Saturday 22nd February, Conway Hall, London
It is important not to underestimate the wholly disproportional effects of austerity cuts on women. The People’s Assembly and National Assembly of Woman convened Saturday’s event to examine how the cuts are impacting on the key components of a civil society; our health service, the education system and the tenets of justice and equality themselves.
As set out in the opening plenary, the reasons behind the current spate of cuts are about spending priorities. The cuts are not about reducing the deficit but the rolling back of the welfare state.
Kate Hudson, General Secretary of CND spoke passionately about how the government is prioritising spending on defence and the country’s continuing imperial ambitions, as demonstrated by the £40bn spent so far on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Fighting Inequality in Education
The WAAA was a safe space for women to express their views and included speakers as diverse as Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, a striking tube worker and FE student. There was no sense of hierarchy and each voice was as vital as the other.
As a former teacher working closely with marginalised people in prisons, social housing settings and mental health projects I was keen to attend the talk on ‘Fighting Inequality in Education’. Representing schools, FE and HE the speakers established why women are being particularly targeted by the current attacks on education. Around 70% of teachers and 92% of TAs are women according to NUT Activist and teacher Kiri Tunks. Tunks claimed that education under Gove is about the male canon and the marketisation of education.
FE Women’s Officer Charlotte Bennett lamented that FE and HE were no longer options for women with caring responsibilities. The potential sell off of the student debt and what this means for escalating costs is putting up a further barrier for working class students.
Louise Irvine, the GP who led the successful Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign, talked about building a national movement through local campaigning. She talked of an anti-political working class being buoyed into action and of re-empowering disempowered communities to take part in a 25k strong demo against the threatened closure. As Irvine pointed out, women are the main users of health services both for themselves and as main carers and the closure of Lewisham Hospital would have had a devastating effect on the local community.
Donna Guthrie from BARAC (Black Activists Rising Against Cuts) spoke of the effects of cuts on women from BAME communities and gave an example of a London borough where black women made up 5% of the workforce but 23% of redundancies. It is important to consider the different forms of oppression and how the intersections of race and class deepen the sense of attack. The concerns of marginalised groups such as migrant workers and those in low paid, zero hours contract work gave voice to those women who are often silenced.
The austerity cuts which are having such a debilitating effect on women can be explained to an extent by the lack of female representation of women in the major parties. Labour comprises 32% women and the coalition a mere 12%. This presents us with another great challenge and I will end with the inspiring words of Gloria Mills, Head of Equalities at Unison; ‘The challenges are formidable but they are not insurmountable.’
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Ellen Harris works in the voluntary sector in strategy and development and holds an MA in Social Justice and Education from the Institute of Education.