So many groups of people have been crushed by the UK government’s austerity policies its almost impossible to single one out. However without a doubt the multiple effects – and the sheer scale of the harm – inflicted on women over the past five years deserves to be highlighted over and over again.
I’ve been researching and writing on austerity since it was first introduced in Britain in 2010 and over that time I have been appalled, shocked and disturbed by the litany of cruelty it has unleashed, and by the coldness of a government that could do such a thing to its own citizens. I’ve spoken to people at the end of their tether and to people who have survived loved ones who could no longer stand the strain and took their own lives. I have spoken with and heard the stories of numerous people, many of them women, who are barely surviving the pressure. Think for a moment about these women.
Think about ‘Anna’, a mother who had her benefits sanctioned and, as the sole provider for her family, resorted to shoplifting sanitary towels for her teenage daughter so desperate was her situation and so powerful was her instinct to protect her child from that shame. And what about ‘Joanne’, another lone parent who while she was in hospital giving birth to her second child was sanctioned for not making an appointment at the Job Centre.
Think too of the mother who no longer gets a break from caring for her disabled child because respite services have been slashed. Or of another who, in an effort to keep her children warm without revealing how little money the family has, covers them in blankets in the living room, huddles them together, and pretends they are ‘camping’. And what about the victim of domestic violence fleeing a partner determined to track her down for whom the lifeline of Legal Aid has been removed leaving her even more vulnerable to abuse?
It just goes on and on.
Let’s talk facts for a moment. Women in our society are more likely to be caregivers be it for children or aging parents so they are most likely to be affected by cuts to local and community services that support them in this work. Women are also more likely to be on low pay which means that falls in wages since the financial crisis have relegated hundred of thousands – and the families that rely on them – to a state of almost perpetual poverty, even when in work. Not a week goes by without a story of women struggling in the face of austerity or without a report calculating the damage being wrought. In January for example, the charity Gingerbread warned that the newly proposed benefit cap of £23,000 would devastate lone parents – the vast majority of whom are women and who were already reeling from the last benefit cap.
Earlier this week the specter of capping child benefit was raised once again with a proposal to limit it to three children per family. This on top of a 14% cut to the value of the benefit in the life of the current parliament according to The Child Poverty Action Group. Who does child benefit help most? Children. Who is mainly responsible for using child benefit to feed and clothe kids in or on the poverty line? Women.
And let’s not forget the importance of the Welfare State for women. As well as the Equal Pay Act and other legislation that guaranteed for example, paid and extended maternity leave, the Welfare State has since its inception been a lever for freedom and independence for women across the United Kingdom. It has meant women and their children did not starve when there was no work, that they had access to a decent education and a healthcare system any nation would be proud. And yet, here we are five years into austerity and we see the state being shrunk to pre-2nd World War levels with women – but especially poorer women – ranking as the biggest group of losers.
Today, on International Women’s Day, a day when we collectively acknowledge the experiences and contributions of women everywhere, every one of us who has challenged the outright folly of austerity will be standing shoulder to shoulder with the mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, carers and campaigners who are struggling to bring an end to this injustice.
Mary O’Hara is the author of Austerity Bites: A Journey to the Sharp End of Cuts in the UK. http://www.austeritybitesuk.com The paperback will be published by Policy Press on April 16th 2015. http://www.policypress.co.uk/display.asp?K=9781447315704&sf1=keyword&st1=Mary+O%27Hara&m=1&dc=5
Guardian Articles at: http://www.theguardian.com/profile/maryohara