Poverty: why women’s suffering is everybody’s business
Modern history of women's progress dates back over 150 years. We're often reminded of momentous milestones which paved the way for the liberalisation of women in contemporary Britain, especially on days of significance such as International Women's Day.
But society has evolved and retrograde policies have undone our achievements; on days of significance we need to be honest about the battles that lie ahead.
Timeline of progress
Profound change took course from the plight of women’s activism; from the championing of the Suffragettes to the 21st Century Women’s Rights movements - the battles won in a never-ending war.
Since the 1800’s this progress has been exhibited in many forms. Through the fight for the right to vote and hold official positions equal to those of men, to protests, activism, and solidarity; communities were borne and platforms of hope and equality were created.
The second world war gave credence to the debate about women in the workforce and their role in the economy, thus influencing future policy about equality of pay.
The introduction of the contraceptive pill gave women opportunities and choices to determine their roles; acquiring the rights to choose the workforce over domesticity.
The Equal Pay Act 1970, predetermined by the famous Dagenham’s Women’s Strike which paved the way to groundbreaking women’s rights campaigns, enabled women to obtain mortgages, credit, and bank accounts in their own right, access education, and work in jobs traditionally viewed as male roles.
The effect of progress was rapid and infectious - as soon as women saw what was possible, the traditional moulds were broken.
The beginning of the end
In 2010, after more than a century of progress, retrograde austerity measures were introduced, causing harm to every disenfranchised group within society.
Gross injustices were administered to the most vulnerable, with little reprieve. Women were no exception.
Contrary to popular belief, poverty is not gender-neutral. It is endemic yet not inevitable. We must all do better in exposing the injustices of political choices.
Who fares the worst?
After the financial crisis, the establishment promised change, and in 2010 the Tory manifesto for austerity was elected. It was a new political era; one which promised to include us all but at the time it was unclear how the climate would evolve, how the burden of the recession would weigh, and on whose shoulders.
The austerity programme began with what was later known as ‘Triple Jeopardy’ - pay freezes; cuts to benefits; and closure of local government support services such as Sure Start centres, domestic violence units, mental health services, and early help support.
With more women than men claiming benefits; staffing the public and social care sector; and relying on support services, it was women who fared the worst.
Quietly creating barriers
Initially, the regressive attitude towards women was subtle. It didn't involve overt attacks of discrimination by trying to prevent women from voting or from becoming MP’s or discouraging them from applying for jobs that men were doing. It was by denying women opportunities for progressing; by creating barriers to the playing field, through increasing financial pressures and limiting access to the labour market.
And the benefit cuts in 2012 were just the beginning. Year on year they continued, through reductions in sickness benefits, housing benefit, and working tax credit top-ups. Whilst rents soared and low-wages flooded the labour market, MPs' famously grounded their opposition by citing their preferences to swim through vomit rather than vote for harmful policies, whilst women became twice as dependent on social security as men.
The economy was unstable and women, in particular, were to shoulder the burden of its fragility. In 2016 the Women's Budget Group predicted that by 2020 women will have shouldered 85% of the burden of austerity.
A systematic approach
The assault on women by way of systematic hostility is unprecedented. All groups and backgrounds of women have been adversely impacted; from carers to lone parents, to disabled women, BAME women, refugee women, pensioners, victims of domestic abuse, and those both in and out of work.
If you're unlucky enough to be a woman who fits into a combination of these categories, the disadvantages you face are overwhelming.
A woman's work
Under austerity, there has been a notable rise in unpaid carers, primarily because family members are taking on the roles abandoned by the state.
Despite the major contribution that unpaid carers make to society, saving the Government billions in Adult Social Care every year, the Carers Allowance benefit is the lowest-paid benefit of all. It involves a low earnings threshold which makes it harder to work on top of caring, compounded by poorer health outcomes for carers through the burden of their roles.
As women fulfil these roles, in addition to taking career breaks to have children, they are more likely to work in unstable, low wage, low-skilled jobs, which means over the average lifetime they earn less money than men, thus widening the gender pay gap, with fewer financial assets and reduced access to pensions.
Women care too much
Carers are adversely affected in several other ways. Take the issue of caring for someone who receives a disability benefit, for example. More people than ever are losing their disability benefits upon reassessment, causing the person claiming the Carers Allowance to lose their benefit, too. Yet the role of the carer doesn’t change; if anything the tasks of caring become greater because the disabled person’s health suffers as a result of the increased financial stress.
This has a profound effect, perpetuating a cycle of stress, crises and poor mental health. Plus, many carers are disabled themselves.
Women and welfare reforms
There are more than 2 million single parents in the UK today, of which over 90% are women, most of whom rely on some form of state benefit top-up.
The three notorious elements of the welfare reforms - Universal Credit, increased use of sanctions, and the Benefit Cap - have pummelled people into poverty at an unprecedented rate, primarily affecting women and children.
85% of those affected by the benefit cap are single mothers confirming women are disproportionately affected due to their circumstances of being a lone parent. The cap is proven to cause hardship and sustained poverty creating further barriers to escaping the benefits trap.
