This Sunday is International Women’s Day and as we enter headlong into recession we need to understand and act on the far-reaching impacts of the economic downturn on women.
The impulse to dedicate a day in the spring to campaigning, celebration and reflection for women can be traced back to March 8, 1857, which is thought to have been a day of protest by female textile workers in New York against poor working conditions and meagre wages.
This year marks the centenary of the first National Women’s Day, celebrated in the United States on February 28, 1909. International Women’s Day was first observed in 1911 and it quickly assumed a tone of commemoration as well as celebration, following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in March of that year.
This disaster, at a New York factory producing garments for the emergent female consumer class, claimed the lives of 146 of its predominantly female, immigrant workforce. Poor safety provision and overcrowding at the factory premises undoubtedly increased the death toll. In subsequent decades the IWD tradition waned, but it re-emerged with feminism in the late Sixties. In 1975, designated International Women’s Year, it received the official sanction of the UN.
While it understandably became a point of focus for feminists, it was, from the outset, intended to raise awareness of inequities that affected not just women, but all who were poorly paid, poorly treated and otherwise marginalised. The call of those early organisers of IWD was essentially for fairness.
We know that women are facing a disproportionately high risk of unemployment during this recession. They enter it from a position of relative economic disadvantage: women are more likely to be in part-time, lower-paid or temporary employment, filling the roles that are often the first to go when employers are forced to make cuts. Those returning to work after maternity leave will find familiar difficulties compounded as they compete for the opportunities that do exist.
And attitudes towards women on maternity leave don’t help either. This week, a Government survey revealed that a quarter of men and a fifth of women feel that people on maternity leave should be first in line for redundancy. Yet a quarter of all households are now headed by lone parents, 90 per cent of whom are women. It’s also been found that added barriers exist for women who seek to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance.
The TUC has recently made clear the worrying reality of this recession for women. Parity in the British workplace has yet to be achieved, with the gender pay gap still as wide as 36 per cent in part-time employment. But new equality legislation, which includes measures to address inequality, is reportedly at risk of being scrapped to avoid further strain on business at this time.
There are wider problems for women too. Last month Superintendent David Hartshorn, a senior Metropolitan Police officer chief, told The Guardian that the police are expecting a “summer of rage” on the streets as a result of the downturn. However, we must also be alert to the rage and violence being played out behind closed doors, as financial strain on families and relationships mounts.
The Fawcett Society has reported an increase in the number of domestic violence referrals and Baroness Scotland, the Attorney General, has also warned that the wider economic climate is likely to create added pressures on women who already feel unable to leave abusive relationships because of limited access to finance or support.
This week, the Government has gone some way to acknowledging the risk of a rise both in employment discrimination, and in violence against women, with the publication of an advice booklet, Real Help Now for Women.
But for women who do find themselves in such a position, the system is often woefully ill-equipped to support them. The second Map of Gaps report, which was published last month, has highlighted the appalling inadequacies in service provision for women who have suffered domestic or sexual abuse.
The London Mayor, Boris Johnson, has already back-tracked on his promise to provide funding for Rape Crisis Centres. In his manifesto, he pledged to provide the £744,000 a year to fund the one existing centre in London plus three new centres. But when questioned by Green Party London Assembly Member, Jenny Jones, he stated that he wouldn’t improve on the original £233,000 a year budget. That amounts to providing less than a third of what was originally promised.
Specific service provision for women from black or minority ethnic backgrounds is particularly poor. Refugee or immigrant women are especially vulnerable, as they are more likely to be financially insecure and thus are at greater risk of coercion into personally dangerous or criminal behaviour. As the Government looks to make savings, the prospect of funds being diverted to these areas at this time looks increasingly remote.
In addition, we are not doing enough to recognise economic abuse. Refuge has produced important research on this manifestation of domestic abuse, whereby a partner exercises power through undermining a woman’s financial independence, perhaps controlling or claiming wages or benefits, withholding money allocated for family or household needs, or manipulating her into feeling cheap and worthless. It is reasonable to conclude that more difficult economic circumstances will exacerbate this too.
These problems, of course, are not new, and the downturn did not cause them. But it could make them worse. We need to increase support now to organisations working with families and those suffering or at risk of abuse. This would be money well spent.
Our response to this recession is going to shape life in Britain for decades to come and we must ensure that any response adequately provides for those who may be disproportionately affected in ways that are perhaps not immediately obvious.
Jean Lambert is a Green Party Member of the European Parliament. She is one of nine MEPs representing London and one of two UK Green representatives in the European Parliament. www.jeanlambertmep.org.uk
International Women's Day 2009 takes place on Sunday 8th March