UK: Women brave the cold to advise Islington of the sexism of Cameron’s spending cuts Print E-mail


Women against the cuts (WAC) on the streets of Islington

By Teena Lashmore

The WAC pack was out in force in Chapel Street Market in Islington, north London on Saturday 15 January 2011.  Despite the chill in the air and the threat of rain, WAC members held fast and continued to distribute their leaflets for over three hours to the residents and shoppers in the market.

Regardless of the colour of the pamphlet, green or yellow, the message remained simple: WACs are opposed to the cuts noted in the government’s Spending Review.  Their reasoning is equally unambiguous – these cuts will impact upon women’s lives the most.

Backed by economic research and armed with the government’s own impact assessment into these cuts, the WAC pack is determined to bring every member of the British public up to speed on where these cuts will be felt most.  

Almost every area of public services due to be cut will affect women’s jobs, as they make up large sections of the public sector workforce.  Almost all the benefit changes in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will impact heavily upon women, as they are the biggest recipients of Family Tax Credit and Child Benefits etc.  Almost all hospital services due to be cut or mixed further into the private sector will affect women, as they make up most of the nurses and admin staff that work in the front line of the NHS.  

The government is aware the financial changes they are imposing on the whole country will in fact be felt much more deeply by woman, and their continued failure to mitigate against this amounts to sexism.  

The level of sexism underpinning these cuts is unequivocal.  For example, the quadrupling of England’s student fees - to cover the cuts made to universities, is not equal for both sexes.  Where many men achieve high paying jobs after university and work up until retirement, their student loans may well disappear within a few years of employment.  However, many women graduates do not achieve equal pay and even less gain high paying jobs.  Furthermore, woman often undertake periods of part time employment, as many raise young children or care for elderly parents.  Student debt for females will be around far longer than the debt for male graduates.

This structural sexism is not limited to students.  Only this week we witnessed our BBC lose a case at the Employment Tribunal for sexism, because they had removed ‘aging’ Miriam O’Reilly from her role as a television presenter.  The BBC argued, her ‘aging’ face no longer fitted the programme’s format.  In contrast, male presenters continue working well beyond retirement age with the likes of Bruce Forsythe leading the way.  So even when women do achieve high paid employment, their shelf life - as Ms O’Reilly found out, is often far shorter than their male counterpart.

As WAC members engaged with the public, gently highlighting the impact of the cuts to both men and woman, I could not help but wonder why the government continues this strategy while having full knowledge of the impact upon women.  

As this year unfolds, central government cuts will make their way down to Local Authorities, who will attempt to manage these while preserving frontline services.  Given these cuts are imminent and steep, the mantra of maintaining front line services will soon become a rhetorical statement, as less money means Councils will have to decide what services to cut.

Although this is the obvious consequence of decreasing budgets, many Councils have yet to undertake equality impact assessment on what services to withdraw.  Our central government is aware of this fact as they only engaged with their equality impact in the last few months.  Although they may have chosen to ignore the findings – which show woman are unfairly hit, they must know that local authorities are more vulnerable to court action if the cuts are disproportionate and harm women and other vulnerable groups.  

The coalition government’s own research has already noted that these cuts affect more women - to the tune of 70% or so more than men.   The question has to be asked, why are they continuing?  And if local authorities are aware of the above – as they should be, a further question remains: why are they not challenging the strategy?

Campaign groups are aware of the need to assess fully the impacts of any cuts in public services and they are also aware of the success of Southhall Black Sisters (SBS).  SBS successfully challenged Ealing council, when Ealing tried to withdraw funding but had not fully undertaken their duty for an impact assessment.  Community groups will no doubt explore SBS as a template for future challenges to local authorities.  

Should we continue the coalition’s strategy, where local services and public health morph further into the private sector, it may not simply be jobs and benefits that are lost.  The cuts’ strategy will become a bitter fight and like Ealing, many local Councils are clearly ill prepared, as they are yet to undertake impact assessments.

Our public services, where many of us have invested by working and paying our taxes, are being stripped slowly from our society, with women at the forefront.  Although WAC deliver a worrying message, we should thank them for braving the Saturday chill, armed with colourful leaflets and warm friendly faces - and for leading the way in challenging our government on its spending proposals.
Teena Lashmore is a Freelance Journalist and Photographer: