the pandemic has put decades of progress on gender equality under threat. Long-term lacking investment in care, health and social protection systems, paired with a persistent sexual division of labour, meant that women became shock absorbers of this crisis – as they so often do – in ways that largely remain invisible to macroeconomic policymakers. As the immediate pandemic responses turn to longer-term macroeconomic strategies for the recovery, in which the Global South faces an incredibly constrained fiscal environment and alarming levels of debt distress, paired with an unfolding climate crisis also making demands for resources, it has never been more urgent for macroeconomic policymaking to get rid of its gender-blind biases, fully recognise and value women’s work and pursue the realisation of women’s rights.

It is timely to be talking about the IMF’s first gender strategy. We know the IMF has impacted the lives of women and girls in the Global South and we stand in solidarity with their struggle, but this event will focus on the IMF’s new gender strategy. The Fund’s approach to gender has been somewhat ‘ad hoc’ before the creation of this strategy. We are now ten years into the IMF’s work on gender, and we are pleased they are focusing on gender in the long term and want to know now what the ambition is moving forward. This is intended to be a flowing discussion. Ratna, please can you tell us what will be in the strategy, and talk about the challenges that might be ahead?


Ratna Sahay: The Fund’s engagement on gender fills a gap in existing macroeconomic policy, as the mandate of most other institutions have a microeconomic focus. The IMF is fully committed to creating policies that close gender gaps. The world is now facing a dual shock; the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Food prices have risen by more than 60% in last two years and energy prices have skyrocketed. Countries are trying to contain shock after Covid-19 and manage inflation. Most countries are facing fiscal constraint after public spending during Covid-19. 

Key focuses are climate change, digital money, fragile and conflict affected states and gender inclusion. The strategy is ambitious but we are working with very limited resources, so this is a big challenge. The second big challenge is that we need to develop internal expertise, models and toolkits. This will take time to implement but we are working with international partners. The proposed strategy will be presented to the IMF board in mid June and it has already had extensive feedback from internal staff and external consultants. More than 25 CSOs (civil society organisations) provided feedback to our website and more than 40 CSOs participated in a consultation last month, and we have also received written feedback. 

We have heard civil society feedback and are finding ways to incorporate it, but we must be most focused on the key macroeconomic gaps in gender disparity. It is a two-way street; improving women’s access going hand in hand with financial growth and lowering inequality. We also want better and more inclusive economic outcomes. We are focused on increased engagement with CSOs and academics. This builds on the approach we had from 2015-2019. We launched the financial access survey which initiated gender-disaggregated data. 

Governance gaps require prioritisation. We are proposing a robust governance framework and internal organisational set up to take our work agenda forward. Our limited resources mean we need to engage with external partners to facilitate the delivery of our strategy. Our approach is ambitious but the implementation will be gradual. When it comes to freezing off our strategy, we must close off the data and analytical gaps, increase our coverage, then mainstream gender. 


Emma Question to Bhumika: You’ve seen the outline of the concept note of the strategy and have been closely working with women’s groups and other civil society organisations to coordinate responses. Can you give us your 5-minute take on how well you think the strategy tackles the major challenges to women’s rights of our time, and what might still be missing or its getting wrong?


Bhumika Muchhala: The IMF’s gender strategy acknowledges there is no more urgent time to address it’s lack of previous gender sensitivity. We appreciate this work being taken on. 

The upcoming global crisis is usually managed with fiscal measures, austerity etcetera. We, as Civil Society, find it critical that the Fund addresses the issue of fiscal consolidation: PRGT, extended fund facility, it’s emergency Covid-19 financing. The were conditionality free but were followed up with conditional loans and surveillance. 

There is a diminished access to public service, increased cost of living, loss of livelihoods, increased exploitative labour. The usual fiscal consolidation frameworks goes against the IMF’s aim of formalising women’s labour. It directly targets the resilience of public systems and this is important; the global pandemic showed us that public healthcare and education are key to managing the shock of pandemics. 

