At the International Monetary Fund, only one in nine senior employees are women. At the World Bank, less than 1% of the staff work on issues relating to gender. In the world of international finance it is men in grey suits who manage world debt. But on the ground, in the world's poorest countries, it is women who shoulder the developing world's debt burden. Make no mistake, debt is a feminist issue.
To be eligible for loans from the World Bank and the IMF in order to repay their debts, impoverished countries are made to follow these two institutions' narrow set of macroeconomic policies. These policies seem reasonable to the men who insist on them: the privatisation of state-owned enterprises and public utilities; a tight rein on public expenditure; the opening up of markets to foreign investors. But a compelling body of research now shows that these policies exacerbate poverty in poor countries, and harm girls and women the most.
Take the capping of public expenditure. One of the first things that governments don't do in order to meet this particular requirement is invest in infrastructure development like water and sanitation. This disproportionately affects women because it is women in developing countries who, as a result, walk up to 15km each day to collect water; it is women who on these journeys risk their own security. The Sudanese militia, for example, has been reported to prey on the women in Darfur who have to walk long distances to find water. It is girls who become "prisoners of daylight" because of a lack of toilet facilities, fearful to go for a pee until it is dark.
The reining in of public expenditure hurts girls in other ways, too. In order to meet this requirement, almost all developing countries have adopted a policy of charging for healthcare and school fees. And when parents faced with school fees have to choose between spending their money on sending their daughters or sons to learn, guess who gets to go to school? When the state doesn't provide healthcare, it is daughters not sons who are taken out of school to become care-givers; it is girls who become the unpaid nurses.
And then, of course, there's the fact that in order to be able to find additional monies to repay the loans, countries need to generate foreign exchange. That is not gender-neutral, either. The focus on the export of cash crops to repay the debt often means that key foodstuffs become more scarce and expensive at home. And it is mothers who, as a consequence, sacrifice their own food intake in order to be able to feed their children, and who bear the brunt of the resultant malnutrition.
In the most extreme cases women become a key source of foreign exchange themselves. The export of women from Thailand and elsewhere in south-east Asia to work as domestic servants overseas is a well-documented key foreign exchange generating industry for many developing world governments, an industry actively encouraged by the World Bank. A less well-known and highly disturbing fact is that the Philippines government, in the late 1970s, actively promoted the mail order bride industry in order to repay its debt.
All this money spent on debt repayments is money that could, and should, be spent on other things. Sub-Saharan Africa pays out $30m a day in debt service. This in a continent in which 40 million children will lose at least one parent to Aids within the next decade and only 60,000 people are receiving anti-retroviral drugs because their governments cannot afford them. In Ethiopia, where only one in six women receive antenatal care, debt repayments total four times as much as public spending on health. In Niger, where the infant mortality rate is the highest in the world, more is spent on debt repayments than on health.
Women don't have to remain the unheard victims of the debt crisis; the men in grey can be made to listen. If women in the developed world would unite with those in the developing countries to seek to address the injustice of debt in the poorer countries, they would be highly effective.
With Britain next year assuming the EU presidency and chairing the G8, and with a general election approaching, British women in particular have a major role to play in defusing the developing world debt threat. All our political parties are very aware of how crucial the female vote will be to secure election victory. Move over Mondeo man, it's Worcester woman's vote that each party is trying to win.
Labour is particularly aware of the need to attract the female vote. Recent research by Mori shows that it is women over 35 who are most dissatisfied with the government, and that foreign affairs is now in the top five issues of women's concern.
With the government aware of these findings, women now have a huge opportunity to shape policy. And there are a number of campaigning groups - such as the World Development Movement and the Bretton Woods Project - which they can join to do just that. Developing country debt is already on the radar screens of many women's groups - the Mothers' Union highlights developing country debt as one of the most critical issues that the world needs to resolve.
Women and children must not continue to suffer because their governments are forced not only to repay what are essentially unpayable and often illegitimate debts, but also to play by a set of rules that do not take gender into account. With party conference season upon us and a general election within sight it's important to remember that politicians can be swayed by what it is that women want.
IOU: The Debt Threat and Why We Must Defuse It, by Noreena Hertz, is published by Fourth Estate.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004