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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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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.