What do gender violence and the auditing of the debt have to do with each other? What is the effect of public debt on generating opportunities for the exercise of women's human rights? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to carry out an analysis of government budgets and public debt from a gendered perspective. In this column, I will present some ideas about the importance of a citizen debt audit as a tool in the fight for equity and against gender violence.
Government budgets are made up of government revenues, mainly generated through the collection of property taxes, excise taxes, sales taxes, and so forth, also known as public funds. Government budgets also include what these revenues are used for, commonly called public spending.
On the other hand, public debt, just like individual debt, is money that the government owes, or has borrowed through bond issues, which are similar to the loans that we take out from banks to buy a house, a car, or to pay a credit card bill.
Public debts and government budgets directly affect people's daily lives because they show what governments' economic and social priorities really are. They are also crucial in the fight to achieve gender equality.1 Although when we look at a government budget we only see dollars and cents, if we consider the investment and development models that are behind them, we can see which social actors benefit, who exercises their rights under what conditions, and which subjects are by contrast limited or left out.2
In the case of women, there are multiple factors that link gender relations and public debt. For example, we can identify the number of public funds allocated for programs to eliminate violence against women. Another possible approach would be to look at the impact that austerity measures and cuts in public services in favor of the payment of the debt have on the lives of women. Or considering whether women actually benefit or not from the loans acquired by the government, which we have to pay through our public funds like the rest of the population. In short, we must look at government budgets, the priorities of public investment and public debt, and their impact on equity and the prevention of gender violence.
There exists only a single analysis of the Puerto Rico government’s budget from a gender perspective, which was carried out in 2005.3 At the time, it was pointed out that programs to improve gender equality comprised only an insignificant part of the general budget, totaling “one tenth of each penny of the general budget.”4 It was also noted that funds related to domestic violence prevention and security were even lower.
In terms of austerity measures or cuts in public expenses in response to the fiscal crisis that was approaching, substantial cuts in public funds for gender equality programs were also pointed out.5 These cuts and reductions in funds destined for the prevention of gender violence have continued since the government's fiscal crisis was declared.6
Organizations defending human rights in Puerto Rico have repeatedly denounced the closure and reduction of essential public services, programs, and centers for the prevention of domestic and sexual violence.7
All of the above culminates in the labor reforms implemented to respond to the fiscal crisis, leading to the dismissal of many public employees. An example of this is Public Law 7, which mainly impacted women, who make up the majority of public sector workers.8 Also, private sector reforms have eliminated important job protections. The reforms and cuts to retirement and pension benefits deeply affect older women, in addition to their negative impact on women-mothers and new generations resulting from the closure of schools and cuts to the university budget imposed by the Fiscal Control Board.
Therefore, public debts are not something foreign to the population, but an issue that affects all of us, insofar as their payment implies substantial cuts in public services, reforms, and increases in the cost of living through income taxes, sales tax, or increases in the cost of water, electricity, and other essential services. As a result, the payment of public debts ends up being socialized or assumed by the people, even when we have no say in the creation of the debt in the first place, or in the use of those funds. That is where the motto, “if the debt is public, the information should also be public,” comes from; however, the information keeps being hidden from us.
The most recent experiences of citizen audits of public debts, which have been carried out in more than eighteen countries, give us important tools for this analysis.9 An audit is a rigorous, structured investigation and analysis of the entire debt process to determine what is owed, how it was acquired, who made the decisions, the legality and legitimacy of these decisions, and how the money was spent.
Many of these audits exposed illegalities and fraud that led to the cancellation and nonpayment of much of the debt. This was the case of the audit in Ecuador, which led to the cancellation of more than 60 percent of its debt.10 In other countries, citizen audits have strengthened social movements by making available the information and data to demonstrate that many economic reforms with serious effects on the people were unnecessary.11
As a community, we must know which debts we are paying, and also the social, economic, regional, ecological, and gender-related impacts of this indebtedness. In Puerto Rico, several sectors have proposed an integral audit of public debt that would look at all of its aspects. Law 97 of 2015 created the Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of Puerto Rico's Public Credit.12 This commission, with representation from the executive branch, legislative branch, academia, and various social sectors, was entrusted with carrying out a comprehensive audit of the public debt through the analysis of the entire debt process, including its social and gendered implications. Although the commission was eliminated by the administration of the former governor Ricardo Rosselló,13 it did publish two reports that warn of many illegalities in the island's debt.14
However, the feat did not stop there. A broad group of people and organizations joined efforts to create the Citizen Front for the Debt Audit, in order to educate and raise awareness of the need for a comprehensive debt audit as a tool to confront the austerity measures imposed on us.15 We also founded a Citizen Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of the Public Debt, meant to carry out an audit and investigation of the public debt from a human rights perspective, that specifically takes into account impacts on gender, among other aspects; this audit is to be developed, managed, and financed by the citizens themselves. We created a position in the commission for a person with experience and knowledge in gender issues, who would contribute that perspective to the analysis of Puerto Rico's debt.
In short, citizens who are called to pay public debts have the right to really know whether it is their responsibility to do so. But above all a citizen audit will give us the basis to step out from the current crisis, and pave the way towards a more just, solidary, and equitable society.
See “Crear la Comisión de Auditoría Integral del Crédito Público Crear la Comisión de Auditoría Integral del Crédito Público,” Ley 97, July 1, 2015, sutra.oslpr.org/osl/SUTRA/anejos_conv/2013-2016/%7B48D43D11-9106-40D2-8DEA-9DBF1D7FE67C%7D.pdf.
Auditoría YA (website), www.auditoriaya.org/english/ (accessed October 31, 2018).