Why women are at the centre of the fight against austerity

Protest at royal courts of justice where Fawcett Society challenged government over impact of its cuts on women

By Annabel Kerr

Since the impact of austerity measures first started to bite in 2010 we have been aware that it will be those who are already worse off who will be most hit by the cuts and job losses.

Early on, the Fawcett Society drew our attention to the fact that the budget proposals in the fledgling Tory-led government’s emergency budget would disproportionately affect women and took the government to a Judicial Review hearing on the basis of its differential impact on women. This was also picked up by the Labour Party to some extent with Yvette Cooper accusing the government of forcing women to shoulder nearly three-quarters of the burden of the cuts.

The Coalition’s 2010 budget proposed nearly £8bn worth of cuts to tax and welfare, an estimated 70% of which would come from women’s pockets.

Fawcett backed up their original budget review with some research in 2011 on the impact on women of tax and benefit changes.

Women make up around 65% of the public sector, and are represented even more highly in some areas, such as local government, where job cuts are stark and 75% of workers are female. Overall, women were losing their jobs at a disproportionately greater rate than men and in early 2012 unemployment numbers for women hit their highest level for 25 years at 1.12 million.

Over the last two years since then the governments’ austerity agenda has deepened and the effects are particularly affecting women.

The changes to social security payments hit women hardest. 92% of lone parents are women, and Fawcett’s research found they were on average, among the biggest losers as a result of the reforms. Women use the services that have been cut more. Over 500 Sure Start centres have closed since the coalition took power, despite their promise not to touch children’s services. As well as children, women are carers for older parents, and disabled relatives so the cuts to Disability Living Allowance, the Bedroom Tax and local authorities’ elderly care fall disproportionately on them too.

As outlined by the Women’s Institute, in their report Legal Aid is a Lifeline, cuts to legal aid, will also disproportionately affect women. Legal Aid is no longer available to women who need to use the courts in relation to family matters, including child contact and divorce, unless they can ‘prove’ domestic violence.

Falling real wages have been affecting everyone, but the gender pay gap has widened again this year for the first time since 2008. The TUC’s analysis of the figures released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), showed that, based on mean, or average, wages, the gender pay gap had risen to 15.7%. Overall its analysis of the ONS figures showed that the real value of the average full-time wage fell by more than £200 over the last year, and by nearly £2,000 since 2010. In a cost of living crisis like this people on low to medium wages have to spend a greater share of their income on basics like energy, fuel and housing where prices are rising even faster than overall inflation. With women’s pay levels falling behind faster than the average this cost of living crisis is even worse for women.

Those who face discrimination in other spheres face a double-discrimination as women. Migrants and ethnic minority communities have been especially scapegoated in the context of the prolonged economic stagnation. Among migrants highlighted for particular opprobrium were alleged pregnant ‘health tourists’ who it was entirely falsely claimed were arriving at British airports in droves to have their babies on the NHS. Muslim women have been targeted for wearing the veil, subjected to increased violent attacks, and in some cases simply banned from access, such as at Birmingham Metropolitan College in September – a measure David Cameron lent his name to support.

Women can’t win. Muslim women are attacked as too subservient if they wear the veil, but women who wear short skirts or bare too much are deemed ‘sluts’ justifying sexual harassment and even violence, or put down as ‘chavs’. Imogen Tyler’s 2008 study ‘Chav Mum, Chav Scum’ found not only that ‘the word “chav,” alongside its various synonyms and regional variations, has become a ubiquitous term of abuse for the white poor’, but also that ‘the figure of the female chav, and the vilification of young white working-class mothers, embodies historically familiar and contemporary anxieties about female sexuality, reproduction, fertility, and “racial mixing.”’ (Why ‘Chav’ Is A Feminist Issue).

Any casual viewer of the Daily Mail ‘sidebar of shame’ can see the objectification of women and clear double standards about how women are supposed to behave and present themselves, alternately being too fat or too thin.

NHS cuts and privatisation of services affect women who use many services at acute and community level, such as maternity, abortion and breast and cervical cancer screenings. As well as affecting women’s health it affects their choices about how they work and look after their family. The FPA’s report Unprotected Nation outlines how cuts to sexual health services will result in more unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, increasing the UK’s future health and welfare expenditure by 8.7%.

It is important for the Labour Party to recognise the impact of the cuts and austerity on women. If Labour wins an election in 2015 on the same spending plan as the Coalition, then women will not benefit from a change in government.

The cuts are not just affecting benefits, incomes and services. In 2012 the TUC released an overarching document ‘Two steps forward, one step back’ outlining a series of cuts to our equality infrastructure. These were complicated and largely overlooked by the media.

We know women are under-represented at senior levels. In Parliament women make up 22% of MPs; in the media only 5% of all editors are women; in the legal system just 13.6% of the senior judiciary are women; and in boardrooms only 17% of FTSE 100 directorships are held by women. This prevents policy, the law and business reflecting the every day experiences of women and there are few opportunities for women to voice their own opinions.

Likewise the trade union movement needs to consider the place of women in their leaderships and lay structures. It is a significant step forward that the TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady is a woman, but the 2012 SERTUC equality survey Swimming Against the Tide report demonstrates this is not replicated throughout the movement.

As the austerity agenda affects women in particular, women need to be at the front of the fightback.

There are many opportunities for women to organise together and examples where this has proved to be effective.

The networks of Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC), through Facebook and setting up local groups, have demonstrated how the internet can be used to connect up groups that haven’t traditionally been visible.

Muslim women’s organisation ‘Muslimah Pride’ led the successful campaign against the banning of the veil in Birmingham. And the environmental action by Greenpeace, of six women climbing the Shard in London to raise awareness of mineral exploitation in the Arctic showed women taking action on the issue of climate change.

On 22nd February the Women’s Assembly Against Austerity will be holding an event as part of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity launched to specifically draw together women fighting austerity. Speakers such as Diane Abbott MP and TUC’s Sarah Veale will address the audience on topics such as health, peace and racism. This will be an important opportunity to draw together the campaigns lead by women with trade union and labour activists to knit together a forceful and effective women’s coalition against austerity.

The Women’s Assembly Against Austerity will be held on Saturday 22 February 2014 at Conway Hall in London. To book tickets: http://thepeoplesassembly.org.uk/women/