Austerity is Gender-based Violence

Date Posted: Tuesday 20th December 2022

Feminist Economicsgender equalityViolence Against Women And Girls

Austerity is not the only approach available to the UK Government but it is one which, according to Oxfam’s recent report, constitutes gender-based violence[1]

The UK economy is officially in recession. Households, businesses, and public services are facing the biggest rise in costs in 40 years. To “balance the books”, the Government has announced austerity measures including cuts to public spending from 2025. This will further erode crucial public services, which are already in crisis after a decade of austerity followed by Covid-19. 

One in five people in the UK is in poverty[2] with women making up the majority of this group. The cost of living crisis is exacerbating existing inequalities as the poorest are hit hardest. With a bitterly cold winter setting in, the crisis has left many deciding between heating their homes and eating.

Austerity is a triple whammy and women absorb the hit

Public sector workers faced a pay freeze for several years in the 2010s and their pay is now down 4.3% compared to 2010. Nearly 80% of NHS employees are women; in the adult social care sector, around 82% of workers are women; and around 76% of teachers in England are women. As wages in these crucial sectors fall, more women are forced to seek additional support. As it stands, 40 per cent of people on Universal Credit in the UK are in paid work[3] but are not earning enough to survive.

The austerity policies of the past 12 years have eroded social security. Women are more vulnerable to poverty due to lower incomes and wealth and because they are more likely to have a disability or caring responsibilities[4]. This leaves them more reliant on social security and public services and means they are hit harder when public services and social security are cut. 

Finally, as public services struggle to survive, fewer people can afford the support they need and women are disproportionately relied upon as carers of last resort. Childcare is perhaps the clearest example of this. Our research shows that full-time care for children two years or younger absorbs nearly half of the median earnings for women in full-time employment while for those in part-time employment, the cost absorbs almost two-thirds of earnings. This is simply unaffordable for many and women are being forced out of the labour market as they reduce hours or give up work altogether to provide care. 

Austerity as gender-based violence

UN Women recently celebrated its campaign of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. Violence against women and girls increased during the Covid-19 pandemic and continues to escalate globally, driven by the intersecting crises of climate change, global conflict and economic instability[5]. But we must also recognise that violence goes beyond interpersonal abuse and violence on the streets. It can take many forms and the austerity policies which harm women, girls and non-binary people physically, emotionally and psychologically are a form of violence. Oxfam’s recent publication, The Assault of Austerity, reports that the most common austerity measures have been shown to precipitate both direct and indirect forms of violence against women, girls and non-binary people.

Austerity, the report argues, is not simply a gendered policy; it is a “gendered process of everydayness”. It impacts every facet of women’s lives. Economic violence includes policies that disregard the needs of women, reduce the already inadequate services that they rely on, and deprioritise their safety and wellbeing. It can also exacerbate other forms of oppression and violence women already face by removing crucial protections like financial freedom and frontline services for those subjected to domestic abuse.

As we have reported previously, women become shock absorbers of poverty, sacrificing their careers and security by leaving work to take on unpaid care and making daily sacrifices such as skipping meals so their children can eat. Women also tend to have the main responsibility for buying and preparing food and managing household budgets so, when times are tough, they take on the additional emotional and mental labour of finding ways to make ends meet.

There are other options

In our response to the recent budget, WBG was clear that plans for “austerity 2.0” are misguided. Women and marginalised groups – particularly those facing intersecting forms of oppression – will suffer while organisations continue to make record profits. “Balancing the books” can be done in far more progressive ways. 

It has become clearer than ever that policymakers from across the political spectrum have continued to focus on growth as the priority for our economic systems despite evidence that it is neither sustainable nor is it serving our society[6]. Women and other marginalised groups bear the brunt of the impacts of the climate crisis caused by growth-driven economies worldwide, and those crises too often include increased rates of male violence. 

The recent autumn statement was an opportunity to introduce more progressive tax measures and bolster key public services. But developing a strong, healthy, and fair economy must go further than that. The intersecting crises of Covid-19, climate change, and international conflict, combined with complications such as Brexit have highlighted stark inequalities and reliance on practices which harm both people and the environment. Our current economic system does not place people or the environment at its heart but that can change. 

One of the biggest reasons that women continue to be economically worse off is that our economy does not value care. Policies which care for the most in need are deemed ‘nice to have’ rather than vital when times are tough. And this huge labour gap is too often left for women to fill.

An economy that is strong, fair, and sustainable would place care at its heart. Wellbeing must come before profit. We need to see investment into our public services, for a healthier, more educated and better cared for population. Alongside this, we have an opportunity to green our economy by investing in care jobs; across the care sectors, an investment of 2.7% of GDP would generate 2.2 million new care jobs with pay raised by 45% to make such roles more sustainable and appealing[7]

Prioritisation of care combined with greening of our physical infrastructure and energy use could create a country which cares for its people and the environment.  This work could be supported by a progressive tax system and in the longer term would create a stronger economy. Such a plan, centred on strengthening the foundations of our economy, would also bolster the UK Government’s financial credibility and its access to low-interest rates to borrow to invest in social and physical infrastructure. 

Oxfam’s recent report demands we change what we consider to be violence. This reframing is crucial in reaching the root causes of gender-based violence. At WBG, we too call for reframing policy approaches to recognise and respond to gender inequality. We have long argued that public services must be considered crucial infrastructure. Investment in healthcare, social care, education and early education and childcare services has a social benefit that goes beyond its direct users. These forms of social infrastructure serve to benefit and protect society. At the same time, we must reframe economic priorities, placing people and the environment at the heart of our decision-making.