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Financial Appeal

We're up and running! An appeal for funds to kickstart the IS Network

Financial Appeal

Sexism in an age of austerity

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IS NetworkThis essay is a contribution to the discussions we are currently having on the left about how socialists relate to gender issues. We often find socialists sidelining a gender analysis of oppression, in favour of a class analysis. (One recent example of this was that the effect of the cuts on women was not the subject of any of the sessions at the People’s Assembly in June.)

The following analysis seeks to address how and to what extent the age of austerity is adding to the oppression of women.


While recognising that the savage attacks on the welfare state and the public sector are driven by the desire to make all ordinary people pay for the repair of the fragile capitalist system, we should work out who is the worst affected (this essay will illustrate that women are disproportionately affected), what sort of support they need, where they are working, whether they are caring for anyone and what it will take for them to fight their oppressors. We must then make sure our unions and organisations facilitate the most oppressed, and organisationally educate all members about their particular needs. This will not divide us, but solidify us.

Why women’s experience matters

At Left Unity’s national meeting in May, a socialist woman argued that women should not be reserved 50% of the seats on the Left Unity coordinating committee. She continues to defend that position. But what is supposed to be achieved by denying the very experience of women, which is very often different from that of men? The type of experience that we need in decision-making roles very often comes from women, who may not have the confidence to lead without encouragement.

It’s our duty on the left to facilitate and give a voice to women. There is a devastating truth to uncover: women are being forced to pick up the cost of the financial crisis, by starving, accepting abuse and selling their bodies.

The coalition’s attacks on benefits and legal aid have disproportionately affected women, particularly women with children. Cuts to domestic violence services have forced survivors of domestic abuse into dangerous and precarious situations, outlined below. There has been a gradual erosion of support for women raising children. Since 2010, women have been forced to look for work as soon as their youngest child turns five, despite the lack of adequate childcare to make this realistic. The school day is less than the average working day, and the most parent-friendly jobs tend to be in the public sector, which is contracting as a result of austerity.

Welfare reform and women

The Welfare Reform Act 2012 requires local authorities to charge social housing tenants what the government calls a ‘spare bedroom subsidy’, if they fall into the category of having a spare bedroom. This is better known as the infamous ‘bedroom tax’. It is predominantly women who fall victim to this tax, because the majority of people claiming housing benefit are women. (More than a million more women claim housing benefit than men, and they are very often single parents.)

The bedroom tax is applied by reducing housing benefit by 14% for one ‘spare’ bedroom and 25% for two. In particular, children under the age of 10 – or under the age of 16 if they are the same sex – are required to share a room. (If they have a bedroom each it will be classified as ‘spare’ and taxed.) In practice, this could mean teenagers being forced out of a stable and settled home during their GCSEs, and forced to move to a smaller house.

There are almost no social houses available, so people – again, very often single mothers – are staying in their existing homes and paying the bedroom tax. In Cardiff alone there are just 115 one and two bedroom social housing properties available – but 4,000 tenants affected by the bedroom tax.

The government recently revealed that 74% of the people affected by its housing benefit cap, in four London borough areas, are lone parents – and women make up 95% of lone parents. Even though women with children under the age of five are not supposed to have to look for work, they may be forced to in order to make up the shortfall in their rent.

Locally in Cardiff we’re witnessing communities being torn apart by the bedroom tax.

In the local social housing community of Butetown, in the Cardiff Docks area, residents have worked tirelessly over the years to bring together the varying cultural groups within the community. For example, a National Theatre event called De Gabay was launched by five Somali poets to celebrate the Somali community and the residents of Butetown. The event was very intimate, with visitors being led from home to home in Butetown, listening to the stories of Somali families. This project brought people from different cultures and traditions together, breaking down divisive barriers.

On a recent visit to Butetown, we witnessed the resurfacing of hostility in the community, particularly racial and cultural divides. Local Somali women are blamed for having ‘too many children’ and therefore pushing out families who have been established in the community for generations. The UK government cares very little about investing in projects which will see an end to sexism and racism, because it is driven by the long-term ideological goal of the dismantling of the welfare state.
The Home Office claims the ‘bedroom tax’ policy is a sensible solution, to ensure social housing shortages are managed in order to meet the needs of almost two million people on the social housing waiting list and half a million families living in overcrowded conditions. In reality, however, this is an attack designed to shift families out of social housing and into the precarious and insecure private housing sector. If this was a cost-cutting exercise, instead of a purely ideological one, the illogical results should have created a U-turn by now. Private sector housing is far more expensive, but this is where families and very often single mothers with children will be forced to retreat. In the meantime, people are falling into arrears.

