“Welfare reform means the biggest ever attack on women’s economic autonomy”

4 Mar

At the second instalment of our new monthly Feminist Forum initiative, Lynn Carvill (Women’s Resource and Development Agency) and Gillian Gibson (Footprints Women’s Centre) joined us to discuss the topic of Women and Money.

Lynn put her research and lobbying experience to great use in passionately running us through the remaining barriers to economic autonomy faced by women in Northern Ireland. The gender disparity in terms of the power to earn, spend and save begins when teenage girls are pushed towards lower-paying sectors for work (e.g. carers, beauticians, hairdressers). While there have been visible improvements in the numbers of women entering higher education in recent years, the most recent period of university applications indicates a faster decline in female applicants than male. The pressures of gender intensify from young adulthood and earliest childbearing age, at which stage the expectation to bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities severely impact women’s ability to work and earn outside the home. Often a career is not an option for mothers, who must instead settle for low paid, part-time work, resulting in one-fifth of income for women coming from tax credits and benefits, compared with one-tenth of men’s income. Circumstances which prevent women from gaining full-time incomes well over minimum wage also wipe out the possibility of saving towards a pension. Lynn sees this as one of many reasons why it’s important for feminists to begin gendering the age sector and others outside the women’s sector.

Gillian’s journey to becoming Director of Footprints Women’s Centre began with her own politicisation. This was brought about by a growing consciousness of class, with which she sees a connection to feminism that is yet to be developed to its full potential. Having worked at Footprints for almost twenty years now, Gillian reflects on the remarkable dignity and resilience of women living in poverty in West Belfast, both now and during the conflict years. The very impressive development of the Centre was also relayed to us, along with some valuable insights into how women can be helped out of poverty and financial dependence. In the Centre’s early days, women expressed a strong desire for training and education despite work not being an option for the majority. The staff working at Footprints have responded to that hunger for knowledge and found that women from deprived areas accelerate in terms of skills and learning once the facilities are in place and encouragement is given. Gillian’s concern is that thousands of young women today are, quite suddenly in many cases, facing the same hardships and challenges as those decades ago. Without the same history and experience of poverty, this generation of working class women may not have the same motivation to pursue opportunities. Many currently living in more fortunate circumstances could be caught on the back foot by the effects of austerity. The best way to prevent taking present comforts for granted is to inform as many people as possible about what is being imposed by government, in order to generate anger and inspire resistance.

Our speakers were in agreement that the most urgent task for protecting women is to oppose the brutal welfare reforms currently being ushered through in Westminster, identified by Lynn as “the biggest ever attack on women’s economic autonomy.” The introduction of universal credits (consolidating various, individually-labelled benefits into a single payment) will exacerbate current gender inequalities by making women more dependent on ‘the man of the house.’ With benefit claims being made by one individual per household, there can be no prizes for guessing which partner in the majority of heterosexual couples will gain financial control. Even where the single payment is made into a joint account, women – with greater childcare responsibilities in most instances – will now be deprived of much-needed child benefit money. Another issue identified is the potential impact on female victims of domestic violence in situations where dependency on the single household payment increases the risk involved in confronting and reporting abuse. The reforms reek of an ideological determination to restore the supremacy of the nuclear family, complete with deeply patriarchal gender dynamics. Some interesting comments were made about the discourse surrounding these political movements. Coverage in mainstream media has been obstructive, rather than helping the most vulnerable to work out how they might be impacted by changes to welfare. The political establishment has stubbornly refused to acknowledge women’s interests in relation to the changes, instead focussing all rhetoric on the family. Such talk reduces women to a prescribed household function and is further evidence of a desire to shift women forcefully back into a way of life structured around subjugation within the traditional family unit.

The need for action is becoming increasingly clear, let’s hope our evening of discussion can initiate a prolonged engagement with the burning issues raised.

Michael

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