It’s almost impossible to imagine that on this day last year I ledhundreds of women marching shoulder to shoulder through London’s streets. On International Women’s Day feminists come together to find our voice, find our power and find the strength to carry us through the other 364 days of the year that are largely the purview of men. Back then, we didn’t know that a pandemic was about to fundamentally change all of our lives, but we could have grimly predicted how damaging its effects would prove to be for women. When the chips were down, we were confronted with the fragility of women’s equality.
You didn’t have to be an epidemiologist to understand that the impact of the virus, and any efforts to control it, would fall unevenly on people according to their status in the economy and society. And you didn’t need a crystal ball to know that the Conservative government would bypass any opportunity to acknowledge and address those inequalities, even when lives were at stake. Their priority at every stage has been to deliver the kind of support that can most easily be taken away.
Women make up most of the UK’s key workers, especially in schools, hospitals and care homes. In return for this hard and hazardous work in our health, social care, education and childcare sectors, they get low pay and job insecurity. This financial precarity meant many women couldn’t take time off work when they fell ill with Covid, and low earnings meant that others didn’t even qualify for statutory sick pay.
Last week the government announced a “rise” for NHS workers that actually amounts to a pay cut in real terms, and social care workers, who didn’t even get a mention in the budget, are still expected to survive on less than a real living wage. Without irony, the Conservatives are implementing exactly the kind of measures that fatally wounded our social infrastructure, drove huge vacancies in our “essential” workforce and made us vulnerable to this crisis in the first place.
Away from the workplace, women also faced abuse and injustices in their own homes. As soon as the need for lockdown became clear, we knew that women at risk from domestic violence would be trapped at home with their abusers and cut off from support networks. Yet still our government failed to provide the funding necessary to guarantee safe refuge to women and children fleeing violence. The home secretary’s promise to survivors that they are “not alone” rings hollow in the face of more than 100 femicides, and counting.
The other thing we knew from the outset was that limiting attendance at schools, nurseries and local care services at the same time as limiting access to paid and unpaid care would result in women taking on more unpaid labour – at the expense of their work, financial security and wellbeing. Half of mothers have taken on more childcare responsibilities during lockdown compared with less than a quarter of fathers, while 55% of those caring for sick and disabled relatives full-time, on a meagre £67.25 a week, feel overwhelmed.
The result is plain to see with women more likely to reduce their hours, take furlough and quit work. With some shops and restaurants unlikely to survive the months of lockdown, and childcare providers facing a cash crisis due to lost income, we are likely to see more women being pushed out of the workforce.
All of this was predictable, but none of it was inevitable. Other countries, notably those with female leaders, made different choices. The government could have given parents a legal right to shared furlough, instead of letting seven out of 10 mothers have their requests denied; they could have given single parents extra annual leave; they could have given early years providers the financial and practical support they needed to stay open.
At every stage, the government has had the opportunity not just to follow the science but to avoid inequality. Instead it is knowingly allowing inequality to grow and gains to recede. That’s why this International Women’s Day, however far apart we may be, we must stick together.