If the coalition is committed to families, why are maternity services being cut?

The strain of austerity is beginning to show on maternal care provision.

Recent news that the health of pregnant women and new mothers is being negatively impacted as a result of the coalition’s budget cuts strikes an odd note:  like them or loathe them, if there’s one thing you can rely on Conservatives for, it’s proclaiming their allegiance to the family. When the brutality of the cuts began to show in areas like refugee services or young people from non-privileged backgrounds no longer applying to university, there was at least the grim ring of consistency – have the Tories ever credibly claimed to care about such constituencies? Similarly, when feminist groups like the Fawcett Society demonstrated that women were facing a double-burden of the recession and government cuts in the workplace, one didn’t need to stretch one’s imagination too far to place this in the broader picture of a Conservative Party who seems to prefer women both at home and "in their place". “Families” though, were safe in the arms of the Conservatives’ paternal concern. Never mind that the whole gamut of austerity measures, from the game-changing overhaul of higher education to the cutting up of the NHS, daily and tangibly corrode the wellbeing and future prospects of parents, children, communities – families, in short, of one kind or another.  Still the amorphous ideal of the "traditional" family unit was one the governing party claims to hold close to its heart.

It’s striking, then, that the latest area in which the government’s cuts are being felt is in maternal care. Framing its concern largely in terms of children, the Daily Mail (that other "family" cheerleader) recently reported that breastfeeding rates have been directly hit by the cuts to healthcare services, citing research by health data analysts SSentif that post-natal women living in areas where cuts to maternity services have come into effect are more likely to stop breastfeeding in the first eight weeks, due to lack of available support from midwives and healthcare visitors. Given the wealth of scientific evidence on the life-long benefits, for children, of being breastfed, the logic follows that there may likely be a long-term negative impact on a future generation’s health.

The blog FalseEconomy has detailed further reasons for, and consequences of, the increased strain on maternal care provision, including demographic shifts towards later pregnancies as a reason for an increase in "complex pregnancies" taking more time for midwives, and the "knock on" effect of cuts in other areas such as violence against women provisions and services to the homeless. It cites the Royal College of Midwives’ State of Maternity Services report to lend credence to the claim that the government cuts have combined with demographic changes to stretch maternity services beyond their capacity. The Valuing Maternity campaign by Maternity Action is calling for greater commitment from the government to ensure this vital aspect of public health is addressed.

Aside from the inherent concern of the reduction in maternal care, and the worrying evidence suggesting its impact on a decline in breastfeeding, the example of the over-stretching of reduced maternal services is also a chilling reminder that no reduction of a public service happens in a vacuum. Women’s experiences of the recession are a prime example of the knock-on effect of one area of government policy to another, and how the recession and the cuts introduced under the guise of "austerity" have combined to corner women into a position of less work, less pay, fewer benefits and fewer rights. (Meanwhile urgent calls to address issues such as gender-inequities in public life and pre-recession concerns about the continuing pay gap are dismissed as a luxury "in these difficult times". As Susan Faludi outlined so eloquently in The Terror Dream’s analysis of the Bush-Blair years, that women’s concerns were dismissed along the lines of “not now dear, there’s a war on”, in the post-financial crisis era this is modified: not "now dear, it’s the austerity – but we’re all in this together"). 

Not only was this the first feminised recession in terms of the sectors hit hardest by job losses, but measures introduced under the guise of "austerity" doubly-targeted women, as women were both a larger proportion of public sector workers with jobs on the line, and some of the main users of state-provided services. (To add a further grim footnote: just as women needed financial independence the most, research from IPPR suggests that banks, too, turned on women, arbitrarily denying mortgages and other loans to female customers, using the new excuse of "new stricter regulations").

Eventually, as the new evidence on maternal health provision in the UK indicates, the knock-on effect manifests even in an area the Conservatives claim as their own: protecting the "family" and women as child-bearers. The painful cycle being played out in dominoes as one service after another is gutted by the cuts reveals the inherent flaw even in ideologically-driven cuts – while wealth may not trickle-down, corrosion of communities and services does trickle up, and into areas the Tories claim are their priority.

It also reveals what a sham it is to say you care about "families" when your policies show little if any concern for women.

Follow Heather McRobie on Twitter as @heathermcrobie.

 

A young boy is weighed after being born in an NHS maternity unit in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images
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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.