There are also very worrying reports that women are turning to prostitution to feed themselves and their families. The Lighthouse Project in Hull, a charity supporting street workers, has seen an increase in the number of women taking up prostitution. The charity has raised concerns that the increase is the result of benefit cuts, sanctions and rising unemployment. This is the reality of the barbaric attacks on people’s standards of living.

Women and work

Women are poorer than men. We experience an average pay gap of 14.9%. The majority, 64%, of women are low-paid workers, and 40% of ethnic minority women live in poverty. Minority women are faced with the oppression both of sexism and of racism. Women’s average personal pension is just 62% of the average for men.

Lone parents are more likely to live below the poverty line. Childcare costs in the UK are among the highest in the world. On average, benefits and tax credits make up a fifth of women’s income, compared to a tenth of men’s (Women’s Equality Network Wales, WEN Wales Report on the Impact of the UK Budget Cuts on Women in Wales, March 2012).

Women have been hit the hardest by cuts to tax credits and public sector pay, according to research by the House of Commons Library. 73% of women were affected by these cuts, compared to 27% of men. It is predicted another 144,000 jobs will be cut from the public sector as a result of the latest spending review in June 2013. Women have already lost over 250,000 public sector jobs since the coalition came to office in 2010.

Women make up two thirds of the public sector workforce. It is very likely there is a close correlation between the number of job losses in the public sector and the rapid increase in women’s unemployment.

Women and the removal of legal aid

Legal aid is being withdrawn from employment law, asylum support and family law. The erosion of legal aid in employment law will disproportionately affect women because women are paid less than men, and are less likely to be unionised. We will see the most vulnerable women fall victim to the legal aid cuts in the asylum support process. Survivors of domestic violence will be stripped of access to justice in the family courts.

Free legal help and legal representation for appeals to the Employment Appeal Tribunal is no longer available. People who experience discrimination in the workplace, including unfair and wrongful dismissal, redundancy and wage disputes, will be forced to represent themselves against their employer’s legal teams. Women will no longer have access to legal help and representation in the Employment Appeals Tribunal in relation to harassment claims.

Women’s legal group Rights of Women argue that the removal of legal aid for asylum support law cases will mean women will be forced to fill in their own asylum appeal notices, and although legal representation during the appeals process has been retained it falls far short of what is needed to ensure the adequate protection of women who are at their most vulnerable state. We cannot overlook the complex needs of women who have to deal with language barriers at the same time as childcare responsibilities, not to mention the fact that women claiming asylum have very often fled violent and traumatic situations.

The erosion of access to legal aid in family law is not only a massive burden for poor people, but could potentially throw up all sorts of problems relating to violence against women. Legal help, family mediation, family help and legal representation will remain in place only where domestic violence can be proved. There needs to be ‘clear objective evidence of the need for protection’, which is a high bar that means a survivor will need to have an injunction against the perpetrator or other clear evidence. Rights of Women argue that survivors of domestic violence who do not go to the police or get an injunction, but instead access refuge or relocate, will have insufficient evidence to prove domestic violence and will therefore go unprotected.

It is unjust to penalise survivors of domestic abuse because they haven’t jumped through all the hoops necessary in order to prove their circumstances. Most family cases are settled out of court, according to the Office for National Statistics. The minority of women who deem it necessary to take a case to court should not be hindered from doing so because of some primitive legal guidelines. A survivor of domestic violence could even find herself in the position of representing herself, face to face, against her perpetrator.

Domestic violence services and resources

The domestic violence sector is under attack, as a result of a reduction in local authority spending. Women survivors who have found the courage and strength to seek help, whose lives depend on finding shelter and support away from abusive relationships, are being turned away from publicly funded services. A 2012 study conducted by Prof Sylvia Walby shows the inevitable damage attrition of violence and sexual abuse services will do to women. Gender-based violence is expected to increase as a result of the failure to put the safety of women before economic considerations.

