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I was heartened to hear news this week of the launch of the second action plan in the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children. It is important that opposition to violence against women becomes part of daily discourse. It is clear though that this strategy needs to take its place alongside a vast array of other reforms to achieve its potential for transformative change and justice for women.
Despite historical gains for women in terms of formal equality – the right to vote, to own property and to be educated – the lack of progress towards women’s substantive equality is bound tightly to deeply ingrained assumptions about gender. This is so even in an apparently broadly liberal society like Australia – although I personally find Australian attitudes to gender are largely very conservative. Social constructs play out daily in our personal relationships and our public personae. The effect of these assumptions is profound for our society: they underlie violence against women and are implicated in the feminisation of poverty.
I know women approaching retirement age facing subsistence living in the midst of our affluent society. Foregoing education in the 1960s because of cost and the expectation to marry, they devoted themselves to raising children, doing voluntary work and supporting their husbands’ career advancement. Through widowhood or divorce, they have ended up living alone. The paid work they have since undertaken has been largely unskilled in retail or service industries. Employers had offered only casual work, varying greatly in hours from week to week and affecting their financial independence.
Some have had new relationships, but have suffered financially as a result. This is often described as ‘sexually transmitted debt‘. These women now rely on pensions and supported housing. They remain active in their communities, but are excluded from the labour market. These women represent an example of the feminisation of poverty.
Overall, Australian women earn an average of 18.2 per cent less than men. Consequently, women also have lower retirement savings. In 2009, the Australian Human Rights Commission reported on women’s accumulation of poverty: ‘Instead of accumulating wealth through the retirement income system as intended, due to experiences of inequality over the lifecycle, women are more likely to be accumulating poverty.’
Women’s unpaid caring responsibilities compound this problem as women frequently interrupt their working lives to care for children, the sick and the elderly. Even where a couple strives for equality, women receive a smaller share of available household finances than their male partners and they tend to spend it on household and children’s needs. Additionally, over two million women are financially abused by their spouse. Women have less purchasing power per dollar than men – simply because they are women.
Some may suggest that it is ‘natural’ or inevitable that this occurs and this is at the heart of the intractable problem of injustice. I do not see why my older women friends should be burdened with accumulated poverty simply because they are women. They carry a material burden because their unpaid work was considered to be performed ‘for love’, undeserving of financial security. They did not have opportunities for education or career advancement because they were women. Some have lost their financial security because of the domination of men carrying out their own construction of gender.
Importantly however, these structural issues – wage gap, superannuation gap, childcare, unpaid caring, inequitable income distribution – have not gone away. These older women are not the last or the only generation to experience feminised poverty. Experiencing life this way renders women second-class citizens, denying them their right to self-determination.
To give substance to women’s right to self-determination, we must afford all women real opportunities to engage fully in economic and civic life free from the expectations imposed on their gender but free also to express themselves as women.
This means re-thinking our key institutions to provide equitably for diverse life paths, and to value women. The former has an economic flavor and the latter a social one. The two intersect at the level of policy. Progressive institutional reform requires setting a clear direction confirming the value of women in all social and institutional contexts: the workplace, the home, the parliament, courts and executive, in education, sport, media and culture.
Our society pays a price for feminised poverty. Proposals by government or industry that affect welfare, tax, wages and entitlements or childcare therefore need to be tested against the policy outcome of justice for women in both economic and social terms. Only then will the spectrum of issues start to converge to support strategies addressing the other disastrous problem of violence against women.
Justice for women requires ambitious and comprehensive reform with broad buy-in from all quarters. How are you going to contribute to change?
Stock image of old woman via Shutterstock.