A Gendered approach to budgeting in South Africa

Danita Hingston, Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII)

4 November 2020

Danita Hingston

Care work, which is largely assumed by women, has increased tremendously during the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, South Africa’s budgeting response to COVID-19 and to rebuilding the economy needs to consider the gendered impacts of the pandemic. The role of women has been immense in responding to this pandemic; including through work as frontline health workers and as primary caregivers to children and other relatives in the home. In South Africa, women’s unpaid and underpaid work goes unrecognised, although this substantially contributes to the formal economy. This pandemic and the deepening stagnation of South Africa’s economy have highlighted that the burden of care work falls primarily on women, as well as how vulnerable women are being pushed further into poverty. When women bear the brunt of largely unrecognised and uncompensated care work in the home or in the community, their access to other forms of work are generally frustrated, and they are therefore prevented from equitably accessing socio-economic rights. For example; exercising the right to work and earn an income generally contributes to the realisation of the right to adequate housing.  

Gender-sensitive budgeting does not mean an entirely separate budget for women. Alternatively, it means that the budget process occurs with women empowerment in mind; this could be in the revenue raising (tax collection) stage by removing VAT on female sanitary products or through increasing public spending on programmes targeted at women. According to the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, the objective of a gender-sensitive budget is ensuring that the public budget is planned, approved, executed, monitored and audited in a way that aims to eliminate gender disparities. Stretching women’s unpaid and underpaid care work to subsidise the gaps in social protection and public services is short sighted and further widens gender disparities as there will be little investment in social infrastructure and women will fall deeper into poverty. This article therefore argues that South Africa’s budget should reflect care work and cover that through adequate grants and better formalisation of the care work industry. I will provide examples of what a gendered response should look like in two important areas; the Child Support Grant system and the working conditions of Community Health Workers (CHWs). Firstly, I will briefly comment on the value of care work to South Africa’s economy and thereafter, I will discuss the current policy framework for gender-budgeting in South Africa. 

The importance of care work to the economy

Time spent on childcare, cooking and healthcare should be recognised as investments because they not only bring benefits to individuals and families but also to the society. Better cared-for, more educated, healthier people are not just beneficial for the present but also for the future. As such, there is a need to broaden the definitions of infrastructure and investments which include the benefits of investment in social infrastructure. In 2010, research by Counting Women’s Work found that household production in South Africa in monetary terms was valued at R749.9 billion, which was then equivalent to 27.3% of GDP. Additionally, nearly three-quarters of this household production was carried out by women. Unpaid care work is directly valuable to the economy and is also vital in terms of socially reproducing and maintaining the recognised labour force. In order to make the value of women’s unremunerated work visible, macroeconomics must be redefined and restructured to include gender as part of the wider public budgeting process. 

Macro-economic policy is used as a key instrument to drive the country’s economy towards achieving development goals.  South Africa does currently benefit from unpaid care work as this kind of work has sustained the paid economy for a long time. Recognising, and better formalising care work through macro-economic policy will contribute to narrowing gender gaps in income and employment and this will actually stimulate economic growth from the demand side as women- often tasked with obtaining essential goods- will have more money to spend. The macroeconomic policy is generally implemented through two key tools; monetary policy and fiscal policy (taxation and public expenditure to influence the economy), respectively. The latter is naturally the most crucial entry point for integrating gender into national budgeting because taxes, especially VAT, can impact women’s access to essential items such as food and sanitary products. In addition, National Treasury approves the expenditure to each government department, hence, they directly influence how much goes towards the department that addresses women’s issues. 

South Africa’s budget is not entirely ‘gender blind’ as there is a national department for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, which receives a share of the national budget. However, it is interesting to note that this department only included the ‘Youth’ and ‘Persons with Disabilities’ aspects in June 2019. All of these vulnerable populations are lumped together in one department, even though they all have very different and specific needs which require individualised attention and resources. This evidences a lack of proper prioritisation and immediately implies that more could be done to redress women’s exclusion from the mainstream economy.

By the 2022/23 financial year, this department’s budget will increase to R853 million from R791 million. The purpose of this increase is to strengthen initiatives for the economic empowerment of women; promoting the rights of persons with disabilities; and supporting youth development (Budget Review 2020). 