Debt crises and defaults are happening due to tightening monetary conditions, tightening interest rates etcetera. One key example: extended fund in Ecuador. They reduced their funding for state healthcare by 60%. There was a profound irony as Ecuador took on an EFF (Extended Fund Facility) loan to restructure existing debt with IMF lenders. Consumer debt, particularly among women, soared. Private banks provided almost $2bn in new loans and an increase of 12% per month. Women have formed resistance strategies to create savings communities to help repay financial obligations to banks. Women may then fall into the hands of local loan sharks if they are unable to pay their loans which they took out to access healthcare and education. 


Emma Question to Mariama: What do you think the opportunities are for the IMF to advance gender equality and women’s rights in the process of developing this gender strategy? Do you see the work of feminist economists reflected in the outline and how can the relationship between feminist economists and the IMF be strengthened?


Mariama Williams: It is hard for me to accept the IMF has resource constraints. The structural adjustment process is still ongoing in Ecaudor to this day. Self-awareness in understanding our weaknesses and strengths is pivotal for organisations. The IMF broadly influences who and how much is spent. It is clear that the gender strategy is a long time coming; it is necessary but not sufficient given the scope of what we are talking about. We must recognise that women and men’s wellbeing are equally linked and are critical to the mission of the IMF. Bhumika has shown how critical the space for discussion to deal with shocks is. As a feminist economist I am cautious of parts of it; gender is not about fixing gaps but transforming the system and this is a step towards transforming the governance structure, the research of the IMF and it’s modelling framework of the IMF. There is a need to deepen its analysis. Gender-sensitive analysis is great but we would also like to see more about gender-sensitive indicators. There is at least 20-30 years of work by feminist economists to be built on by the IMF. The strategy will not do it’s job if it is not calibrated by new goals. I know the IMF has not been great at acknowledging the points Bhumika has made. The system and the way the IMF functions has done a great deal of harm; you must now agree ‘do no harm’ and acknowledge where things went wrong. Think about debt, money-marketing and fiscal consolidation. There are concerns that we know the weight the IMF carries in developing countries and I am concerned about what constitutes gender inequality in the ‘macro critical’ context. We want to see the strategy really embedded and we must see a high level person such as Ratna talk about this. 

We have to be careful not only about the intersection of gender and climate but also the fiscal dimension of climate finance. There is a commitment to ensure the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) are achieved. It’s not just about gender ‘gaps’; if we fix the gaps of labour force participation, this doesn’t fix issues of discrimination, wages, labour conditions etcetera. The IMF should support this transformative change. Fundamentally, women’s empowerment are about what feminist economists say: we should fully recognise the human rights of women. Rethinking assumptions about what public investment is: investing in public structures. IMF should think about redistribution policy; post Covid and war, it should do ex-ante and ex-post assessment on it’s own policies to safeguard human rights and promote gender equality. 

I see the work of feminist economists is to do assessments, we must infuse a respect of the work that exists; utilising the work of feminist economists and journals from developing countries. The majority of women in developing countries are in informal work. We have to reconceptualise social protection and the collaboration must be wider than ‘usual suspects’. The fiscal cap is not a blunt instrument, must be embedded with progressive taxation, social spending etc. 


Emma Question for Jessica: Of course, ultimately, none of this matters if change isn’t felt on the ground, in the lives of the men and women the IMF serves. In Malawi, the IMF has recently recommended the government enhance fiscal discipline over the medium term and rationalise public expenditure, including by restraining growth in the public wage bill, where we know women are disproportionately located in the health, education and social services sectors. Jessica, can you give us a sense of the struggles women in Malawi face right now in terms of realising their rights, especially their right to education, their right to healthcare?


Jessica Mandanda: The healthcare system in Malawi: it has been poor and has worsened during the pandemic, we also have a cholera and polio outbreak. The Malawi government with conditions from IMF and World Bank moved on to freeze employment. It has a high population and there is a lack of doctors. The burden of informal healthcare is falling on women. 

