This essay is part of the “Debt and Power” series of Progressive International’s Debt Justice Blueprint.
We were told micro-finance would rescue women from their "dependence on men", through small grants to start their own businesses."We cannot be sure if that happened, but something else surely did: women became increasingly beholden to someone else — their new creditors.
From India, through Sierra Leone, to the United States, women face greater challenges than men in accessing financial credit, repaying loans, and renegotiating their debts, be it through formal financial institutions or informal credit networks. This deep-rooted and sometimes invisible inequality hinders women’s ability to invest in their futures.
This essay offers examples from two corners of the world that illustrate how debt often operates as gendered oppression. The first case sheds light on how student loan debts in the United States place a heavier burden on Black women than on any other demographic group. Black women not only hold a large portion of US student loan debt; they also struggle more to repay debts. The second case looks at Sierra Leone, where women are routinely thrown in prison for failing to repay private debts on time, often without any opportunity to renegotiate the terms of repayment.
Heavily subjected to both racism and sexism, Black women in the United States are especially susceptible to violence (ranging from micro-aggressions to murder by police officers), illness, abuse, and poverty. Black women are 20 percent more likely to be raped in their lifetime and more than 2.5 times more likely to be murdered by men than their white counterparts. Black women are at least thrice as likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. 22.3 percent of Black women are living in poverty, compared to 19.4 percent of Black men and 9 percent of white women. These racial and gender disparities visible in the United States today are traceable to the nation’s founding principles, which denied the full equality — and even the humanity — of Black people and women.
Debt, and student loan debt in particular, is another such arena where these disparities surface. Until only a few decades ago, higher education was free or carried fairly low-tuition in the United States. After vicious right-wing and racist attacks on public education between the 1960’s and 1980’s as a direct result of progressive and civil rights movements on University campuses, Black Americans have been forced into a grueling dilemma: most careers that offer a livable wage require a degree, but obtaining a degree has become prohibitively expensive.
Due to historical oppression — from slavery to Jim Crows laws — and the resulting income inequality and lack of intergenerational wealth,a majority of Black families are at a disadvantage when it comes to access to higher education. When the attack on public funding for education made it unrealistic for individuals to save for college, student loans were presented as the solution.
Now, women hold almost two-thirds of all student loan debt in the US. On average among racial and ethnic groups, Black women carry the most student loan debt. The gender pay gap puts women at a further disadvantage, making it more difficult to afford college and to pay off the debt accrued. Black women are paid 63 cents for every dollar earned by their white male counterparts in the United States. Over a 40-year span, this amounts to a difference of nearly $1 million. Over time, Black women’s student loan debts rapidly compound, worsened by disparities and predatory lending practices. A Black woman’s inability to pay translates into an increased balance as interest accumulates. After 12 years, the typical white male has paid off 44 percent of his student loan balance, while the typical Black woman borrower’s balance has grown by 13 percent. Being a Black woman is often an indirect sentence of poverty in America.
Black women expend enormous amounts of labor to support their families and communities, yet are met with failed policies that perpetuate their victimization, pain, and death. Their efforts should be repaid with deep structural change and decisive action on debt. Eliminating student loan debt will not absolve the United States of its responsibility to end racist and sexist systems that hurt Black women, but it would demonstrate that the country is serious about taking progressive measures.
Under Sierra Leone’s Larceny Act of 1916, personal debt holders may be charged with fraudulent conversion, obtaining money under false pretenses, and other similar offenses, with debtors facing the risk of detention for owing as little as $10 (ninety thousand Leones). Women tend to be disproportionately affected by charges relating to non-payment of debt. Despite the fact that non-payment of debt is non‐violent and easily mediated outside of the criminal court system, it is still one of the more commonly charged offences.
Fraudulent conversion is an offence relating to property use, but it is increasingly being used to charge defaulting debtors, even where there is no evidence of intent to defraud. AdvocAid — an NGO established in 2006 to address the needs of women and girls negatively impacted by the criminal legal system in Sierra Leone — has argued that, through broad interpretations, the scope of the law has expanded beyond what was originally intended to criminalise deliberate and fraudulent behaviour These laws may not specifically target women, but given Sierra Leone’s inheritance of colonial-era laws and women’s marginalization within society, they end up creating distinct and disproportionate negative impacts on women’s rights and well‐being. For example, a bail application requires detainees to present a surety to the courts: However, sureties are often required to be property owners. Given the historic inability of women to own property in Sierra Leone, women detainees are effectively dependent on wealthy male relatives or associates to secure their release.
One of AdvocAid’s clients, Saptieu, (28) is a market trader in Freetown. She owed her goods supplier the equivalent of $600 for merchandise taken on credit. When Saptieu could not pay the full amount on time, rather than pursue civil remedies or a debt restructuring plan, the supplier reported her to the police. She was then charged, and sentenced to 12 months of imprisonment or a fine of $125. Saptieu was seven months pregnant at the time, and was forced to spend a week in prison. She was released only because her husband was able to raise the money to pay the fine.
Saptieu’s story alludes to the broader implications of debt. Apart from the disruptions to her business, Saptieu experienced debilitating financial consequences and a harrowing prison sentence, all with a baby on the way. Criminalising the non-payment of debt entrenches poverty and burdens families emotionally and financially. The majority of petty traders in Sierra Leone are female heads of households. When they are arrested, the care of their children is left to neighbours or extended family, whilst in some cases they are left to struggle on their own. The stigma of arrest and detention often leaves women shunned by their families, communities and society, affecting their mental health and their socioeconomic well being. It also makes them vulnerable to a cycle of risk that increases the likelihood of coming into contact with the law again.
Based on Advocaid’s experience of working with women impacted by the criminal legal system, the debt system needs urgent reform. The immediate and longer-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbate this urgency. To ensure debt justice for women, the following policies should be prioritized:
These examples illustrate how debt is yet another tool to oppress the vulnerable. Debt deters Black women in America — already paid lesser than everyone else — from pursuing valuable educational opportunities, or it crushes the financial future of those who take on loans to finance their schooling. Debt pulls women in Sierra Leone out of their jobs, away from their families, and into prison — without opportunity for reasonable remediation.
Jalahan Amara Jakema, Richelle Brooks, and Rhiannon Davis are members of the Progressive International Debt Justice Collective.
Jalahan is a Programme Officer at AdvocAid, advocating for women’s rights in South East Sierra Leone.
Rhiannon is Executive Director of AdvocAid, providing access to justice for women and girls caught up in Sierra Leone’s unjust legal system, and amplifying their voices to create change.
Richelle is an Educator, Founding Member of Debt Collective Los Angeles and Founder of ReTHINK It, an organization working to address anti blackness through education, mutual aid, and institution reform.
We live in a world of debt. The depth and breadth of global “debtification” is difficult to overstate. It is the primary contention of this collection that all these disparate dynamics — hedge funds raking in pandemic profits, students struggling to afford an education, micro-borrowers on the brink of bankruptcy — are different manifestations of the same basic structural mechanism at the heart of the global financial system: the endless cycle of privatized gains and socialized losses. Simply put, the rich get richer, while the poor, by design, remain poor.
The goal of this Collective is the goal of progressive movements around the world, to end that cycle. Read the full Debt Justice Blueprint here. If you’re interested in engaging with us, please write to Varsha Gandikota-Nellutla at [email protected]
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