Currently, only R156 million currently goes to interventions targeted at women. Even though the budget will increase, the allocations towards women are insufficient.  The budget for women needs to increase for a variety of reasons.  According to the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, 42% of women in South Africa live below the lower-bound poverty line of R810 per month. This is a harrowing statistic given that the country boasts an upper-middle class… the lives of women simply do not reflect this status. Moreover, women are not a homogenous group; gender-based discrimination is often intensified by intersections of race, class, nationality, age, sexual orientation/identity, and other dimensions. This necessitates targeted programmes that respond to the needs of different groups of women. 

Current Policy Framework for Gender-Budgeting

While some thoughtful policies have been created to influence a gender-sensitive budget in South Africa, it has not led to any real change. For instance, the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities produced a Framework on Gender-Responsive, Budgeting, Monitoring, Evaluation and Auditing (GRPBMEA) in 2018. The key tenets of GRPBMEA in South Africa is that advancing gender equality requires gender policy priorities; the translation of policy into targeted programmes with measurable outcomes; and necessary budget allocations as well as expenditure tracking; impact assessments; and budget audits to achieve gendered priorities.

Global Goals for Sustainable Development: Goal 5 strives for Gender Equal

However, it is not enough to just have good policies; since this policy framework was introduced in 2018, nothing has been achieved.  Now, COVID-19 risks rolling back some of the limited progress made in terms of gender equity. In the first Quarterly Labour Force Survey of 2020 (pre-COVID-19 labour force), the expanded female unemployment rate climbed to 43.4%. Moreover, men dominate the employed population, while women comprise the majority of people in the unpaid household member population. COVID-19 has further worsened the employment prospects for women. Researchers found that of the 3 million job losses that occurred during lockdown (March to July), 2 million were women. This is a dire cause for concern. 

What needs to take place in South Africa, as an integrated and important part of fighting this pandemic, is the prioritisation of women’s empowerment within public budgeting. Additionally, greater transparency is vital to ensure that the allocation of resources targeted to women are adequate. In the following, I will offer suggestions on how gender-sensitive budgeting can be applied in two key areas.  

Gender-budgeting in the Child Support Grant System

South Africa has a very large proportion of women who solely bear the responsibility of providing for children and meeting their financial, as well as other care related needs. South Africa’s social grants have been credited for raising the income of the poorest. Children are one of the main beneficiaries of the grants system as the Child Support Grant (CSG), alone, accounts for 70% of grants disbursed. Despite this context, Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity revealed that, close to 30% of children under 5 years old have stunted growth in South Africa. Amid, the pre-existing problem of high levels of child growth stunting, findings from the National Income Dynamics Study: Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM), released in July 2020, revealed that 1 in 7 households reported that a child went hungry in the last seven days. 

The Child Support Grant, prior to May 2020, was only R440 per month which is smaller than the food poverty line of R561- 25% of the population live below this line! Without a doubt, a sufficient CSG, is desperately needed in this country, especially, as many households survive on this grant in the face of high levels of unemployment. Government should not see grants as hand-outs, as they were created to restore the dignity of millions of South Africans who are still experiencing the legacy of Apartheid. Basic amenities are lacking or barely met in many communities and people still battle to access adequate health care.

Government has made some attempt to relieve the plight of caregivers during this pandemic and economic crisis (exacerbated by COVID-19. In the President’s address to the nation on April 21, President Cyril Ramaphosa promised that R500 billion would be redirected towards helping people who have been most affected by COVID-19. The President stated that beneficiaries of CSG will receive a top-up of R300 in May. Then from June to October, this top-up will increase to R500 per month. Initially, the president’s speech was met with great excitement until it was made clear, days later, that the addition to the Child Support Grant would not be disbursed per child, but per caregiver instead.  In other words, a woman who takes care of three children will receive the existing CSG of R440 per child and a top-up of R500 per month!

It is highly likely that a large number of caregivers who rely on CSGs are now either out of a job or are now earning substantially less, as many rely on earnings from informal work. As such, the lost income in these already vulnerable households is most likely pushing them into deeper deprivation. The South African Social Security revealed in early October 2020 that the top-ups to existing grants will no longer be paid. . In the face of high levels of unemployment and the high likelihood that the country will be facing the impacts of the pandemic for a long time, this is a seriously concerning. 

