Tax justice and violence against women

Standard

Linkages between systemic economic injustice and acts of violence against women need to be made carefully.  Everyone in mainstream political discourse is outraged by non-state-sanctioned acts of violence against women, while economic inequality is understood by many to be merely an inevitable and rational consequence of morally neutral economic policies. As US politician Debbie Wasserman Schultz discovered recently, if you characterise neoliberal politics as a species of violence against women, you will be publicly disciplined for your transgression.

In a recent blog post about tax and sanitation, veteran tax justice campaigner Richard Murphy mostly left these linkages to our imagination. He points out that proper sanitation requires publicly funded infrastructure, and public funds cannot be raised in the places where basic sanitation is lacking if income arising there goes untaxed.  So far, so relatively uncontroversial. However, he finishes by asking “What if it was your child who had to go into a field at night to relieve themselves?” This raises the indelible vision of the bodies of two teenage girls in Uttar Pradesh, raped and murdered and hanging from a tree near where they had (as was their habit, not having a toilet in their home) gone into a field to relieve themselves.

In February, the Times of India quoted the police in another district of Uttar Pradesh as saying that 95% of cases of rape and molestation took place when women and girls left their homes to “answer a call of nature”. The link is indirect but nevertheless clear: when the accumulation of wealth is not subject to adequate levels of taxation, the cost is physically visited upon human bodies, and in particular the bodies of the most disadvantaged and discriminated against: often women in poor countries.

And who are the people who benefit from low levels of taxation?  Where, if we dare put it this way, did the money go that might otherwise have been spent on sanitation infrastructure in rural India, and on social welfare programmes concerned with lifting its people out of extreme poverty?  Richard Murphy rightly identifies as beneficiaries of the world’s failed tax system (i) the wealthy elites (largely men) and (ii) multinational corporations: the top percentiles of male-dominated human wealth, and beyond them a huge inhuman nexus of corporate wealth.

But to stop there is to fail to follow the global inequality chain to its far end, over the bell-curve of wealth and down the other side.  That huge inhuman nexus of corporate wealth (managed largely by male executives who are more likely to adopt aggressive tax positions than their female counterparts) yields income and gains to institutional shareholders: pension fund trustees and their ilk.  And benefiting ultimately from those institutional portfolio holdings is the entire spectrum of asset owners, including everyone whose only participation in global capital is to make tax-relieved contributions into an occupational pension fund — the wealthier half of the populations of rich countries rather than the wealthiest 0.1% of people in the world.

Even among this wider asset-owning class, however, the benefits of inadequately taxed corporate profitability accrue predominantly to men.  Women earn less, are more likely to work or have worked part-time, and are more likely to have spent periods of their lives not earning, and so the volume of institutional investment of which they are beneficial owners is relatively small. And what is more, the men whose assets predominate in pension funds have those assets subsidised through pension-related tax reliefs which are prioritized and maintained while public funds for domestic violence prevention & prosecution are slashed.

Therefore it seems to us that, rather than shying away from the linkages between violence against women and systemic economic and fiscal injustice, we have to examine them closely and unflinchingly, and follow them where they lead, understanding them not merely by reference to the barely imaginable savagery of the rape and murder of two girls in field in rural India, or the barely imaginable wealth and power of global elites and corporations, but as part of an interconnected global system of social and economic injustice in which women are dispossessed and disempowered at every level.

Yes, we must see more women on the boards of multinationals, yes women should be better represented among the asset-owning classes of the global north, yes there must be better provision for dealing with sexual and domestic violence whether it be in suburban England or rural India, and yes there must be sanitation infrastructure for the hundreds of millions of households worldwide who currently lack it.  But while fighting for these things it is necessary to understand how an invisible global balancing act between private profitability and state power links them all together.  There are victories to be won for women everywhere, but the underlying system which creates economic advantages for some and visits the cost upon the bodies of others must also be challenged if there is to be equality and justice anywhere.