“The World Can’t Wait for Women’s Economic Empowerment”… and Neither Can the UK

April 1, 2016

BY Mari-Claire Price

Recently we saw the launch of the United Nations Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment during the 60th Commission on the Status of Women. Hosted by UN Women and co-chaired by Luis Guillermo Solis, President of Costa Rica, and Simona Scarpaleggia, CEO of IKEA Switzerland, the panel was backed by the UK government who recognized that “the world can’t wait for women’s economic empowerment.”

Back in the UK, a friend and her children are spending their third week sleeping on a friend’s couch having been evicted and made homeless by Epping Council in Essex. The young woman, a survivor of violence, was moved by the police from another council to Epping following threats of violence directed at her and her children. She was evicted six months later after being deemed “intentionally homeless.” Intentionality within social housing in the UK paradoxically encompasses what can only be described as “accidental intentionality:” For example, if you are new to the council housing system and were not aware that you had to reapply for housing benefit when you were moved within a council, such as in the case of my friend, which results in the accrual of rent arrears. The outcome is the same as if you knowingly failed to pay your rent. If you are deemed intentionally homeless, councils can, at their discretion, accept a housing or homelessness application from you. However, many are unwilling or cautious in housing people with an “intentionality” mark against their name.

My friend is one of hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are being damaged by the UK government’s housing policy and the growing housing crisis. The crisis has led to a sharp rise in homelessness, numbers of rough sleepers, placements in temporary accommodation, as well as a significant increases in the numbers of hidden homelessness (families and single adults living in other households that want and need to access housing, but can’t). Campaigners have warned that the devastating housing situation in the UK will only be further compounded by the UK government’s recent proposed housing bill. The bill includes plans to force councils to sell their homes, end lifetime tenancies, and make it easier for private landlords to evict tenants. Wider cuts, such as cuts to domestic violence services alongside these housing measures, make it harder for women, particularly for migrant womento escape domestic violence and access social housing.

In a recent article about the new High Level Panel, Justine Greening, UK Secretary of State for International Development, said: “for me, women’s economic empowerment is simply the best poverty-tackling strategy we have. We shouldn’t just be waiting for it to happen — we should turbo charge it.”

However, Greening’s recent introduction to the High level Panel only refers to the UK’s commitment to women’s economic empowerment nationally in addressing “glass ceilings” in employment, increasing numbers of women on FTSE 350 boards, introducing league tables on the gender pay gap, and providing start-up loans for women business owners. Although all are important issues, the UK has so far failed to address the various ways women, their families, and communities are being pushed into poverty and worsening poverty by the experimental fiscal policies and cuts to public services introduced over recent years under the auspices of austerity.

The UK government’s implementation of various austerity measures over the past 5 years focuses on reducing welfare spending through cutting benefit entitlement, as opposed to reducing need. Women across the country, including single parents, disabled women, migrant women and survivors of domestic violence are drastically affected by the introduction of universal credit, the bedroom tax, the introduction of more stringent sanctions and conditionality on various benefits including sickness benefit and job seekers allowance, cuts to the independent living fund, significant increases in low paid and insecure work, as well as a rise in zero hours contracts.

Between 2010 and 2015, and under the coalition government, more than 80% (£22 billion) of the revenue raised by tax and benefit changes came from women’s pockets. According to the Women’s Budget Group, women lone parents and single pensioners stand to see living standards drop by an average of 20% every year by 2020. Not only do the cuts have severe economic and social impacts on women, but on their families and communities as well. In 2013-14, there were 3.7 million children living in relative poverty in the UK, with a further 1.7 million living in deprivation and half a million in severe deprivation. Figures are set to rise significantly by 2020. By the same measure, 8 million working age adults, live in poverty. Benefit delays and low income are the main reasons given by the 1 million people in the UK that had to access food banks between 2014 and 2015, the need having risen from 130,000 people in 2012.

Since the economic crisis and the UK government’s deep and dangerous cuts to public services and the benefits system, economic pressures have forced women to choose between child-care and work. Even the introduction of the government’s free childcare policy is inaccessible to those that that need it the most due to complex application process, lack of information and lack of support for parents and carers. Since 2008, Women’s under-employment has nearly doubled (to 789,000) and an additional 371,000 women have moved into self-employment. With the rise in zero hour contracts, precarious employment is becoming integral to the economy, in particular for women and their families.

And more cuts are on the way. Planned freezes to housing and working age benefits, the end of housing benefit for 18-21 year olds, and cuts that will lead to the closure of hundreds more housing, hostels, and shelters for homeless people, women escaping domestic violence and elderly and vulnerable people, including a significant number of specialist services.

The High Level Panel on women’s economic empowerment referred to women as “the ultimate global growth generators” and included private sector representatives, such as Citi Bank and Ikea. Not only do the configuration and language of the panel raise questions about whose interest is being served, but they also highlight the growing corporate influence within the United Nations – an influence that has been of major concern to many civil society actors in recent years.

The universal 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, agreed by governments in 2015, include a goal on addressing inequalities within countries. The austerity measures and cuts introduced by the UK government is a policy of choicealternatives do exist. Whilst we welcome a focus on addressing women and economic justice, if the UK government is truly committed to this, it must consider the ways in which austerity measures and wider government policy are not only disempowering women, but are limiting them, impacting their lives and health and the lives of their families, and in a concerning number of cases, killing them.

“The world can’t wait for women’s economic empowerment.” That is true, but that includes the UK.