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International Women’s Day was yesterday…

8th March has been International Women’s Day since the early 1970s. Some people have argued – the same ones get wheeled out year after year to do this – that there is no need for IWD any more, that women are doing fine on the equality scale, the battles have all been won and we should move on.

Let’s look at some evidence.

Progress reported to UN women (available in full and summary):

  • In 1911, only two countries allowed women to vote. Today that right is nearly universal
  • 173 countries now  guarantee paid maternity leave
  • 139 countries now have gender equality guaranteed in their constitutions
  • 125 countries outlaw domestic violence
  • 117 countries have equal pay laws and 115 countries guarantee women’s property rights

Not so good news:

  • 127 countries DO NOT PROHIBIT rape in marriage
  • 61 countries severely limit women’s access to abortion
  • 53% of the world’s women work in vulnerable employment
  • 50 countries have a lower age limit for marriage for women than for men
  • 10 – 30% is the average pay gap between men and women

In the UK, we still have a national parliament which is still overwhelming pale and male (though the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament are better on the gender balance), similar proportions at local government and a minority of women on the boards of businesses. Rwanda has gender equality at parliamentary level – but in the UK, the current government has a cabinet with hardly any women in it.

Why does this matter?

Women’s lives are affected by political decisions and there is a patriarchal mountain of evidence that where there is greater participation in politics by women, fundamental, practical and other problems affecting women are much more likely to be changed for the better. When Rwanda adopted methods of increasing the number of women (quotas) in parliament, the women who got elected passed laws on protection of women from violence, women’s land rights and many other laws which benefitted millions of women. When women got into UK parliament, although small in number, as they grew strength, they were behind the equal pay laws (in the 1970s), laws protecting victims of domestic violence (1970s – 1990s) and radically increasing the availability and affordability of childcare (2000s).

So where are we today, in the UK, on International Women’s Day? we are facing cuts to the welfare state which will overwhelmingly affect women far more than men, which are likely to restrict women’s independence, access to paid employment and ability to bring up their children as they wish. Legal Aid changes will mean that women trying to settle decisions about child contact or residence with an ex-partner who has the means to employ a lawyer will be left vulnerable to having unsafe and unfair agreements imposed on her through lack of legal advice.

Low paid women will be affected the worst.

The TUC published a briefing paper on the impact of the cuts on women and showed that the group of the population who will face the most cuts is lone parents and single pensioners. Women are the overwhelming majority of both groups and mostly on low incomes. If they have a disability, they will also be facing the impact of the cuts affecting disabled people which will have the impact of restricting people with disabilities’ access to work and participation in public life as well as help with individual needs.

There are too many specifics to list here – read the TUC report for these. I want to pick out one, which appears to me to be particularly vindictive and contrary to the oft touted statements that “we are all in this together”. Currently, if you have children and are working part time, 16 hours or more per week, you can claim working tax credit for your working hours. That’s not a full subsidy, it is a tax credit which helps parents to work but also care for their children. We all benefit, parents and non-parents, from this. Lone and low paid workers can fit paid employment into school hours, they can contribute to the wider community, they can support their children and they are paying tax.  They are also able to care for their children and bring them up as they know best -again, we all benefit as we all need the next generation of adults to be stable, confident and well balanced individuals. In other words, we, everyone, gets a return on our tax investment when we provide support for childcare.

The Tory-led coalition has changed this so that if you are a couple you can no longer claim the tax credit unless you are working 24 hours per week or more, even if only one of the parents is working. I don’t get it. If you are working 24 hours per week, you may be able to just about fit that into school and nursery hours, but for some that will be a stretch. If you currently have a 16 hour per week job, you can’t suddenly magic those 8 extra hours of work out of nowhere, particularly in the current job market. You will effectively be priced out of work – the cost of childcare for most women will simply not be affordable. And, asPolly Toynbee said earlier this week,  this is affecting  working families, who will lose nearly £4,000 per year if they are on a typical £17,000 per year income.

Take action with me

As women’s officer for Bristol West I am exploring ways we can campaign on this, to highlight the inequity, to raise low pay to Living Wage at least, and to bring in other ways of alleviating the effects of the Tory cuts on low paid women. Please get in touch with me if you are interested – thangam.debbonaire@labourbristol.org

Meanwhile, Happy International Women’s Day for yesterday – clearly we still need it.

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