The direction of travel for gender equality, and particularly women’s economic equality, has been reversed in recent years. Women’s groups have predicted that ‘ground previously gained will most certainly be lost’, that ‘austerity risks turning back time’, and that there has ‘been regression in some key areas’. These backwards steps put the UK in danger of breaching its human rights obligations under international law. The effect of the economic and financial crises on women’s economic rights has been largely discussed as though women’s issues were identical to those of men. Women’s rights, therefore, are the particular focus of what follows.
The UK voluntarily accepted obligations to respect women’s rights in 1986, yet the latest reports would seem to suggest that the UK has forgotten its responsibilities in relation to women’s economic rights, or operates under the ill-founded assumption that these responsibilities are suspended by an economic recession. The ‘Women’s Convention’ – the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) – is broad in its coverage, and affords women many rights in respect of discrimination. These rights have been affected by the crises in what Oxfam has labelled ‘a perfect storm’ of ‘economic stagnation, the rising cost of living and public spending cuts’. The debate on the apportionment of blame for these three phenomenon is well-rehearsed and unresolved but, what is clear as a matter of international human rights law, is that regardless of what or who caused the crisis, the responsibility for addressing the negative impacts upon women rights rests firmly with the State (defined as ‘all branches of Government’).
The UK’s progress in fulfilling these obligations was recently examined. The four-yearly assessment by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CommEDAW) was an opportunity for the government to put forward an account of the implementation of recommendations made following the previous review, progress made in achieving the convention rights, and any difficulties encountered. The CommEDAW use the reports of charitable organisations and national human rights institutions (such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission) to focus on issues of particular concern or priority. Following an oral dialogue between the independent Committee members and state representatives, the Committee considers the information and reports and produces ‘Concluding Observations’. These observations are a list of recommendations for the state to address in the forthcoming four years and include a recommendation that the UK ‘continuously focus on measuring and balancing the impact of austerity measures on women’s rights’.
The Committee’s Concerns
In relation to economic equality, the Committee concluded that the primary areas of concern for the UK were the direct impact of the austerity measures themselves, and the effect of public sector budget cuts.
The CommEDAW highlighted the negative impact that austerity measures are having on women. In doing so they gave voice to a growing body of NGO, academic and state research that has concluded that the interests of women are being ignored. Women’s informal work is being under recognised, tax and benefit reforms are disproportionately affecting women, and some badly targeted policies are reversing progress on women’s socio-economic equality.
The informal sector continues to be ignored in the creation of economic models, with the importance of caregiving and domestic work being under recognised. Women remain the primary workers in this regard with 70% of all housework being done by women, and 58% of carers being women. Not recognising the vital role of this work affects how women are viewed within society and hides the true impact of the crisis on women. Furthermore, as the price of childcare increases and state subsidies of childcare fall behind these rises, large numbers of women are forced to increase their burden of unpaid work, making employment unaffordable for low-paid women. Moreover, the measures that have been announced to improve childcare provision are not due to come into effect until 2015/16, and have been criticised as inefficient due to poor targeting.
The changes to social security entitlement and to tax regimes have been another feature of austerity. Women, on average, and due in large part to historical and current inequalities, rely much more heavily than men on state assistance with one fifth of the average woman’s income coming from social security in comparison to a tenth of a man’s average income. Thus any broad-brushed attempt to reduce state expenditure in this area, without adequate targeting and use of disaggregated data, has a disproportionate effect on women. Such disproportionate and unjustified effects further damages the UK’s progress on its human rights responsibilities, not least its duty to actively promote equality.
The suggestion by opponents of the current government and the indication of figures from the non-partisan House of Commons Library is that the current UK austerity measures have lacked this necessary targeting. According to figures compiled with respect to the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s 2012 Autumn Statement, 81% of direct tax, benefit and tax credit savings came from women. Such a high figure has prompted advocacy groups to question why an Equality Impact Assessment was absent despite its importance in showing up the potential for unequal effects of law and for achieving many human rights objectives. Statistics from the Institute for Fiscal Studies also show a disproportionate cumulative impact upon single adult female-headed households.
Austerity measures in the UK have also in part focussed on reducing costs in the public sector, through the transfer of functions to the private sector and through the reduction of staff levels. The number of public sector employees has been reduced by around 300,000, and is expected to face further reductions, totalling 710,000 jobs removed from the public sector by 2018. Such a public sector focus necessarily affects women disproportionately given that women make up on average 68% of public sector workers in the UK, with certain functions having an even higher proportion of women (such as adult social care workers (80%) or education workers (82%)). These cuts have an additional impact in some regions of the UK where the local economy is particularly dependent on the public sector. The North East, Wales and Northern Ireland are likely to be impacted most severely.
Although job losses cause the greatest impact upon lives, other ‘lesser’ measures in the public sector also affect women. Public sector pay rises are capped at 1% until 2016, meaning a real-terms reduction in incomes, after accounting for inflation of 2.8%. Additionally, around a third of public sector organisations use ‘zero hours’ contracts, typically employing more female than male workers on such terms. These trends have created instability for women and have increased anxiety, pressure and, in the extreme, mental health problems. Indeed, one survey found around 16% of mothers are being treated by the NHS for anxiety or depression due to their financial worries.
Where infrastructure projects have been brought forward (for example the High Speed 2 rail project) in an attempt to stimulate growth and create jobs, these have an inbuilt male bias. Construction projects perpetuate the male-domination of many areas of the building industries when they are not carefully designed to increase female employment. Large government investment in projects should be seen as an opportunity to address the systematic under-representation of women in the sciences, engineering and construction. These under representations and ‘occupational segregations’ were noted with concern by the CommEDAW. Through attaching conditions to government contracts, prioritising flexible working practices, and addressing stereotypes in education and the media, the country could emerge from the recession with a more, not less, gender balanced workforce. A period of economic disturbance is an ideal point to enact such changes, as government contracts are more sought after and thus the state has greater negotiating power. Indeed a parliamentary committee made the recommendation that the creation of apprenticeships should be attached to government contracts; the creation of women’s jobs would be a small step further.
Despite being legally obligated to improve the economic situation of women, the UK is going backwards in many respects. An economic crisis alone does not provide an excuse, in human rights terms, to deny basic equalities to the female population. The CommEDAW, writing with respect to the economically worse-off Greeks, noted that ‘special efforts’ were needed to maintain human rights in times of fiscal constraint and that a gender sensitive approach that prioritises women in the most vulnerable situations is required by the Convention.
Charities are warning that women’s coping mechanisms and resiliencies are close to the point of exhaustion and that a precipitous drop in living standards and equality will shortly follow. Worsening standards for women’s rights will also result. Properly targeting measures and using the opportunities presented by such a period of economic upheaval is key in addressing women’s rights issues. By re-taking responsibility for women’s rights, and assessing factors beyond simple financial ones, the state stands to produce a more fair and equal society.
It is clear that until women are actively considered in austerity policymaking their economic equality, and with it their rights, will continue to deteriorate.