By Nisha Gokhale
Whether it is data on the rapidly dipping female labour force participation rate or a report on girls withdrawing from schools during the pandemic, a cursory glance at the newspaper headlines is enough to remind oneself of the widening gender gap. When concerns regarding gender disparity are raised, they are usually doused by doling out promises of gender empowerment, sensitivity and awareness. Often, these verbal commitments amount to nothing in the absence of an institutional framework that mainstreams gender concerns and actually tracks the economy’s progress in addressing them.
Gender Responsive Budgeting provides such a framework – it acts as an effective fiscal tool for translating gender concerns into financial commitments. This article looks to provide an introduction to budgeting through a gendered lens.
What is Gender Responsive Budgeting?
Before proceeding to understanding what gender responsive budgeting (henceforth GRB) entails, it is important to highlight what it does not. GRB is not a separate budget for women. It is not an accounting exercise. Instead, it is an approach to budgeting that promotes gender equality by assessing the level of budgetary allocation towards it. A GRB statement would outline the allocation of resources for schemes benefiting women. For instance, a GRB statement in India would reflect the quantum of funds allocated to schemes such as the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Yojana.
How does a GRB statement address gender concerns?
It is not possible to split the benefits of all items of expenditure neatly along the lines of gender. One cannot objectively state that any particular gender benefits from expenditure on national defense more than the others. Considering this, is a GRB even necessary?
The answer is a resounding yes. In certain areas, differential impact of expenditure can be observed across genders. When facilities for piped water or fuel are not available, it is often the women in the household who have to set out to procure these basic necessities. Against this backdrop, schemes such as Nal se Jal and the Ujjwala Yojana are considered to benefit women more though they are also beneficial to the men availing water and fuel. Similarly, schemes focusing on improving public transport, sanitation or reducing gender-based violence are deemed to benefit women more.
How has India’s experience with GRB been so far?
The nascent stages of efforts to integrate gender concerns in policymaking date back to 1997 when the erstwhile Planning Commission adopted the strategy of earmarking development funds for women. However, a relook at this Women’s Component Plan divulged that the earmarked funds were not being spent as effectively as intended. A need for shifting to a macro-level gender budgeting approach rather than smaller, fragmented component plans was felt.
By the 1990s, gender sensitive budgeting had been adopted in many developed nations in some form or the other. Taking cues from these international experiences, GRB was officially introduced in India from the 2005-06 union budget. The GRB statement consists of two parts – part A, outlining women-specific schemes and part B, indicating pro-women schemes (with 30% or more allocation for women).
While budgeting was initially introduced as an ex post analysis of budgetary allocation, it has evolved. Lekha Chakraborty, chairperson of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, explains that the framework provided by GRB has aided policy making and introduction of targeted programs such as supplying clean fuel to women from low income groups. Moreover, she refers to studies that indicate that GRB can aid in bridging the gender gap in educational attainment.
However, experts have pointed out multiple limitations in India’s approach to GRB. A careful examination of the GRB statement over the last decade reveals that the proportion of expenditure on gender-sensitive causes has not increased significantly. It has hovered around the rate of 5%. In the absence of an outcome-oriented approach, GRB turns into a mere accounting exercise. Identifying priority sectors, ramping up targeted spending and setting up an accountability mechanism are crucial to ensuring that this system of budgetary commitments does not fail women the way verbal promises often do.
The very nature of programs that have been seen as “benefiting women” has also been questioned. Inclusion of schemes that provide assistance for marriage, fuel, rural housing, home science research, etc. has been criticised as they reinforce traditional gender roles.
While India’s approach to GRB has been far from flawless, GRB’s capacity to act as a fiscal tool that steers the conversation towards gender parity cannot be denied. The GRB statement acts as a reflection of the strides that the country takes towards women empowerment. Rejigging our approach to ensure that it does not perpetutate traditional gender roles is key to ensuring that GRB matches emergent needs.
To initiate and sustain substantive change, budgetary backing is of paramount importance. GRB sheds light on the institutional underpinnings of gender inequality and aids the assimilation of gender concerns in policy decisions. A concerted effort from the various stakeholders in the society is essential to combat the deeply embedded gender bias in the patriarchal setup – the state’s role is central to ensuring that the promises of women empowerment translate into actions.