The most marginalized women in the UK have been disproportionately affected by austerity measures
In response to the 2008 financial crisis, the UK adopted an austerity program to attempt to balance the national budget in 2010. The program involved slashing funds for government support for housing, mental health services, municipal services, welfare and a host of other initiatives. A recent Amnesty International report released on December 10, the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, reveals that women, particularly the most marginalized women in the UK, have been disproportionately affected by these austerity measures.
This is not the first research that has indicated that Britain’s austerity measures have had an especially deleterious impact on women. Research produced by the Labour Party in 2016, for example, found that the cuts had cost men £13bn and women £79bn, meaning that women had shouldered 86 percent of the burden of the cuts since they were imposed. But this new report finds that specific groups of women have been and will continue to be impacted the most. By 2020, the income of single mothers will have fallen by 18 percent since 2010, while Black and Asian households will see average drops in living standards of 19.2 percent and 20.1 percent respectively, according to the report. Legal aid, which enables low income people to access legal representation, has also been cut and, in turn, disproportionately impacted women, people of color, and those with disabilities.
In addition to the austerity program, Amnesty International’s report also criticizes other elements of British domestic policy, specifically calling on the government to do more to guarantee its citizens reproductive rights and protection from survivors of sexual violence. Outdated abortion laws and cuts to legal aid are “leaving many women — in particular those marginalised because of their race, class, sexual orientation and gender identity — in a precarious situation,” the report states.
Women in the UK are significantly more likely to experience sexual violence than women in European Union overall: one in seven women in the UK experience such violence compared to one in ten in the European Union. But fewer rape cases have been prosecuted since the austerity cuts; Amnesty found that there had been a 23 percent drop in the number of rape cases brought to court between the publication of this annual report and the previous one. This finding is bolstered by other reporting that has shown how austerity measures have impacted services for survivors of sexual and interpersonal violence. For example in 2017, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that funding for domestic violence shelters had been cut by nearly a quarter since 2010, and that the number of domestic violence incidents reported to the police had increased by over a third during the same time period.
Austerity cuts have also impacted women’s access to medical care, including sexual and reproductive health, in the UK. While the Republic of Ireland voted to overturn the ban on abortions in May, abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. As Amnesty notes in its report, in Northern Ireland “women can still be sentenced to life in prison for having an abortion, and an estimated 23 women are forced to travel every week to seek medical treatment that they cannot access at home.” Ironically, some argue that cutting funding for sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services is actually counterproductive towards saving governmental money. According to researcher and lecturer Frances Amery, these cuts ultimately result in drastic increases in spending due to treatments related to unintended pregnancies and STI infections.
Like Amnesty, however, Amery and many others are more concerned about the moral and human cost of the austerity cuts — such as how they will impact women, people of color and others from marginalized communities — than the financial ones. For instance, the activist group Sisters Uncut was founded in 2014 to protest cuts to domestic violence services in the UK. In an op-ed published in the Guardian last March, members of this group came out in opposition of a bill that would toughen criminal sanctions for people convicted of abuse.
“The police and courts have plenty of resources and power; giving them more won’t address the reasons they are failing,” wrote the activists. “If the government truly wants to tackle domestic violence, power should be given back to survivors – by properly funding sorely-needed specialist services and refuge.”
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