The pandemic has deepened South Africa’s economic recession thus leading to the worst economic disaster we have seen in our lifetime. Having a temporary solution to redress a long-lasting situation is nothing short of impractical. Taking into account these realities, a strong recommendation from a gender-sensitive budgeting perspective would be to ensure that the CSG ‘top-up’ is allocated per child, and that after October, to ensure that South Africa’s children live above the food poverty line.

Gender budgeting to promote decent work for CHWs

An important mainstay to the country’s Primary Health Care system is the network of Community Health Workers who are mainly black women. CHWs are critical to South Africa’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, just as they have been central to the country’s fight against HIV/AIDS, TB and other chronic diseases, as well as to promoting maternal and child health. The National Department of Health has rolled out large-scale screening, testing and tracing programmes using clinics, community healthcare centres and mobile testing units which all require CHWs. Since the lockdown commenced in late March, more than 28 000 CHWs have been mobilised to go to vulnerable communities to screen and trace people. 

Responding to COVID-19 in the communities, as frontline workers is a serious health risk for CHWs. As of August 5 2020, 24 000 health care workers have tested positive for COVID-19, while 181 have died from the virus.  Additionally, COVID-19 has impacted women health workers profoundly. According to Business Insider South Africa, more than 80% of all COVID-19 claims received by the Compensation Fund were from women workers who contracted the virus while working.

CHWs are doing life-threatening work during this pandemic, yet for years they have been fighting to be recognised as permanent government employees. It was only as recent as 2018, that provincial health departments standardised pay for all workers to ensure CHWs receive the national minimum wage of R3500- even then, it has been a struggle to implement this. According to Spotlight, during this pandemic, several CHWs have emphasised the lack of support from the health department; such as a lack of proper training as well as a lack of Personal Protective Equipment.  Back in June 2020, SPII interviewed a CHW1 (who wishes to remain anonymous) based in Chiawelo, Soweto. She explained that, when they were first deployed to screen people for COVID-19, CHWs in her ward were expected to buy their own PPEs such as face shields and sanitizers. The Ward Based Outreach Team had only provided them with a 5-litre bottle of hand sanitizer which they were expected to share among themselves. They received PPEs only after petitioning and threatening strike action.

Using gender-sensitive budgeting to address the realities of CHWs, will lead to provincial health departments prioritising CHWs and developing budgets that account for additional resources such as PPEs and decent living wages for CHWs.  This will ensure that the women who dominate the health workforce (especially at the lower levels) can realise their full potential as health workers and improve their quality of lives.

Gauteng Department of Health has demonstrated a good example of moving towards gender-sensitive budgeting. The department released a statement in July titled ‘Changing Nature of appointment of Community Health Workers from Contract to Permanent.’ According to the statement, all CHWs below 64 years will be appointed permanently and will receive an increase to their salaries. Moreover, those who are above 65 years will either be employed on contract for 6 months or retire with benefits. The CHW I mentioned earlier, welcomes this progress, and hopes that other provinces will follow Gauteng’s footsteps. To add to the CHW’s point, it is imperative that provincial departments emulate Gauteng’s decision to properly formalise the work CHWs do, as the right to dignified healthcare work is, first and foremost, a fundamental human right. Additionally, protecting health workers rights will also improve healthcare delivery in South Africa due to the increase in morale of CHWs while on the job. Hence, failure to improve working conditions, salaries and subsequently healthcare delivery, is in fact violating human rights and South African law. 


Continued failure to overlook gender-sensitive budgeting will not only be unfavourable for women but also for the economy. Exploring the areas of the Child Support Grant and the working conditions of CHWs reveals that women are not getting an adequate social wage, despite being expected to increasingly take on the burden of caregiving in their homes and/or in the community and even more seriously, despite having to risk their own health while combatting COVID-19. Policy urgently needs to be translated into good practice in order to ensure that women have better access to financial resources and job security. Not only would this address how women are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, but this would also have potentially long-term benefits for the South African economy. South Africa is hailed for having a progressive Constitution yet most of its women’s lives currently do not reflect it. Formalising the care economy is therefore necessary to increase women’s capability to live a satisfying life (such as accessing food and essential goods without the risk of financial deprivation and earning a decent salary). Finally, the economy also benefits from recognising women’s rights to an adequate standard of living as this increases the output of goods and services. 


  1. I read the content of an interview consent form to the CHW, over the phone, before she consented to including her comments in this article.