A report from the Women’s Assembly Against Austerity

Category: Women's Liberation
Published on Tuesday, 25 February 2014
Written by Kat Burdon-Manley
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I made the decision to go to the Women’s Assembly Against Austerity because it is rare to spend a day talking about women’s issues on the left and listening to women’s struggles, particularly on a national level and with such a broad section of the left. I began my day in the anti-racist workshop, having missed the preliminary session. I decided to go the anti racist workshop over the others, because I am on the Left Unity Anti Racist and Immigration commissioning group and I am a refugee caseworker. I think I went to the best meeting, but I knew this would be the case because I have inside knowledge about the layers of racism and sexism and how austerity is affecting people in BME communities in a structural way, as well as the communities having to deal with being blamed for the lack of jobs within wider society. However, this was the least attended meeting and most people in the room seemed to be involved and working within BME community organisations, so the discussion was between people in the know.


There was concern expressed in the room that the anti racist session was the least attended out of 4 on at the same time, so people felt the same as me, and this was a shame because of the multiple layers of exploitation and oppression black women face. The speaker in attendance was Zita Holbourne of the campaign group BARAC (Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts) and the Chair Barbara Ntumy of the NUS Black students said a few words on behalf of the UAF speaker Sabby Dahlu, who sent her apologies. The Councillor Rania Khan was also unable to make the session. However, all was not lost, because we were able to have a longer discussion from the floor.

Zita spoke about how migrants are being blamed for the cuts, that austerity is an unnecessary idealogical attack, and we need to dispel myths and lies aimed at migrants, who actually benefit society by contributing millions in taxes and are less likely to claim benefits. The BME communities are the worst affected by the scrapping of EMA and tripling of tuition fees, because they are the poorest communities as a result of layers of discrimination, so the erosion of access to education will increase the inequality felt within BME communities. The stop and search practices by the police of black men and the Immigration Bill going through Parliament will create an apartheid state. The Immigration Bill, if passed, will mean migrant workers, who pay taxes, will have to wait for 5 years before accessing free healthcare provision, which will mean that the children of migrant families will not have access to free healthcare. It is now acceptable to hold racist views, because the underlying racist attitudes of people are being legitimised by government policy.

Black women are discriminated against on the basis of race and gender, with all the attached negative stereotypes and labels, so black women should be included on the agenda of women’s activities. Women in BME communities are poor, very often single mums and hold down 2-3 jobs, so we need to be supportive and inclusive when we organise on the left. We can improve inclusivity by holding meetings in BME communities, and opening up lines of communication with advisory services within these communities. We should ask our unions to save spaces on coaches for people in our communities, for national demonstrations, who wouldn’t be able to afford to go otherwise. This would benefit people within BME communities, because the unemployment rates of black people are double the number of white people and black people are more likely to be out of work for longer when they are unemployed. BARAC is campaigning to boycott the police force on the basis that they are institutionally racist, so organisations working in BME communities should refuse to have non-essential contact with the police, until they admit that they are institutionally racist. It is also becoming more difficult to monitor racism in the police force, because race monitoring and advisory services are being cut.

The contributions from the floor were from a wide range of people, coming from organisations such as RAPAR (Refugee and Asylum Seeker Participatory Action Research) and many others. A woman from RAPAR told us about a forum set up by the police in Manchester, which includes representatives from 15 Mosques in the area, which was initiated by deceiving participants in to believing it was set up to tackle Islamophobia, but is actually run by the counter terrorism unit. The same woman was approached by police when she spoke at a vigil in Manchester, set up to show solidarity with protesters in Egypt, because the police officer expressed that they may upset children in the area. The police asked how *they* would like it if British people covered up their monuments with the Union Jack like the protesters were covering up Queen Victoria’s statue with the Egyptian flag, even though she is British so she wasn’t sure who ‘they’ were supposed to be – was it because she was a British Muslim woman wearing a hijab?

We heard that 1 in 14 white women are unemployed compared to 1 in 5 black women. In 1 borough of London, black people made up 5% of the workforce, yet 23% of redundancies in the area. Another woman expressed concern that only black women academics, and union leaders make it on to panels and asked why the Stratford mothers were not represented on panels at the Women’s Assembly. The Stratford mothers are campaigning to save the Focus E.15 hostel, for young mothers and mothers to be. The same woman also suggested that the all African women’s group, fighting for asylum should be represented on panels and that there were mainly women supporting the inquest of Jimmy Mubenga, yet they are invisible in the movement. It was great to hear the speaker Zita expressing support for the grassroots campaign group Sisters Against the EDL.

