Women Amongst the Worst Affected by UK Government Austerity

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On Friday 16 November 2018, Philip Alston, the UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights released a report finding that the ‘UK government has inflicted “great misery” on its people with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies driven by a political desire to undertake social re-engineering rather than economic necessity’. The report revealed that women, along with children, migrants, disabled people and pensioners were worst affected by poverty and austerity measures. Austerity in Britain has been  ‘in breach of four UN human rights agreements relating to women, children, disabled people and economic and social rights’, and during his press conference, Alston explained that “if you got a group of misogynists in a room and said how can we make this system work for men and not for women they would not have come up with too many ideas that are not already in place”.

What is austerity?

According to the Metro, the closest dictionary definition of austerity in regards to the UK’s economic landscape is “difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure”. Following the 2007 financial crisis, the UK government introduced a first round of austerity measures in 2008, which was followed by an austerity programme in 2010 led by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. Austerity measures have included cutting hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs (which affected women and people of colour the most as they are more likely to be employed in the public sector), freezing benefits, cutting public services such as mental health services, local housing allowances and housing benefit payments. Austerity under the UK government has impacted the most vulnerable people while enabling the high flyers to go about their business as usual. It has taken critical services and structures away from the people who have needed it the most, without evaluating the impact. It shouldn’t take a special UN poverty envoy coming to the UK and spend just two weeks talking to people affected by austerity measures around the country for the government to find out how its policies are driving poverty. The government continues to live in an ignorant bubble that cuts money from the poor and doesn’t bother touching bank accounts of the rich.

How have women been negatively impacted?

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The report reveals that despite being the 5th largest economy in the world, twenty percent of the British population live in poverty with 1.5 million people being categorised as destitute. We can expect to see a seven percent rise in child poverty by 2022, with almost fifty percent of children living in poverty. Local governments have seen significant cuts that have led to the closure of over 500 children’s centres, 340 libraries and the loss of 8,000 library jobs. This disproportionately affects women who are more likely to be in need of a safe space such as libraries, or single-parents (ninety percent of whom are women) who rely on community centres to provide childcare whilst they work. There have been significant cuts to social support and preventative services, which translates to an increased burden on women, who are disproportionately primary care givers.

Policies have also actively put women in abusive relationships in greater risk, as under the recent Universal Credit schemes, single payments are given to an entire household, potentially giving complete financial control to abusive partners. The policies are actively killing women, with the life expectancy gap growing for women in the poorest areas of England due to lack of access to healthcare and the rising price of healthy foods. Women have described how government cuts have led to homelessness and escalated domestic violence. The report revealed that some women had been ‘driven to sell sex’, whilst others had been ‘denied the ability to bring up their children properly’. These are just some of the anecdotes that Alston found from interviewing just over a dozen women:

  • One woman with a baby strapped to her back spoke through tears about how she fled domestic violence only to be made to wait for 20 hours at a social security office where she became so hungry she had to drink her child’s milk.

  • Jane Williams of the Magpie Project spoke about how children had nowhere to play or be potty-trained, mothers could not sleep as several children shared a room, and some were spending one-third of their incomes on milk formula.

  • Trinity, a mother of a nine-year-old, told Alston: “A lot of women are forced into poverty and into prostitution. I have been destitute and homeless from one place to another.” She said she survived an attempted rape and had boiling water poured on her when she resisted.

  • Paula Peters, from Disabled People Against Cuts, described the difficulty of a a 54-year-old carer in accessing universal credit, including seven attempts to fill out online forms, as well as needing to borrow money to eat and at one point not eating for a week.

  • Another woman’s benefits were sanctioned because ‘she didn’t look happy’ at a meeting with the welfare officer.

  • One woman unfurled a banner in front of Alston with the names and photos of dozens of people said to have died as a result of benefit sanctions and austerity.

These are just a few testimonies from a handful of women. Just imagine what the other millions of women in similar situations have been facing over the last eight years as a result of government cuts? These are not isolated experiences. They are widespread accounts that are testament to the government’s decision to turn a blind eye to the negative impacts of its policies.

What’s the government’s response?

Rather than confronting the issues raised by the report, the UK government has continued to be on the defensive. Theresa May herself claimed that ‘austerity is over’, meanwhile the work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, completely dismissed the report because of ‘the extraordinary political nature of his language’. Rather than engaging with the content of the report, she’s focused on the language, turning attention away from the dire situation that millions find themselves in because of policies such as the Universal Credit system. The government is openly ignoring the misery that its austerity measures and policies are inflicting on the most vulnerable people in our society. Charities, NGOs and frontline workers who see the situations that people have to live in on a daily basis have confirmed and supported the report’s findings, yet the government has decided to discredit the report because “household incomes were at a record high”. Alston writes, “Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so”. The government has essentially chosen private profit and the top earners of society over the millions who depended on the food banks, childcare centres, youth clubs, libraries, mental health services and women’s services that have been slashed as a result of budget cuts.

Article by VERVE Operative & Blogger Chanju Mwanza

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