More welfare and budget cuts will threaten parity, compromise women’s safety, and further exacerbate the damage caused by years of austerity
In 1865, for the first time in history, John Stuart Mill publically introduced the concept of women’s suffrage. 150 years on, would the women who selflessly chained themselves to railings, and sacrificed their health in hunger strikes, be satisfied with the state of gender equality today?
George Osbourne’s cutthroat budget, which calls for the large scale slashing of welfare, may give us an answer. Government plans for further austerity, which will hit women the hardest, are enough to make Pankhurst turn sharply in her grave.
Women are disproportionately impacted by austerity, and the last five years have shown that it is women who are paying for the deficit, in more ways than one.
Of the £26billion cuts to benefits, pay, tax credits and pensions so far, 85% has come directly from women’s incomes, according to The House of Commons Library. And women remain as vulnerable, if not more so, in this new government.
The European Women’s Lobby (EWL) identifies austerity as a catalyst for propagating gender inequality, and states that cutbacks largely impact those who have “little voice in decision-making,” namely women and children. Thus far, austerity across Europe has had a “double impact on women.”
Whilst financial autonomy is repeatedly surrendered, women have also had to “cushion the impact” of cuts to public services. At the same time, according to the Fair Deal for Women Campaign, women have paid off almost 80% of the deficit.
This government plans to wave off the deficit at the same rate – which women will continue to pay for. But this time, pressures on women might be exacerbated by severe cuts to welfare. Plans to limit both universal and tax credit to the first two children of a family, will hit women where it hurts.
But there still appears to be an illusory understanding of where we actually are with gender equality in this country. Yes, employment is on this rise for women. But much of this is part-time work, self-employment or zero hour contracts – all unstable and poorly paid. As it stands, the pay gap is still gaping at 19.1%.
“The growth of employment is not in high quality jobs, the increase in the minimum wage does not take it to a living wage,” says Professor Diane Elson, chair of the Women’s Budget Group. She forecasts a rather gloomy future for women, with pressures surpassing those experienced over the last five years.
The growth in employment is not in high quality jobs
The narrowing gap between employment rates for men and women does not demonstrate growing equality, according to the EWL. Instead, this may represent a weakening of employment situations for both sexes.
The government claims to have created “more jobs than the rest of the EU put together since 2010,” and has future plans to help businesses create a further two million jobs. But private sector jobs will not plug the pay gap.
A report by the EWL found that it is a substantial “public sector that has tended to reduce the average gender pay gap.” However, there are set to be between 900,000 and 1.1 million public sector jobs lost by 2018, with women facing more redundancy than men.
“Cuts to public services will continue, and cuts to the real value of public sector wages,” says Professor Elson. “And there are a higher proportion of women than of men working in the public sector.”
there are a higher proportion of women than of men working in the public sector
Over the next four years, public sector pay rises will be frozen at 1%. Paul Johnson, from The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), explained what this meant in their Summer Budget Analysis:
“If private sector pay rises as expected, we think this will take public sector pay levels well below their long term average relative to pay in the private sector, and indeed well below anything seen since we can readily make comparisons back to the early 1990s. Up to now, public sector pay restraint has merely served to match changes in the private sector. We are entering a new and much tougher phase.”
The stability of the public sector, which arguably provides the best platform for equality and stability, is being compromised. Professor Elson believes that the Summer Budget will hinder the advancement of gender equality.
“The rise in minimum wage will help low income women, but only those over 25,” she says.
“Cuts to welfare benefits will take more from the purse, than from the wallet.”
Cuts to welfare benefits will take more from the purse, than from the wallet
Alongside local authority cuts, 13 million families will now be affected by a freeze on benefits, with each family loosing £260 a year. The IFS described these welfare cuts as a catalyst for weakening the relationship between “need and entitlement.”
Changes to the basis for uprating benefits, from the Retail Prices Index (RPI) to the Consumer Prices Index (CPI), has also had a negative impact on many women’s lives.
The CPI limited the uprating of working age benefits to 1% in 2013. This will be replaced by a freeze on Job Seeker’s allowance, Child Benefit, Employment and Support Allowance and some Housing Benefit from April of next year. This means working age benefits will continue to fall behind earnings and prices.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) identifies CPI as a direct cause of the poverty growth that is set to take place over the next five years. The IFS’ Paul Johnson said in the Summer Budget Analysis that:
“Given the array of benefit cuts, it is not surprising that the changes overall are regressive. Taking much more from poorer households than richer ones.”
A report by Feminist organisation Engender found that women are twice as reliant on welfare as men, and that there are significantly more women in the lowest income group than the male population. This means benefit caps at £23,000 in Greater London, and £20,000 elsewhere, will impact women most.
Universal Credit, a new system gradually making its way into society, replaces benefits and tax credits with a single monthly payment. The sum is paid directly into one bank account, which is often retained by the male of a household. This may result in women having less control over their household income, and reduced economic freedom.