The second workshop I attended, which was fuller than they first, was called ‘Building a National Movement through Community Campaigning.’ Donna Guthrie, a union and BARAC activist talked about the need for community campaigns to include black people, because 58% of Afro Caribbean women are single parent families, 1 in 5 black women are unemployed and will find it tougher to gain employment when they lose their job, if they had one. It was great to hear a continuation of the discussion we were having in the anti racist meeting, because there was a wider and larger audience in the room. Donna added that we should be working with race equality councils to help organise women in BME communities to participate in anti-cuts campaigns, because they are the worst affected by austerity. There was certainly a fair amount of support for an intersectional approach to our analysis, particularly from some black women activists, who highlighted how the cuts affect people differently, for instance, the no recourse to public funds extension to 5 years will disproportionately affect people from BME communities such as the Bengali communities.

A Save Lewisham Hospital campaigner spoke from the platform about their victory in saving Lewisham hospital. The Lewisham activist advised that working with organisations like the BMA (quite radical in the area), putting on public meetings, and a local demonstration helped build the campaign. A broad united front, with people who agree with your goal is essential to a successful campaign, and at the same time politicises people. Creative campaigning in the community engages people, and trying to keep the campaign jargon free, because words like ‘privatisation’ may seem common place on the left, but the activist found that jargon puts people off getting involved. The Lewisham activist also expressed that it’s good to get support from national campaigns, such as Keep the NHS Public. There are now plans to fast-track hospital closures without consultation, which will mean victories such as Lewisham hospital may be a thing of the past.

The platform contributions were then followed by contributions from the floor. A woman talked about the need for victories when campaigning, because demoralisation can set activists back and the Bedroom Tax campaign seems to be providing that inspiration at the moment. The public are demoralised because there appears to be no political alternative to the mainstream parties. I subsequently spoke to Kate Hudson who told me that she spoke about the need for an alternative to the mainstream parties at the preliminary session, and Left Unity could be that. It was great to see that the Left Unity women’s broadsheet, put together by the women’s caucus was well received throughout the day.

There was some really creative and inspiring ideas coming from activist women from all over the country, which is what this is all about – we need to come together like this, in a united way and tell each other what works and share ideas. The boating contribution, from one woman was great, she talked about getting a group of friends from the boating community to help block the Thames during national anti cuts demonstrations. Another woman talked about a campaign in Manchester to fight to keep the local swimming centre and library open, which included occupying both. The occupations had the support of the employees of the swimming centre and children were in occupation so they had lots of activities on for the children, while campaigning to keep these local and much loved facilities open. An Action Aid campaigner talked about linking local anti cuts campaigns and structural issues with globally relevant issues of tax avoidance and tax havens. That we need to join up campaigns globally and support all campaigns and strikes internationally by showing solidarity to all workers and activists around the globe.

There was an uncomfortable and triggering moment in the 2nd session, when a woman from the SWP, who was complicit in the covering up of a rape investigation of a very young woman, spoke at the meeting. I think we still have some way to go in terms of understanding safe spaces and ensuring meetings are places where women feel welcome and safe. The inclusion of a woman in a leadership position, who acted irresponsibly, and sexist within her own organisation is problematic and this must be recognised in the movement.

The day ended with women huddling and speaking about the day, the issues and what we got out of it. I found, as I always do in women’s meetings, that the dynamics are very different. It’s also very unusual to hear so many women speaking and getting a women’s perspective on the movement is very inspiring. I also felt very inspired and humbled by the black women, fighting within BME communities and their unions and I really felt like I learned something, which will inspire me to find new ways of being inclusive on the campaigns within my own city of Cardiff and in the organisations I am involved in: The IS Network and Left Unity.

Upcoming Events

There is a protest at Hyde Park Corner on the 5th April highlighting the issue that the majority of expensive apartments in the area are owned by companies which are registered in offshore tax havens to avoid council tax, only 15-20 apartments are registered to pay council tax out of 85.

There is a Stand up to Racism and Fascism rally on the 22nd March from 11am, on UN Anti-Racism day, starting at the Nelson Mandela statue in Parliament and a parade to a rally in Trafalgar Square.