The impact on women of austerity policies has often been assumed to be an unfortunate side-effect driven not by ideology but simple bad luck. Women are more likely to work in the public sector, and therefore were hit harder by mass job losses. More women than men are single parents, and as such more women have suffered due to the benefit cuts.
Few in mainstream politics have suggested this was intentional – instead the impression given is that this has represented a lack of thought or care about the needs of women. Undoubtedly the result of a sexist society, but still pretty much business as usual, particularly for the Tory Party.
The reality, which has gone almost unnoticed even during a much discussed feminist revival, is that Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms represent an attack on women’s autonomy which is unprecedented in the UK’s recent history. And this assault – which by and large only affects women who are poor – is driven by an ugly and out-dated fantasy of Victorian family values which come directly from the mystical beliefs of the Secretary of State himself.
Before the non-election of this Government, a woman in an abusive relationship was able to leave knowing that her and her children would be supported by the social security system. This support was scant – most lone parents live in poverty – but it was there, no matter where the woman happened to live. For women in London, that situation has now disappeared due to a cap on benefits which makes much of the capital unaffordable for single parents who are not working, or even those working part time. Whilst there are still Women’s Refuges and other sources of support, the most fundamental part of the safety net – the guarantee that a woman who leaves a violent partner will have her rent paid in a new property and be able to feed her kids – has vanished.
Prior to this Government’s welfare reforms a woman who became pregnant was able to make an informed decision about how to proceed regardless of her own wealth and the behavior of the father. Again the future would be little more than a subsistence income unless she was able to find work – but her and her child would be able to eat. The Benefit Cap, and threats to further cuts on child benefits, mean that for many women the right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy has been effectively dismantled. If keeping a baby means poverty, homelessness or forced relocation hundreds of miles from friends and family then there is little choice at all.
It may seem perverse that a Government which has threatened to limit access to abortions has also created an situation where a termination may be an economic necessity. But it is not working class women having babies that so irks the current administration – it is working class women having autonomy over both their lives and sexuality without a man involved.
Earlier this month Iain Duncan Smith gave a speech to the Marriage Foundation, a religiously influenced think tank which claims to promote ‘healthy stable relationships’. IDS heaped praise on the work of this organisation and its founder Sir Paul Coleridge. Coleridge is a former High Court Judge who recently resigned after being reprimanded for Judicial Misconduct due to banging on in the press about the sanctity of marriage and the dangers of cohabitation.
Cohabitation is a big deal to these 1950s throwbacks and has led to some appalling assumptions. According to the Marriage Foundation’s Director of Communications Harry Benson, couples co-habiting, along with women who have separated from a previous partner, are the two “largest predictors of domestic violence”.
Benson believes that domestic violence happens because of “problems in relationships” and that “domestic violence is likely to depend on both structure and quality of the relationship”. The inference is clear, victims of domestic violence share some responsibility for the abuse. In 2007, when he made these comments, Benson was furious the Government didn’t take his rantings seriously blaming them for “pandering to political correctness”.
Benson is not some swivel-eyed crank on the fringes of this debate. He has also co-authored papers for Iain Duncan Smith’s own think-tank the Centre for Social Justice and was a deputy chair of their family policy group
It is not just women who dare to have a sex life that has not been blessed by God who are under fire from Iain Duncan Smith’s moral crusaders. The Advisory Board of the Marriage Foundation also includes Nola Leach, CEO of CARE, a Christian organisation who campaigned vigourously against gay marriage. Sitting alongside her on the board are Dave and Liz Percival, founders of 2-in-2-1 who organise Marriage Week, a ‘celebration of commitment’ which Iain Duncan Smith has helped launch in the past.
Dave and Liz have some useful advice for friends and families of gay people on their website which states: “Some people, upon learning of the homosexuality of someone close, will actually become physically ill and be sick. These violent emotional and physical symptoms are a normal reaction to homosexuality.”
Dave Percival has also contributed to a working group for the Centre for Social Justice. The influence of this type of divine rhetoric on Iain Duncan Smith was doubtlessly also one reason for his decision to make Phillipa ‘pray away the gay’ Stroud his special advisor shortly after he took over at the DWP.
Beneath the cloak of austerity and welfare reforms lies a nasty and outdated ideology – and one which the Tory Party pretend they have left behind. The likes of Iain Duncan Smith however have never bought into David Cameron’s attempt to rebrand the Tories as socially liberal kitten huggers. IDS is on a mission from God to re-establish the male dominated family structure where women know their place and LGBT or non-traditional relationships are sidelined.
This is why women facing abuse are now at risk of being unable to leave a violent partner. It is why single mothers have been attacked from all sides by vicious benefit cuts. And it is why when Universal Credit is finally introduced all payments will go direct to the so called head of a household and not necessarily the person responsible for the primary care of the children.
Of course none of this conflicts with Iain Duncan Smith’s belief that poverty is a moral failing, to be punished with unpaid work and benefit sanctions. Fallen women, living without a man, will soon face workfare from the moment their child starts school whilst Jobcentre harassment will sometimes begin before their babies are even weaned. If that doesn’t bring single mothers into line then they will be banished by the Benefit Cap from their communities, forced into lives of poverty and isolation where they know no-one. Such is the punishment for a life of sin in the eyes of Iain Duncan Smith and his warped little helpers at the Marriage Foundation and the woefully misnamed Centre for Social Justice.
Woman Against Rape will be holding a protest against the Benefit Cap tomorrow (28th January 2014). Meet outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Strand WC2A 2LL at 9.30am – more info on facebook.
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