On November 19th, nationwide tea parties were held in association with The Fawcett Society, who aim to challenge gender inequality. Specifically, parties were held to raise awareness of the disproportionate impact upon women that the governments’ cuts will have. There was a 1950’s theme to point out how the cuts will rewind women’s rights to the state they were in during the 1950’s. These parties coincided with a march in London.
Organised by both the Southampton University Feminist Society and Socialist Society, tea and food were provided free and people were encouraged to dress up in 50s style. There was a great turnout and a lively atmosphere, and many people chatted about the issues at hand over delicious handmade cakes whilst listening to the talented George Legg, Loren Harper and Aaron Bali play live music.
The main guest was Southampton’s University and College Unions (UCU) Equality Representative Catherine Pope, who is also a professor of Medical Sociology. She gave a powerful and important speech on her own experience of accessing education, being a Trade Unionist, and her experiences as a woman in a traditionally male dominated profession. She pointed out how women have only been allowed access to higher education since 1878, which is not long, considering that women were still not expected to pursue education or a career over family for many years after. Yet the UK gives girls and women greater access to education than many other countries in the world. When Catherine was at university, her education was free; next year’s undergraduates face an average of a crippling £60,000 debt when they leave. With the cuts threatening all areas of life including education, work and family, the choice women have in the UK to pursue any of these options may be severely limited.
The Fawcett Society has termed the major impact of the cuts upon women the ‘Triple Jeopardy’, outlining that women will be hit hardest by;
- Job cuts in the public sector,
- Cuts to the services and benefits they use most,
- They will be left ‘filling the gaps’ as state services are withdrawn.
One million women are unemployed, the highest number in 20 years. In the public sector, 65% of workers are women, so the sector pay freeze and projected 600,000 job losses will have a greater impact on women than men. Also, changes to state and public sector pensions will disproportionately affect women too, who already make up 2/3rds of the UK’s poorest pensioners.
Child benefit has been frozen for the next three years, and since 94% of child benefit recipients are women, of the £975million saved from these cuts £913 million is taken from women. Alongside this, the Health in Pregnancy Grant was abolished this April. The Sure Start Maternity Grant is now only available for the first child, which will put many families at a significant disadvantage. Alongside this, in 2009, 30,000 women lost their jobs as a result of pregnancy. Clearly women’s choices to work and have a family are being significantly compromised.
Charities and organisations such as Women’s Aid, who offer vital support to women who have experienced domestic violence, are at high risk of being unable to continue operating in the current economic climate. They face little or no government support, so the women who use their services as an important life line may face an uncertain future. The Southampton Feminist Society organised a fundraiser to help last year, to help keep these services going.
The government’s own equality impact assessment acknowledged that cuts to legal aid for people facing issues relating to divorce, housing, employment, debt and welfare benefits will hit women hardest. It seems that support for women is diminishing due to cuts, which will leave many individuals vulnerable and disadvantaged.
Nearly 40 years since the Equal Pay Act, women working full time across the UK still earn on average 15.5% less an hour than a man working full time, and the 2011 National Management Salary Survey, men continued to be paid more than men doing the same job, and the annual salary can see women earning £10,546 less. Such statistics make clear the unfair impact that cuts will have on women, and the potential risk of women’s rights returning to a less equal age. The Southampton tea party was an important event which brought people together to confront and discuss this critical issue. The next step is to continue pushing for people’s rights to be respected in the face of harsh cuts, whether it affects education, work or family support. After the wonderful tea, cakes and music, and the powerful speeches, the event was rounded off with letters being signed to send to the local council to point out the issues women face with the cuts. Catherine Pope’s final words about women’s rights and equality were a vital call to action; ‘We’ve come a long way. Let’s not turn back now.’