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The Tories’ deadly agenda has driven women back – now we must lead the resistance. Ruth Hayes on #IWD2021

“Women have borne the impact of austerity & unless action is taken, new generations of women will be held back.”

Ruth Hayes

By Ruth Hayes, Labour Women Leading activist, Unite EC member & Islington North CLP.

The last year has been extraordinary for everyone, and the Covid pandemic has both highlighted deep inequalities in our society and created new challenges for the future.  On International Women’s Day, it is sobering to see just how dramatic the impact has been for women.

More women have been furloughed than men, but over 70% of women who asked to be furloughed to meet childcare commitments had requests turned down.

4.5 million additional people have become unpaid carers during the last year, the majority of whom are women.

Women have taken on more of the responsibility for looking after children at home and home schooling, and 90% of single parents are women.

Women are more likely to work in sectors which have lost jobs than men, and there has been a particularly high increase in younger women claiming out of work social security support.  Many older women have been thrown out of work but cannot get a pension.

The rapid changes in society have meant that more women are undertaking unpaid work supporting family members, and that a large number of women have left the paid workforce.  Underlying trends in work have been accelerated and automation is affecting areas such as retail with a largely female workforce, meaning there will be a different pattern of jobs when the pandemic ends.  Low pay is endemic.

Domestic violence has risen sharply, with Refuge reporting a 65% increase in calls in the first 3 months of lockdown.  Some women are very isolated – working from home with little support, whilst others are in overcrowded accommodation with no space or time for themselves. 

Many women work in public services and black and ethnic minority front line workers, disabled people and LGBTQ+ communities have been especially hard hit by the virus.

In the midst of all of these pressures, women have been at the heart of community responses – Mutual Aid networks provide vital support, foodbank use has doubled, and our NHS, schools, shops and public services have relied on the skills and commitment of a significantly female workforce.  Women scientists have played a vital role in developing vaccines and treatment.

The response of the Tories to the biggest public health crisis in over 100 years has been to squander money on contracts that enrich their friends and donors, whilst cutting public sector budgets and wages in real terms.

This is simply unacceptable – public pressure has led the Government to U-turn in the past and there is a mounting tide of anger. 

Many Trade Unions have seen an increase in the number of people joining and, critically, coming forward to be workplace representatives to fight for safety and decent terms and conditions.  Unions such as the NEU have run outstanding campaigns to highlight issues of community safety and women are centrally involved in organising against job cuts and against attacks such as hire and rehire.

Labour needs to develop radical alternative strategies to tackle the rise in gender inequality.  The scale of the task is huge and we need a bold programme which addresses the complexities of women’s lives, and the multiple barriers faced by women from different backgrounds.  The election of a new Women’s Committee this summer provides a focal point for this campaign, and the Grassroots Labour Women team would help drive this forward.

Women had previously borne the impact of austerity and unless action is taken, new generations of women will be held back.  There is a disproportionate impact on working class women, younger and older women, disabled women and black women and women of colour. 

The Women’s Budget Group has made a powerful case for substantial investment addressing unmet needs for care and support – creating green jobs, providing a social infrastructure and tackling the double shift worked by so many women, who are juggling work for their employer with work supporting their family. 

We need a new programme of council house building and universal basic services which would give everyone a level of security and quality of life.  This has to include access to advice and support to understand and uphold our rights. 

We need flexible education and training which give women of all ages the chance to gain new knowledge and skills and to get rewarding work.

Our social security system is unfit for purpose.  Women are more likely to need to claim during their lifetimes and there must be sufficient income for anyone unable to work for any reason – including realistic rates of statutory sick pay.  This would tackle the rapidly growing levels of poverty and destitution and boost local economies.    

The long term impact of the pandemic is hard to predict but we are likely to see major issues with both mental health and with long Covid.  This will affect women directly, and as carers.  To address the psychological as well as the physical and economic legacy, we need to invest in play and youth work, in mental health services and in arts and leisure facilities too. 

As Rose Schniederman said in 1912 “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist – the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. …The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

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