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On International Women’s Day I wanted to write a blog to celebrate the incredible women who have inspired me, supported me, fought for the rights of women all over the world both past and present. Perhaps that post will come but I felt sadness and anger, rage that made me want to shout and swear from the rooftops that feminism is not done. Gender equality has not been completed. We may have advanced a few levels, but patriarchy is still alive and free right here in England as well as throughout the world. The reality is that gender equality is a myth. Ordinarily I’m more hopeful and positive and maybe the pandemic combined with finishing my PhD is pushing me over the edge. But as well as celebrating International Women’s Day I wanted to identify some of the areas in which there is work to do, both in the UK and worldwide.
On the week of International Women’s Day, the media has been filled with women, but not for the right reasons. Let us start with the interview broadcasted on International Women’s Day with Megan Markle and Prince Harry which highlighted not only her position as a woman but also the intersectionality of being a woman of colour in the royal family and the implications of this. The interview was responded in an appalling manner by Piers Morgan who questioned her experience of feeling suicidal which was then reflected on social media (never read the comments!!!). A woman’s experiences with mental health were questioned and ridiculed. Not long after the tragic death of Caroline Flack, people – including many other women – have forgotten to #bekind. The investigation over the disappearance of Sarah Everard was responded to by the Met police advising women in the local area not to go out at night, perpetuating a culture of victim blaming. A woman’s actions were being questioned. So here we are in 2021 with our internal thoughts and emotions and our external actions being judged by others. When women have spoken out about our right to feel safe walking home at night, about how we walk the long way home and hold a key between our fingers for protection, #notallmen resurfaces on Twitter, in a similar tone to #alllivesmatter last year. When one group renews a call for equality, the patriarchs and supremacists oppress harder. These are just a couple of examples in the media, the public domain, this week but there is also clear inequality in domestic life.
Throughout the pandemic there have been numerous reports suggesting that women have disproportionately undertaken childcare which has had a devastating impact, particularly for single mothers. While data from the Office for National Statistics shows that home schooling is distributed equally in mixed sex couples, women have undertaken substantially more of non-developmental childcare – the bathing, bedtime routine, feeding etc. I recall the days of being a working single parent with a small child. With no after school club and no family available to chip in, I relied on childcare swaps, a childminder (who I couldn’t afford to pay more than a couple of days per week). It was a case of beg, borrow or steal whatever childcare I could get to get to work and would often miss lectures because I didn’t have any childcare (note to students – if you have childcare responsibilities and are struggling please do not hesitate to drop me an email. I have almost a decade of experience juggling kids with studies and I am always happy to share tips or just have a mutual rant about how hard it is!). I cannot imagine how I would have managed with the pandemic if my children were younger. I am lucky enough to work in a team where my colleagues don’t bat an eyelid when my teenager pops her head in asking for food or help with schoolwork but I do have friends telling me how their male counterparts have given them advice on how to juggle virtual meetings with parenting small children. Men (not all men – some men are excellent allies) having no clue how hard women have to fight as women to do it all – the career, the childcare, the housework, all while earning less than our male counterparts (currently 15.5% less). Of course the data on equal pay is complex but the bottom line is we get paid less, it’s harder to advance our careers because as we live in the bodies that produce babies and we have career breaks when we take maternity leave or go part time while the children are young – the only way that can change is if we choose not to have kids and we are criticised for that too!
I have so far established that the UK is hostile in the media and not equal in the home and employment but where do we sit globally? It was placed 21st on the Global Gender Gap Index 2020. Do you think you could guess which countries are higher than the UK? Go on, spend a minute and write down who you would expect to be in the top 20. Of course, there are the countries one might expect – Iceland is top of the list, Norway, Finland and New Zealand too. But let’s throw a curveball in there. Albania. Having worked with and interviewed many female Albanian asylum seekers and refugees who have usually fled Albania due to at least one but often many forms of gendered violence this comes as quite a surprise to me. Of course, I have a biased experience and have only come into contact with those who have had devastating experiences of patriarchy in the country. Rwanda is up there too within the top 10. Not long after the devastating genocide in Rwanda where women were brutally raped as a weapon of war (see here for a cheeky plug and an analysis of sexual violence in conflict in a different geographical context). Today, women make up half of the politicians in the country. Women have risen up and have taken power. In the UK I look at the female politicians in power today and in recent years and I recoil in horror. Priti Patel is probably (barring the Queen) the most powerful female politician in England. I witness first hand in my work with asylum seekers the harm she causes every day. Intentional harm, following in Theresa May’s footsteps to create a hostile environment for migrants. These women are not the people I want to look up to, or want my children to look up to. In fact, one of the few shared interests my daughter and I have is our disdain for these women.
The women I do look up to are those asylum seekers Patel and her band of merry men at the Home Office are trying to repel. Those who have fled situations that I, as a middle class white woman cannot even begin to comprehend. All the women who I have interviewed in my doctoral research had either fled gendered violence including forced and child marriage, domestic abuse, sex trafficking and honour violence; or their gender had intersected with other forms of persecution making their living situation untenable because they were women. They fled life or death situations to the point of leaving their homes, families and countries because their governments could not, or would not, protect them. They arrive in the UK and are faced with the hostile environment conjured by May and continued by Patel and both the Home Secretaries in between. They face structural violence in the forms of forced poverty, illegal detention, substandard and sometimes dangerous accommodation perpetrated under the mandate of women. All the while being vilified by the tabloids and swathes of the public. Some of my participants arrived here as children and were bullied in school because they were asylum seekers, being told that they were taking jobs and money. The bullies could not comprehend that they were prohibited by law from working and were given £5 per day to live on. They then hid their identities, never telling anyone that they were an asylum seeker, lying to their friends about why they couldn’t go on college trips abroad, why they couldn’t have a bank account, why they couldn’t get a job or go to university.
