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Don’t let the cuts turn back time on women’s equality

On average, women earn less, own less, and are more likely to work and retire in poverty than men. The cuts are making things worse.

From the monochrome silhouettes of Mad Men to the scandals and seductions of Downton Abbey, vintage style offers some nostalgic escapism at this time of austerity. Yet beneath the veneer of glamour and gentility, the bygone decades harbored a raft of gendered double-standards and institutional sexism. Unfortunately for Britain’s women, the world of yesteryear is rearing its head again as evidence emerges that coalition cuts are literally turning back time on women’s equality.

The coalition strategy for reducing the deficit is hitting women disproportionately hard; hardly surprising considering that the cabinet is dominated more by millionaires than by female voices. Women face a unique ‘triple jeopardy’: cuts to their jobs, since two-thirds of public sector workers are women; cuts to state services and benefits that women rely on more than men – such as childcare assistance and support for victims of sexual and domestic violence; and, as reduced state services and benefits increase levels of unpaid labour and decrease financial autonomy, women face being pushed back into dependent roles as ‘homemakers’.

Women’s unemployment is at a record high; soaring childcare costs and cuts to childcare support are forcing over half of working mothers to ‘stop work or significantly reduce their working hours’; 124 Sure Start children’s centres have closed down, with many more set to follow unless urgent action is taken; organisations that provide specialist services for women, such as for victims of sexual and domestic violence or for lone parents, are being hit hard by local authority funding cuts with some having to close their doors for good; legal aid support is becoming a rare privilege. And these are just some of the impacts.

Welcome to the past. Do not pass go. Do not collect £200. Or your child benefit. Or your working tax credits. Or your equality.

The Fawcett Society, along with a coalition of charities, unions and academics, recently unveiled a manifesto of policies to lessen the disproportionate impact of the cuts on women. We are asking for proposals in this ‘Life Raft for Women’s Equality’ report, which cover work, pensions, families and violence prevention, to be implemented before or at the next budget in March 2012. These would include a U-turn on cuts to childcare support, safeguarded funding for specialist violence against women support services, and ring-fencing money for Sure Start centres. These requests are tangible, workable solutions, and vital for safeguarding hard-fought women’s rights and opportunities.

Behind the stats and facts lie the women hit by cuts. Dawn, a lone mother in North Manchester, found solace in her local Sure Start centre, watching her son Ethan develop under the care of giving staff, while finding a sense of community for herself amongst the other parents – which helped her overcome isolation and post-natal depression. She has now lost what she referred to as her ‘lifeline’.

Another woman writes of her distress at losing child benefit payments. With a partner who earns just above the cut-off rate, and committed to caring full-time for her disabled child, she must rely on ‘housekeeping’ handouts from her husband. The cuts are about more than just financial figures. They are about human figures too.

This Saturday 19 November, the Fawcett Society will be marching on Westminster to tell David Cameron to 'stop turning back time on women’s equality', and call on the government to adopt the Life Raft proposals. We are asking women, children and men to join us dressed in 1950s costume, to deliver the message that it is unacceptable to push women back to the levels of inequality of yesteryear.

There has been much rhetoric from the coalition about connecting with women voters. The Life Raft asks represent a real opportunity for the government to support women, and to reduce the current gap between political promise and policy practice. So, dust off those pinnies and headscarves: it’s time to make a stand.

Daisy Sands is policy and campaigns officer at the Fawcett Society.

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