Crisis: the impact on women. The pressures and the fightback

Submitted by martin on 16 January, 2009 - 9:34 Author: Rebecca Galbraith

Beyond boob jobs — how might the credit crunch affect women? is a recent article on The F-word (a feminist blog) by Carolyn Roberts. The writer makes an observation that I found true when researching this topic — that there is pretty much nothing written on the potential impact of the crisis on women.

At the time of writing the London socialist feminist reading group on this topic came up first on an entire google search — great, but pretty depressing.

Carolyn Roberts found three main articles: a story about an overweight woman who lost her job, started her own business and lost five stones; the reassuring news that the credit crunch is not affecting cosmetic sales; and finally a cosmetic surgery company’s announcement of a 135% increase in breast augmentation procedures, with the statement, “As the economy is going bust, UK women are boosting theirs.” Plus countless advertisements about buying makeup on a budget and how to dress stylishly while beating the credit crunch. So even in a recession how we look is still apparently the most interesting thing about us.

It is not certain whether the financial crisis is under control, but either way its knock on effect will be a big downturn over the next couple of years — job cuts, pressure for pay cuts, social cuts and evictions. So, beyond the reassuring news that boob jobs won’t be affected, what will the impact on women be? And how do we organise our fight?

Firstly, it is likely that any increase in unemployment will hit women hard. The impact of the crash was first felt in a predominantly “male” job sector of construction, but this had an immediate effect on ancillary industries such as estate agents and solicitors — many of whom are women.

Layoffs then began in financial services — an area with significant levels of female employees; the most recent layoffs in Woolworths and Wedgewood will have affected huge numbers of women. The only industries where women outnumber men are hotels, restaurants and services and as non-essentials they will be affected. It therefore seems likely that a disproportionate number of women will lose their jobs.

The government’s response? Well, its first response has been to force more women back into work while the number of jobs available falls!

Women head nine out of ten one-parent families, and these women are facing new pressure to get back into work. Reforms introduced in November 2008 will gradually erode the length of time lone parents can claim income support. By 2011 most will only be able to claim until their youngest child’s seventh birthday — nine years less than the current entitlement. Single parents with children as young as one will be required to go on training courses and work experience. The move follows last month’s benefit changes for people who cannot work because of ill health or disability.

Under the new benefit system, those who can work will attend a returning to work programme and those who don’t “engage” with the programe may well have their benefits cut. Also companies will be allowed to bid for contracts to place the long-term unemployed in work; US-style “workfare” schemes may be introduced forcing claimants who turn down jobs to work in return for benefits.

The large numbers of single mothers also means that a big proportion of parents whose kids risk losing their home through repossession and eviction will probably be women.

The crisis may well lead to increased attacks on our already beleaguered public services, so as children’s services and old people’s day centres close it will often be women who pick up the additional workload created.

At the same time food prices are rising, and incomes falling as people face unemployment and below inflation wage rises, so getting the weekly shop and paying the bills will become an increasing stress, if not impossible.

women under pressure

Not unsurprisingly, given the stress of unemployment and financial hardship and the pressure on women to do more with scarce household resources, domestic violence tends to increase during recessions.

According to a 2004 study by the US National Institute of Justice, women whose male partners experienced two or more periods of unemployment over the five-year course of the study were three times more likely to be abused.

At the same time support services for abused women will find their funding increasingly under threat. Many services such as hostels, drop-ins and phonelines now receive their main funding through charitable donations and yearly grants, which will become more and more difficult to get as the recession kicks in.

Over the past few years we have seen many women’s centres close as the state has refused to fund vital services; last year’s attacks on Southall Black Sisters (which were thankfully defeated) were just one of many on similar women’s groups — and we can sure it will be the most radical to go first.

We do not know what struggles the crisis will call forth but we certainly need to prepare for a fight against reactionary politics that may gain popularity, and an increase in reactionary politics could certainly lead to an attack on women’s rights.

Reactionary attacks have been seen in America where John LaBruzo, a Louisiana representative, recently announced that he’d like to help the state of Louisiana’s economic situation by paying poor women (i.e. women on welfare or receiving some type of economic help from the state) to be sterilised.

The Women’s Health and Justice Initiative and the New Orleans Women’s Health Clinic have produced an extensive response. This is a quote from their analysis: “We are basically witnessing a two front war against poor and working-class black communities right now. On the one hand, we have the Bush administration fighting to push an economic corporate welfare bailout plan to save Wall Street, and on the other, we have an elected official blaming the bodies and reproductive decisions of poor black women for the social conditions caused by corporate greed. Advocating for the sterilisation of black women, and publicly demonising their motherhood under the cloak of reducing the number of people on welfare, masks the complex causes of poverty and inequality that permeate our society and it is not a solution to the current economic crisis.”

It is crucial that our programme for reproductive freedom shows international solidarity and reflects the reality of women being forced to have sterilisations and the increasingly reality that many women who want to have children will not be able to afford to.

Finally, migrant workers, including women will be blamed for the crisis.

At a time when many people will be thinking anew about how society is organised we need to understand what is happening ourselves and work in existing and new forums to discuss, to argue with people who blame immigration for unemployment and inflation, and to organise.

Socialists and feminists and groups like Feminist Fightback may want to think about how we turn some of the larger demands for women’s liberation into smaller transitional demands that we can agitate around in our trade unions.

Taking domestic abuse as one of the likely impacts of the crisis, there are a number of things we can call for: not just funding resources such as Rape Crisis and Women’s Aid but adequate social housing, a social housing system that sees domestic abuse as gender-based violence, benefits that women and children need as well as education programmes in schools and communities to prevent domestic abuse. Could there be a transitional programme for the women’s movement that could be fought for through the labour movement?

There is certainly also a role for practical solidarity. During the miners’ strike food parcels were organised by groups of women. This is practical solidarity, and not one that I think we should dismiss because it could be seen as “helping”. When people are being evicted from their houses in our communities and as food gets increasingly expensive, can we organise collectively? Can we use direct action tactics such as occupations of closing shops or pickets at job centres where single mothers are being forced to attend meetings?

• We will be discussing how we campaign against New Labour’s welfare reform, and organise in our unions and communities, at Gender, Race and Class on 14 February — please come and get involved.

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