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Spending Review 2015: The economy should be the next big feminist issue

Challenging permanent austerity must be a feminist cause; the results of not doing so are already playing out in the lives of the poorest women.

Last month, while the plan to cut tax credits was being passionately opposed, the women’s charity Eaves quietly closed after nearly 40 years of service. In its final years Eaves witnessed and sought to alleviate the pain when the burden of similar cuts fell on people in hard times. The charity supported women escaping domestic violence and victims of trafficking; it helped women left vulnerable by cuts to legal aid and uncertain immigration status; it was a rare haven for women made destitute by benefit sanctions and at risk of homelessness. Now it’s gone but the women remain.

Women like Leila.

When Leila moved onto a small estate of low square red-brick flats in West London she took a few chairs and a shisha pipe, and sat outside in the communal car park and yard. She loved to smoke and she loved talk to people. And now free of her husband, she could do both without the fear of violence.

Leila’s new neighbours were drawn to the petite mother of two. Originally from Sudan, quick to laugh and chatty, she seemed one of them, a Londoner escaping the confines of a pokey flat and making a garden wherever space allowed. But in truth Leila had arrived in the capital in 2007 with her husband, a British citizen who convinced her that London would be better than Sudan.

She wanted to study (in Sudan she was a teacher), but couldn’t on the temporary visa he’d secured for her. Then she became pregnant. The dream of continuing education retreated further when he lost his job. When he started taunting, kicking, punching, the Leila she had been disappeared.

One night he tried to smother her face with a pillow, after that she was certain he might eventually kill her. Leila escaped and stayed with her two young sons in a refuge for one year. Without a refuge Leila and her children would have had nowhere to go, and she most likely would have ended up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre.

But up and down the country domestic violence refuges are closing at an alarming rate. Many are reliant on diminishing local authority budgets, which will likely be pared back even further in the Autumn Spending Review. Councils commission more general domestic violence services, which are cheaper, forcing specialist providers to do more for less or lose contracts.

The threat of violence at home has lessened for Leila, but the restrictions of her gender and immigration status confound her ability to provide a better life for herself and the boys. The Home Office has granted her just three years leave to remain in the UK with her British children (after initially refusing her application). She’d still like to study but can’t afford the fees and doesn’t qualify for student loans. She earns minimum wage as an admin assistant at a higher education college but can only work part-time because she needs to collect her sons from school at half 3 every day. Then she must find an extra £70 each week to cover the shortfall left by the benefit cap. Like women across the UK, Leila will pay even more back to the government when the housing benefit cap falls next April and child tax credits are cut.

Leila’s predicament, the closure of Eaves and the cuts to tax credits are part of a wider political narrative, plotted behind the closed doors of the Treasury. For the last five years the government has set about achieving a budget surplus, and rolled back state services to that end. But the miniscule growth achieved has come at the expense of women, who are more likely to rely on public services, receive social security and work in the public sector. By cutting precisely these areas and freezing public sector wages the government has pummeled women’s security and financial independence. They are the women Eaves once helped and they are the women on the frontlines of this decade’s battle for gender equality.

A new report by the LSE’s Commission on Gender, Inequality and Power unpacks what’s happening. The commission questions the character of inequality and analyses power imbalances between men and women across the economy, the law, politics and media. Its findings are based on evidence from academic experts, public and private sector professionals, civil servants and politicians. For anyone interested in challenging austerity, the section on the economy is useful ammunition.

Much you may already know. That 78 per cent of the cuts to welfare are paid for by women. That women account for 65 per cent of public sector employees, where wage increases will be frozen at 1 per cent for the next four years. That there are 93,000 more young women Not in Employment, Education or Training than young men.

That the gender gap is complex and can be measured in different ways to account for social groups, regional or national levels of pay, and scales of pay within professions. That the most commonly used measure, the full-time median hourly pay at a national level for workers aged 16-64, is not quite reflective of women’s true position in employment. Women make up just 36.7 per cent of full time workers and 73.9 per cent of all part time workers. Taking full and part time employment together the gender pay gap is 19.1 per cent, the sixth highest in the European Union. Then there’s the fact that the reason for the decline in the gender pay gap is related to men’s wages falling rather than women’s pay rising.

At this rate it will take 50 years to eliminate the gender pay gap for full time workers and 300 years for female part time workers.

As women get older it gets worse; a gender pay gap in pension entitlements means women are more at risk of poverty in old age than men. Black and brown women even more so. Women make up 65 per cent of pensioners at risk of poverty.

Raise children alone and you are also more likely to be poor; 43 per cent of lone parents are at risk of poverty. At risk of poverty means your income is less than 60 per cent of the median income. Throw ethnicity into the mix and the likelihood of poverty increases dramatically. The following stats are from a 2010 report. The number of white women living in poverty (16.7 per cent) is slightly higher than the number of white men (14.1 per cent); for Chinese women it’s even higher at 20.6 per cent and higher still for black African women (22.7 per cent), Indian women (23 per cent) and black Caribbean women (23.5 per cent). The poverty rate for Pakistani women is 46 per cent and for Bangladeshi women 51.9 per cent.

Which is why even if George Osborne backs down or “fudges” his tax credit cuts, the battle isn’t yet won. For the extra £12bn in planned social welfare cuts will come from somewhere. This is why challenging this permanent austerity must be a feminist cause; the results of not doing so are already playing out in the lives of the poorest women.

Read the LSE's report, Confronting Gender Inequality.

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi reports and writes on immigration, women and economics, housing, legal aid, and mental health. Read her latest work here. Her blog rebeccaomonira.com was shortlisted for the 2012 Orwell Prize. She tweets @Rebecca_Omonira.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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