Women in Austerity Britain: Equal or Oppressed?

When looking at the sheer extent of inequalities and atrocities faced by women in some other countries, it can be easy to assume any remnants of gender inequality in Britain are no longer worthy of attention. This impression of comfortable superiority is reinforced by the fact that the prime minister is, herself, a woman, and one who has publicly described herself as a feminist – though whether or not this description is considered to hold true would certainly depend on who you ask.

Theresa May’s track record when it comes to women’s issues is not insignificant; she co-founded Women2Win, a Conservative party group aiming to increase representation of women within the party, and took on the role of Minister for Women and Equality from 2010 to 2012. May also helped to draw attention to some vital issues of gender inequality in her role as home secretary, including playing a leading role in the UK’s first Girl Summit in 2014 and establishing an action plan for helping survivors of female genital mutilation (FGM).

Perhaps most significantly, May has repeatedly stressed a desire to tackle issues of domestic abuse, making this a personal priority as home secretary, and contributing to the official recognition of emotional as well as physical abuse by introducing the criminal offence of coercive control. Just earlier this month, on International Women’s Day, the government announced a £20 million domestic abuse fund, along with a new requirement for councils to house victims from other areas as well as their own. This the first instalment of a total of £40 million promised by last year’s spending review, in addition to which May has ordered a consultation into a new Domestic Violence and Abuse Act. Positive changes to the proceedings of family courts are also underway, with justice secretary Liz Truss proposing new legislation to put an end to the ‘humiliating and appalling’ practice of the cross-examination of victims by their abusers, and potentially for increased restrictions on the admission of ‘evidence’ pertaining to victims’ sexual histories.

Positive and encouraging as this all seems, a more in-depth look at May’s time in office paints a more nuanced – and far less positive – picture, suggesting that, even when they have genuinely good intentions, government attempts to address inequality may be falling flat in the face of extensive cuts to social services and the welfare state. As welcome as recent increases to the funding of domestic abuse services are, these are far from sufficient to completely counter the effects of austerity, by which both women’s organisations and individual women have been disproportionately affected. Women’s Aid’s most recent national survey found that over a third of domestic abuse organisations were running a service with no dedicated funding, with approximately one in every three women referred to a refuge currently being refused. Women’s contraceptive services have also been hit hard by council cuts, with a review by the Advisory Group on Contraception in December 2016 finding that a quarter of councils had either already reduced their services or had plans to do so.

These are far from the sole areas in which women have been hit hard by government cuts, with equalities minister Sarah Champion recently stating that women have borne a shocking 86% of the burden of austerity measures since their onset in 2010. This is due largely to the economically disadvantaged status of women within society, as well as to the social roles they are more likely to occupy. Women are significantly more likely to work part-time, to rely on benefits to supplement their incomes, and to be in insecure employment. They also make up a large proportion of public sector workers and home care and agency staff, meaning they are especially likely to feel the effects of NHS and local government cuts, and of the crisis in social care. In their personal lives, too, women are far more likely to be severely affected by the cuts, comprising for example 90% of single parents within the UK (a group which is predicted, through changes to universal credit alone, to lose an average of £800 per year by 2020), and 72% of those receiving the increasingly difficult to obtain Carers’ Allowance. It is also vital here to acknowledge the influence of multiple interlocking oppressions – evident, for example, in recent findings showing that black single mothers in the poorest households are set to be £3,996 worse off by 2020, compared to a loss of only £410 for white men in the richest households.

Ultimately, though ostensibly preaching equality, by embracing the ideology of austerity, May and her government are working on the underlying assumption that certain people’s health, happiness, and even lives are worth sacrificing in the name of the economy. That so many of these most vulnerable are women both confirms and reinforces the persistence of gender inequality in the UK. While the Conservatives have undoubtedly helped to bring about some positive changes to the lives of women in recent years, these are undermined by the damage of persistent cuts, to services and sources of income on which so many women are dependent. This cannot and will not change until austerity measures are recognised as both profoundly flawed and profoundly gendered – a development which, unfortunately, seems unlikely to occur any time soon.

[Chloe Spence] 

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