The detriment to women of the patriarchal Universal Credit system; the two child-policy rule causing women to end wanted pregnancies; and the cruel and immoral 'rape clause', are all remarkable in their contempt for women. All have been the subject of high profile court cases.
As well as undermining women’s economic independence, the system poses substantial risks of safeguarding to women and children concerning financial control and domestic abuse, making it harder for women to exit abusive relationships.
Negotiation by starvation
Sanctions, the punitive measures implemented to starve people into compliance, are one of the worst elements of the benefits system. These policies don't incentivise people into work, instead they cause destitution and suicide. Women report turning to prostitution to survive.
But these reforms are reflective of something much more cynical; the intent to cause harm through the indoctrination of people to believe that things which come for free, shouldn't come easy.
Women at even greater risk
Due to the bureaucratic processes and lengthy delays for asylum seekers, between the termination of home office transitional support to being able to claim benefits, refugee women are inherently more at risk of being harmed by the benefits system and are often the victims of sexual abuse and violence. Language barriers, digital access, and the perception of women's abilities pose huge obstacles for them in engaging with the welfare systems in the UK.
BAME communities have higher rates of poverty. Families generally have lower incomes, larger households, high numbers of dependent children, and greater unemployment rates of any ethnic group, and they face hostile attitudes within the system. This places women from these communities at a greater risk of sustained poverty.
Punished for living longer
More than two-thirds of pensioners, and the majority of single pensioners, are women. The increase in the pension age, combined with overall less earnings than men, has pushed older women into mandatory work activity, despite the fact they often lack the skills and the physical capability to do the work.
Poverty for pensioners is often compounded by the complex mixed aged couples rule regarding pensioners claiming Universal Credit, and fuel poverty affecting more women than men because women are living longer and often living alone.
Where a household’s disposable income is reduced, spending on children decreases, thus perpetuating a cycle of poverty, affecting a child’s ability to flourish and thrive.
With over 4 million children in poverty in the UK today (a figure that is set to rise significantly), the UN Special Rapporteur described poverty in a damning report in 2019, as systematic and tragic, describing the conditions of the benefits system as akin to 19th-century workhouses, and concluded it was entirely preventable.
An increasing number of children are going to school hungry, without essential items such as school uniforms and footwear, and many are living in temporary and unsafe accommodation including hostels and shipping containers.
Parents are being forced to use food banks. Infant mortality rates are rising and women's life expectancy is shorter for those in poorer areas. The recent Marmot review highlights the impact of austerity on health inequalities, confirming the decline in life expectancy for the poorest 10% of women.
Poverty is a direct cause of children being removed by the local authorities; not only is poverty causing neglect through hunger, lack of warmth and shelter, but the erosion of early intervention services means families are hitting crises point much quicker.
Women are victims of institutional abuse, systemtically through the infrastructures of the patriarchal welfare state and the construction of capitalism, and as a result are living through traumas exacerbated by the abolition of early intervention support services and abdication of state responsibility.
Children are being exposed to these traumas, whilst experiencing psychological and physiological neglect, resulting in a perpetuating cycle of harm and the denial of their human rights and opportunities.
What bigger failing than women living on the streets?
Even more worrying is the level of abuse homeless women are subjected to. Often sexual abuse and violence causes women to flee; in the first instance from their homes to the streets, then fleeing the streets by going underground because domestic violence units have suffered savage cuts. The links between the causes of homelessness, abuse, children being removed, and austerity, are obvious: they are all part of a patriarchal system that pervades with impunity.
These patterns of abuse are inherent in a society that doesn’t value or protect its citizens; that has crumbled under the weight of austerity and patriarchal policies that seek to cause harm.
The sanction of self-esteem
Poverty erodes the soul. It engineers the deprivation of personal power, crushing people into destitution and despair, stifling their ability to be heard, bit by bit, until they are silenced.
Living in sustained poverty and denying a person of opportunities creates barriers to participation for enrichment, progression, and development, particularly within political spheres.
Because women are at a greater risk of deeper and sustained poverty, there are less female influences within the realms of being able to effect political change. With this absence of influence, policies will always be dictated by men. And FYI: austerity isn't over.
When did we accept the repression of the evolution of women?
When did we become desensitised to the harm caused to the most vulnerable, or rising infant mortality as a result of poverty? When did we become apathetic to women living shorter lives as a result of health inequalities, manifested by wealth injustices?
We live in a rich economy in a progressive society; there is no starker testimony to how we have grotesquely failed than children dying in shipping containers and women sleeping on the streets.
What can we do?
We must challenge this oppression at every opportunity. We can volunteer at local food banks, tweet harrowing stories, join women’s rights campaign groups, and share information about child poverty. Write to your MP, whichever party they represent, to tell them this is not ok, that it is not in your name.
Sign petitions; read the Female Face of Poverty; take to the streets. We must mobilise and we must take action now.
The task of rising up does not just belong to women
Poverty is everybody's business. In the name of all women, we must say that this is not a society we want to live in. We must want more for women; we must want them to drive the vehicle for change.
In the words of Emmeline Pankhurst: "I know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion".
Or, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion for. And that is why poverty is everybody's battle and everybody's war.
Kate Anstee is a freelance Social Justice and anti-poverty campaigner. Contact here for more information.