A 2015 Scottish Welfare Reform Committee report suggested that the introduction of Universal Credit into households could result in an “increased need for women to bargain and negotiate within the household.”
For single mothers, life won’t be any better. Research by the Minimum Income Standards (MIS), which identifies the minimum income necessary for attaining essential needs with “dignity,” found that single mums can only afford 57% of the minimum standard, a decline of over 10% since 2008.
This may have been impacted by changes to welfare which mean parents utilising income support must either get a job, which may compromise their care duties, or switch to Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) when their child reaches the age of five. The new budget calls for parents to begin seeking work by the time their youngest child reaches just three.
It is not just financial upheaval women across the UK are experiencing. A feeling of diminishing safety is also palpable in the post-recession lives of British women.
Domestic violence rates in Britain are seven per cent higher than the European average, according to a recent UN Human Rights Council Report. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates that around 1.4 million women were victims of domestic abuse last year.
In the UN report, author Rashida Manjoo said:
“responding to and preventing violence against women needs to include basic survival needs, such as subsidised housing, income support, childcare and educational support.”
But budget cuts to both basic and specialist services, including women’s refuges, leave many women unsupported.
“First of all welfare cuts mean closure to services, and this means less options for those seeking help and trying to leave,” says Ruth Jones OBE, director of the National Centre for the Study and Prevention of Violence and Abuse (NCSPVA). “They are thus left in the abusive home more vulnerable because they cannot get help or support.”
Women face more exposure to violence when prevention measures are reduced by budget cuts.
“Voluntary perpetrator programmes will close, reducing the number of men who are able to seek help, and so they will continue abusing,” says Ms. Jones. “Additionally, abusers who work give women some respite to the abuse, when they are made redundant they are home, making women more vulnerable.”
Last year, the coalition government pledged a £10million fund to help support women’s refuges in 100 areas across England. A further £3.2million in funding was announced in the Summer Budget. But is this enough to eradicate the effects of austerity that saw thousands of women turned away from refuges last year?
“No, absolutely not,” says Jill Wood, Policy Manager at women’s organisation Engender. “Women’s economic inequality and gender inequality more broadly cause violence against women.”
NSSPVA Director Ruth Jones doesn’t believe the funding will be well spent:
“The money is ring fenced for certain work, so can’t be used for where we know it is needed,” she says.
Ms. Wood of Engender argues that the latest budget will have a damaging effect on women’s safety. “The cuts to public spending in the summer budget will undermine women’s financial autonomy, and therefore their physical safety, enormously,” she says. “Overall, the summer budget leaves women at greater risk of domestic abuse.”
Ms. Jones suggests that further austerity will undermine women’s freedom:
“Women already face financial barriers, because they are often financially controlled, in addition to other forms of abuse,” she says. “This makes it difficult to leave anyway. They may not have money, know how to seek help getting benefit, or what they are entitled to if they work. They would have to pay for refuge accommodation if they go down that route, and this is expensive.”
Women already face financial barriers, because they are often financially controlled
According to Ms. Jones, the advice generally given to women fleeing domestic violence is to give up work when going to a refuge, and seek housing benefits.
“But if benefits such as this are cut, then it will make this more difficult,” she says. “Cuts to family credit will make it harder to survive, so they might stay in an abusive home to have some financial security for their children.”
Cuts and modifications to Legal Aid have also made it more difficult for women to leave abusive relationships.
Manjoo’s UN report claims that many advocates find that the evidence needed to prove existence of domestic violence “places onerous burden upon victims.” Victims may have to fund a letter from their doctor at £50, and £60 for a memorandum of conviction, regardless of whether or not a victim is on benefits.
Ms. Jones thinks the cuts to legal aid have had a drastic effect on women’s lives. “They cannot get the legal aid unless they can prove they are experiencing domestic violence,” she says. “This is not simple. It is often non-physical and does not leave bruises.”
They cannot get the legal aid unless they can prove they are experiencing domestic violence. This is not simple.
UNISON found that over 1 million street lights are now switched off or dimmed every night across the country. This leaves many women feeling unsafe past 12pm, when they’re left in the dark.
The impacts of these lighting changes are largely ignored, with just 43 councils across the country implementing equality impact assessments between 2010-2014.
There appears to be a trend in ignoring the impact of budget cuts on women. A report by the University of Birmingham found that “the gendered impacts [of austerity] were largely ignored by governments,” namely in the Emergency Budget which was applied without consideration or “assessment of their likely impact on gender equality,” despite the 2010 Equality Act requiring this type of analysis. It seems history has repeated itself in this year’s Summer Budget.
As austerity endures, the progress of gender equality dwindles. If the suffragettes were here today, their arms would be clasped by rusty chains and their empty stomachs would growl.