Jessica gives example of a woman in Malawi facing difficulties which outlines the physical realities of austerity on women. Lived experiences should be at the heart of the IMF’s strategy. Those who are struggling on the ground then pay high taxes to service IMF loans. The Malawi public education system is broken. Ratio of teachers to student is very poor. This pushes people to using private education systems. Many people who are meant to access public education cannot because of additional costs. Women are responsible for the education and care of children. These experiences must be the driving force of the gender strategy. 


Emma: These stories illustrate the qualitative data that the IMF uses in a way that is real. 



Q&A Session

Young Women’s Movement: 

How is the IMF integrating continental and regional strategies? Focusing on Africa, we are mostly looking at redistribution and restorative justice. How will you integrate the objectives of Africa itself? 

How is the IMF monitoring funds in various nations? They have policies and structures in place, but how is implementation done? In my country, we pay more attention to the urban sector and neglect the rural sector where social services are left. Most of the population lives in rural communities. 

The talking has been going on, so let’s put it into actions. 


Attiya Waris: We are concerned by the interdependence between human rights and financing. Gender affects the right to work. The IMF have a history of staff who haven’t looked at gender; how will you retrain staff internally so they are aware? 


Friederike Strub: We have often heard from the Fund that it is not part of their mandate to realise human rights but to encourage growth. But the Fund should support members for progressive domestic mobilisation, and sign up for Treaties (CEDAW framework etcera), so the Fund could look at the CEDAW country review at the beginning of a mission and consider macroeconomic barriers. There are other areas of macro criticality where the Fund agrees it should identify barriers (climate). There are concrete things to be done in Civil Society: women’s rights organisations on the ground are not often part of monitoring missions, so surveillance mission dates could be posted ahead of time. Have a dedicated women’s rights liaison. 


Alicia Giron: In Latin American countries, women spend a lot of time working on care responsibilities while also working in formal and informal economies too. Look at the policy of central banks, since the financial crisis. The issue is how banks put in austerity and structural adjustment programmes. Huge budgets for countries to pay external debts and as a consequence are reducing social services like health budgets etcetera.


Part 2:  What next steps do we need?

Emma: As we’ve heard, the problems facing us are significant and addressing them is urgent. The macroeconomic policy decisions that the IMF is taking every day here in DC are being felt by women and men across the world. How we can go from platitudes and ideas to action, be bold in our thinking and in the operationalisation of the gender strategy, how do we prevent the worst harms today and what are the barriers for doing so?

Just to be concrete, we’ve all talked a lot about the need for the IMF to have the ability to measure and understand the gendered impacts of macroeconomic policy reforms, to be able to support its members in making informed decisions in this regard. But in practice, it seems we’re quite far off the IMF actually systematically conducting gender impact assessments across the board of its core macroeconomic policy advice in lending and surveillance, so what can we do to speed that up and take interim measures in the meantime?


Question to Mariama: How can the IMF work more closely with feminist economists in practice and better draw from the wealth of experience and knowledge that community has?  



Concrete suggestions for cooperating with feminist economists, e.g.:

    • Standing and informal Technical Expert advisory group(s), which has diverse compositions, including participants from the global south (LDCs, SIDS, Africa etc.), CSO advocates as well as other technical experts with a history at exploring GE/WE in the context of financial policies, financial crises and the impact of IMF type supported programmes.
    • Feminist economist(s) to be hired as research staff specifically to support regional teams to undertake gender impact assessments of macroeconomic policy reforms proposed by IMF staff in surveillance and lending.
    • Feminist economist-led training for IMF staff and its research division must also be encourage to be more inclusive in their research and modelling to include works in peer reviewed academic journal such as Feminist Economics, WD, CJE, as well as highly respected journals in Southern Universities and Think Tanks.


Emma Question to Jessica: We’re very appreciative of the opportunity to engage with each other and the IMF on these issues on this panel today, and the openness of the IMF staff working on gender issues. At the same time, one-off panel discussions in a CSPF, that are usually held in DC, cannot be the only way in which the IMF hears from the communities that its policies affect. Can you share a little bit about how you see decision-making at the IMF and how participation of women and affected communities in IMF decision-making at the local and national level could be strengthened?



