Many people in the UK have little or no understanding of the women's sector; they have not needed to use our services. However, there is a massive and ever growing number of women whose lives, and often the lives of their children, depend on these crucial organisations. This is no overstatement; the women's sector saves lives. From rape crisis centres to domestic violence refuges, services for trafficked women to women's health centres, the women's sector is the backbone of the lives of marginalised and oppressed women in the UK.
It is to women's organisation's that women who have experienced violence and/or abuse turn. The police consistently show their misogynistic attitudes and institutional failings in their dealing with rape investigations, from Saville, to Worboys, to Rochdale. Instead, only the women's sector provides specific services and safe spaces for women, it is a safety net for millions of women every year, particularly for those who have experienced violence.
Sadly the need for these services just keeps on rising. A report last year found that incidents of domestic violence have increased by 17% during the recession. You could be forgiven for expecting that funding for these essential services may have increased in order to meet demand. Unfortunately, the absolute opposite is true. The women's sector is experiencing the worst crisis it has ever seen; so many services are being forced into closure, are not able to provide services to fit the demand, or are having to turn women away. Women's Aid has reported that 230 women per day are turned away from domestic violence refuges. This week, Huffington Post published findings of its Freedom of Information request into cuts by 152 top-tier councils in the UK. It revealed £5.6m worth of cuts to services in the last four years, including refuges, domestic violence centres, and centres for women who have been raped or sexually assaulted.
These findings are not surprising to those of us who work in the women's sector, but they are extremely important in providing an external evaluation which proves, unequivocally how hard we have been hit under the coalition. Although funding has always been piecemeal and insufficient, women's organisations have survived through their creativity, dedication and commitment to improving the lives of women and girls across the country. However, these cuts are unique in their depth, their breadth, and in their discrimination against the most marginalised and oppressed in our society. They are tantamount to state discrimination against women.
Again, the majority of people in the UK have little or no understanding of the women's sector, and who could understand or care less than a conservative government, composed for the most part of white, middle class men? This government's disregard for women and other marginalised groups is so blatant that it is willing to flatly ignore the staggering cost saving which the women's sector provides to the state. It fills gaps in statutory provision, millions of pounds worth of service provision by police, social services, and the National Health Service. Mary Mason, CEO of Solace Women's Aid told The Huffington Post UK that 'for every £1 spent we save £8 to statutory services'.
How can we make sense of such obvious cost savings being flouted by a government consumed by austerity measures? The answer is that the cuts are specifically aimed at the most marginalised in our society, money is being saved off the backs of those who have least capital to fight back, they have always been the easiest to impose upon. David Cameron regularly talks about social inequality; he spoke eloquently on International Women's Day about taking steps to address the almost epidemic levels of gender based violence, he made the (empty) promise that half of his cabinet members would be women, and he has spoken of a Big Society whereby "we are all in this together". However, this rhetoric is a smoke screen, it blindfolds us. We are told that 'benefit thieves' and immigrants are the enemy, and while our attention is diverted, the marginalised are undercut in the name of austerity. Meanwhile, this 'austerity' has not been extended to large corporations such as Starbucks, which made over £3bn in UK sales since 1998 and yet paid less than 1% in corporation tax.
Thus the cuts highlighted by The Huffington Post UK are specific in their discrimination against women, they target a women's sector at a time when demand is rising, and should be viewed in the wider context of government policies that push women ever further from achieving equality. This is a government which is not only making drastic cuts to the women's sector but to women's lives directly by cutting an additional £10bn to welfare, with zero gendered analysis, while all reports show that welfare cuts disproportionately affect women. This is a government which has instated a health minister who believes in cutting the abortion limit to 12 weeks, in the face of evidence against it, and even where there is a threat to the mother's life. This is a government which is rolling back women's rights across the board, but which goes unrecognised as no-one is joining up the dots.
Our system is broken; the power, the political capital, and the money resides at the top of a hierarchy. Meanwhile those in most need are further disempowered and pushed to the fringes of our society. Without funding the women's sector simply cannot provide lifesaving services to women in desperate need. We have seen a crisis in our financial system, how far will the government go in starving service providers before it recognises a politico-cultural crisis? How many women have to be turned away? How many lives have to be lost?
We are here, and we are making as much noise as we possibly can with our depleted resources, but it seems that only money talks and the government can hear only the rich, dulcet tones of its big business friends. This broken capitalism is being resuscitated at the cost of women's equality, and at the wider cost of social equality.