I want to celebrate Amira* who defied the odds. She came here when she was in her early teens, knowing just a few words of English. She worked hard to learn the language and passed her GCSEs and A-levels, gaining a competitive Sanctuary scholarship which funded her university education. I want to celebrate Drita, an Eastern European woman who was physically abused by her father as a child, forced to marry an abusive man who eventually left her destitute with three children. She then left her children with her parents while she sought work, got a boyfriend who sold her into sex slavery, set her room on fire to kill herself but managed to escape, picked up her children and fled a lifetime of gendered violence from every man she had ever met. She spent 2 days in a lorry with her children to get to the UK. Not really the UK, she would have gone anywhere, just out of her country to safety. These women are survivors. These women fought to stay alive. They fought to escape. They didn’t escape. They arrived here to face May’s legacy of a hostile environment. These women are terrified every time they have to report to the Home Office, every letter they get threatens them with detention and deportation and reminds them that they or on bail, literally equating them with a process usually found in the criminal justice system. These women are heroes and should be celebrated for surviving. On International Women’s Day yes, let us celebrate all that all we have achieved so far but it cannot end here. Each year we need a renewed call for action for women.
*All names are pseudonyms to protect the anonymity of participants
Over the last two weeks, twitter was littered with Conservative MPs posing at foodbanks, thanking the public for donations and showing their support for this vital service. On seeing the first one I thought this was a strange way to show compassion for those in need, given how the increased use of foodbanks is directly linked to austerity policies, the rollout of universal credit and is one of the issues raised by a recent report on the impact of poverty in the UK (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2018). The report states that spending cuts from austerity led policies have put Britain in breach of its human rights obligations and highlights discriminatory issues, as these cuts have adversely affected low income and lone parent families, ethnic minorities and the disabled. It recommends more investment in health, social care, education and housing, and a rethink of Universal Credit. In addition, a report by the United Nations has described current government policies as ‘punitive, mean-spirited and often callous’ in their impact on the most vulnerable, more alarming given we are still one of the richest countries in the world (UN, 2018).
The responses on twitter articulated what I was feeling, ranging from incredulity, to anger and shock. It is a strange state of affairs when politicians see this as a cause for celebration, but then, there is little else to choose from, in relation to policies introduced in the last two years. The cognitive dissonance between thinking this presents them as compassionate and caring about problems they have created is quite an achievement. But then, I also know I really should not be surprised – I never believed Conservatives could be considered compassionate and anything but concerned with their own interests and dismissive of those in need. When Conservative MPs received the memo to pose at foodbanks, I wonder how many refused? Or how many believed this would be accepted as an example of celebrating charity, because even at Christmas, we all too easily normalise this level of deprivation, and rationalise it as due to individual circumstances, and not structural inequalities.
The wording of the UN report is clear in its condemnation and recognition that in Britain, the government lack the political will to help those most in need, given that tax cuts signalling the ‘end of austerity’ have once again benefitted the rich, under the auspices of this wealth trickling down in the form of jobs and increased wages. However, the EHRC and UN reports have emphasised how these policies are disproportionately affecting those who cannot work, or can only do part time work, or who face discrimination and disadvantage, including employment opportunities and prospects. When foodbanks were first set up, I honestly believed this was a temporary fix, never did I think still in 2018 they would be still be needed and indeed, be increasingly used. I also never would have imagined they would be held up as an example of the good work of charities adopted as a PR stunt by the very people who have created the inequalities and harm we see today.
The small glimmer of hope is the protest in one of these pictures, and the responses via twitter which reflected how I felt. There was a clear backlash in Scotland, where it was reported that a record number of supplies were needed as Universal Credit was rolled out, and where there were calls to foodbanks and supermarkets to refuse to pose with Conservative MPs. Alas, my fear is beyond the twittersphere, most people can rationalise this as acceptable. After all, should we not celebrate charity and helping those in need at this time of year? Is this just an example of good will and thinking of others? Well, yes of course, and if these photos were simply asking people to donate without the MPs responsible being there, I would think most of us would perhaps be reminded we can do our bit to help, and we should. The presence of the MPs and acceptance of this as good PR is what really worries me, that people will still vote for a party which has been described as cruel and punitive and believes this sort of promotion makes them look good. The irony that our current Prime Minister once herself warned that the Conservatives were becoming the ‘nasty party’ is staggering. For what she now resides over are policies which are internationally condemned as harmful, discriminatory and callous.
The other slight glimmer of hope is some commentators suggest this stunt reflects rumours of a general election on the horizon, as while Theresa May celebrated the ‘success’ of negotiating a deal with the European Union, it seems this was short-lived once parliament began to debate the deal and may trigger an election. The UN report suggested that Brexit has been so much of a distraction for MPs and the public that we are not seeing domestic problems as a priority. I think for many there is a sense that once this deal is done, we can get on with resolving other issues. But for this government, I don’t think that is the case. I think for Conservatives, these negotiations and now parliamentary debates are a welcome distraction and a narrative which fits their lack of will to actually address the harms caused by austerity. A general election may bring about change and force MPs to confront where we are today as a result of political choices, but this depends on how we all really feel about poverty, homelessness, discrimination and disadvantage. I wonder if too many feel these are insurmountable problems, inevitable and therefore, beyond the abilities of government to address. But the UN and EHRC reports clearly tell us this is not the case. I hope we do get an opportunity to hold this government to account sooner rather than later. But most of all, I hope that more of us actually take up this opportunity and not allow what we see today to continue.
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
Equality and Human Rights Commission (2018) The cumulative impact on living standards of public spending changes, available from https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/publication-download/cumulative-impact-living-standards-public-spending-changes
United Nations (2018) Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, see https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23881&LangID=E