  • Macrostructural issues are fundamentally about dismantling structural inequalities in favour of those that have been systematically marginalised and disproportionately impacted by economic inequality, gender inequality, and climate change. Engagement with these types of groups in macrostructural policies is therefore even more critical, especially in recognition of the fact that the Fund has historically lacked gender expertise and legitimacy. Engagement with women’s rights and informal worker’s organisations has remained limited in surveillance and lending programmes. In order to achieve its stated objectives and achieve transformative results on the ground, it is imperative that the Fund seek and benefit from the input of women’s rights groups as it designs and evaluates its policies, as well as trade unions and civil society more broadly.
  • To do so more effectively, the Fund should instate a dedicated WRO liaison – similar to the existing wider CSO liaison – with the specific mandate to improve outreach & engagement with more marginal voices
  • We recommend a review of the 2015 Guidelines on the IMF Staff Engagement with Civil Society Organizations with a view to strengthen and systematise country-level surveillance staff engagement with civil society and women’s rights organisations specifically on macrostructural issues.


Emma Question to Bhumika: Can you give us just three/four concrete steps you think are critical that are required to make this strategy development process meaningful? 



  • Want to follow up on two things: Collaboration & budget. Collaboration has to be made concrete in explicit MOUs (&include CEDAW not just WB)

We talk a lot about consultation, the Fund needs to consult with feminist economists who have produced a canon of work on poverty, public expenditure and fiscal policy, but also the ILO, CEDAW, UNICEF, UN Women. Large institutions are usually focused on managing dissent and manufacturing consent. This should go beyond mere consultation and be responsive to actual community narratives. Debt sustainability assessments is what undergirds fiscal consolidation. This is what ensures payment of debt to financers so that developing countries continue to seek external lending. We have an exploding debt crisis around the world and developing countries are spending their dropping public revenue on debt rather than key social services. We need genuine debt crisis resolution and burden-sharing, addressing unsustainable and illegitimate debt including debt cancellation. I support our colleagues in the Gender and Tax working group on the need for progressive taxation and the role the IMF can pay in structural policy by taxing income and profits. 


Emma Question to Ratna: 

  • Given this will continue to be a long journey for the IMF, what can IMF staff do different today to help mitigate harm of macroeconomic policy decisions taken in the context of the pandemic recovery, other than further promoting targeting social protection measures, which of course falls far short of what is needed at this critical time?
  • What role do you see for civil society, feminists and women’s rights organisations to share their wealth of expertise and experiences, hold the IMF accountable to its commitments and set clear expectations?
  • I also want to give you the opportunity to respond to the issues the other speakers raised.


Ratna: Thank you, the suggestion that many made earlier about having a network of feminist economists: we want to take this on and figure out how we will do this. Secondly, our strategy will be approved in mid-June. After this, we must prepare interim guidance and the suggestions that Friederike and others have made about talking to women’s groups on the ground – we could include this in guidance notes. Ideally I’d like our teams who are doing a deep dive to hear first from those with lived experience. You say the work should be run by work on the ground – this is the reason we are looking at gender, because it is hard to ignore that there are macroeconomic consequences going both ways and this is why the Managing Director has created this position.

On Mariama’s issue saying it’s not about filling gaps but transforming, I agree and the biggest challenge is to change the mindset and culture and this is why we’ve gone out to integrate and use a gender lens regardless of how long it takes. We have support from our management. We agree it has to be transformational. We have done more work (2018) on incorporating distributional issues of inequality in the IMF’s work. We do redistribution analysis on subsidy reform, VAT taxation etcetera. Finally, we need to have a discussion about the IMF’s role – you give us too much credit as the IMF – we are not that powerful, regarding fiscal consolidation. People have the view of IMF as ‘austerity focused’ the director said “spend but keep the receipt” during Covid19. The emergency funding were provided had no conditionality. We were advising authorities with how-to notes. How do you address debt? We did that and were responsive. On the issue of fiscal consolidation, I hope we can discuss this. Countries come to us with request for money when they have nowhere else to go. You have to plan ahead and think how you are spending the money. There is some distance here between IMF and Civil Society. We are aligned in goals but not in the parts.