•    31% of funding to the domestic violence and sexual abuse sector from local authorities was cut between 2010/11 and 2011/12.
•    The Women’s Aid 2012 annual survey revealed that 28,000 women were turned away from the first refuge they approached due to a lack of space.
•    On a typical day, 230 women (9% of all women seeking refuge) were turned away due to a lack of space.
•    Citizens Advice Bureaus (CAB) face closure across the UK. CAB helped over two million people with seven million problems in 2012.

In 2011 it was reported that women accessing refuge services were informed that there was no space and advised to seek shelter in accident and emergency departments, Occupy camps and even night buses.

In the long term, the attacks on women’s support services may prove to be a false economy in any case. Heather Harvey argues that if women are forced back to violent relationships as a result of limited domestic violence services, the human and economic costs will become apparent further down the line. The longer a woman stays in an abusive relationship, the more difficult it will be to reverse the consequent physical and psychological damage, and this could create more work for the NHS and the courts.

Specialist domestic violence services are reporting wholesale closures of their centres. Imkaan, which runs services for women from black and ethnic minority groups, has had to close two of its six specialist refuges. Women who have been abused and are in a minority group are going to suffer in silence, as a result of a government that puts profit before people. If a woman from a minority group cannot access specialist services, where she knows the advice will be more understanding and specific to her needs, the system has not only failed her because of her gender, but also because of her race and culture.

Southall Black Sisters launched a campaign to end violence against immigrant women, the Abolish No Recourse to Public Funds Campaign. Government policy puts people who marry a UK citizen on a two-year probationary period, which means they cannot apply for leave to remain until this period ends and must rely on the material resources of their partner. Women from minority groups suffering from domestic violence would have to consider jeopardising their immigration status in order to leave their partner and possibly face being sent back to their country of origin. The reality is, unless something is done to combat legislation giving the man an institutionally sanctioned, dominant role within a relationship, abused women will be forced to stay in violent situations.

Women who are trafficked into the country for the sex industry also require specialist services, which take into account their unique circumstances, including protection issues and language barriers. If we erode specialist services like these, which play a key role in overcoming the larger structures of violence, we are not going to prevent the multi-faceted oppression suffered by women.

Violence against women does not only consist of a man hitting and sexually abusing a woman – the state is complicit in violence against women. Attacks on the domestic violence support sector, through severe austerity programmes, force women into dangerous and life-threatening situations. There is a clear need to ensure the sustainability of services for women, which means the provision and retention of suitable government-funded services. Women must also be entitled to legal aid on request in the family courts, when the woman alone deems it necessary, to protect herself and her family.

Representation of women

The disproportionate effects of austerity on women and the very different experiences women have should be identified and brought into the core of our organisations. In Left Unity, some argued that leaders should be appointed democratically on the basis of ‘merit’, so there would be no need for a quota. But, democratically, we collectively recognised the importance and value of women’s experience and chose to implement a quota for the part of Left Unity’s national coordinating group elected from the national meeting. This was supported by a large majority of members at the meeting.

Men dominate left-wing organisations and politics as a whole. Just look at how men have again come to dominate inside the national coordinating group, because of gender imbalance in the reps sent by local groups. If we fail to discuss and flag up the experiences of women in wider society, where the very real oppression is felt and the struggle fought, who decides what merit is – men?

We need to ensure that the structural conditions within our organisations take account of women's circumstances, such as childcare, to ensure we benefit from women’s most valued and crucial experience. In Cardiff Left Unity, for example, we alternate our meetings each month between evenings and weekends to ensure women’s participation. Not only must we set a quota and encourage women to participate, we must then structurally facilitate such participation.

The women within our organisations recognise the need to change the capitalist system, because of their very experience in the class, in our workplaces, unions and in our campaigns. It is healthy and necessary for our organisations to function with the knowledge and understanding of the effects of austerity on the worst oppressed. This recognition will encourage women into the organisations, and to organise on the ground, against our oppression. It is our duty to build the confidence of women. In Left Unity and the People’s Assembly, we would do well to listen and educate ourselves by giving a real voice on the left to the women of our class.