Wednesday 8th March is the International Women's Day. The campaign theme this year is 'Be Bold For Change', and the IWD website asks people all over the world to fight for a better, more inclusive, gender-equal world.
There are many reasons to get involved in the fight for gender equality in 2017, not least because pussy-grabber-in-chief's ascension to 'leader of the free world' normalises misogyny at all echelons of society and speaks volumes about the way we regard gendered violence.
Should the UK Government be interested in taking up this call, I have a proposal for them: get rid of the restrictions on Child Tax Credit that are due to come into effect in 4 weeks and which force women to prove that they were raped in order to claim benefits. This policy is counter to the very idea of a more gender-equal world.
The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 restricts entitlement of Child Tax Credit to up to two children. There are a number of exceptions to this rule, one of which is if a subsequent child is born as a result of rape or if the woman is in a coercive relationship. In this case, a woman is required to justify her rape or that she is in a coercive relationship to a Government-approved third party professional in order to pursue her tax credit claim. This third party professional has to assess if the claim has "demonstrated that their circumstances are consistent with those of a person whose child has been conceived as a result of non-consensual sex". This policy was first announced in George Osborne's summer 2015 budget, and will come into effect on 6th April 2017.
The announcement of such a policy caused a stir, as expected from such a disturbing and poorly thought-out rule. SNP MP Alison Thewliss has led a fantastic campaign and Commons debate against the 'rape clause' and two child policy, a 2016 petition gathered over 10,000 signatories, and women's rights groups have spoken out on the issue. By way of answer, the government consulted with experts in the field and published a response to these concerns (interestingly, this was quietly published on 20th January 2017, the day of said pussy-grabber-in-chief's ascension to 'leader of the free world', so we were all conveniently looking the other way).
The Government response is pitiful. It makes clear that despite the efforts of MPs, campaigners for women's rights, and the experts consulted to highlight how harmful this policy will be, the Government continues to regard the rape clause as necessary and justified in its pursuit of a benefits system that is tailored to the Tory target voters who pay into it, at the expense of those who rely on it. To quote Rachel Krys, co-director of the End Violence Against Women coalition: "this whole policy betrays a lack of understanding about sexual and domestic abuse."
As raised in the consultation on the policy, and subsequently brushed off in the Government response, asking women to re-live the trauma of a rape and to speak of it to a third party just to support a claim for benefits is shocking. The Government has acknowledged that those consulted "were concerned about the claimant having to talk to anyone about their experience" (p.10) and that "many [stated] that it was unacceptable for Government to ask women to re-live the ordeal of a rape just in order to make a claim for benefit" (p.9). The Government response? That the DWP and HMRC will pursue the policy anyway but will be "mindful of the sensitivities involved" (p.9). This, quite simply, is not enough.
The very idea of a third party deciding whether or not the claimant has demonstrated that she was raped necessitates an assessment of her story in some fashion, which would be an incredibly traumatic experience to force a rape survivor to go through. Forcing a survivor to speak to anyone at all about her rape it, let alone a third party professional in the context of a tax credit assessment, shows a lack of understanding on the part of the Government of the stigma attached to sexual assault, and of the long-term mental health implications of sexual assault on the survivor. Women who have been assaulted (when they do speak out) are routinely not believed; if a rape survivor is in need of such an assessment, it can be deduced that she did not go to the police previously and so her reasons for doing this - whatever they may be - must be considered. Our "mindful and sensitive" Government's policy, however, places the onus again on the survivor to seek out a police officer, social worker, counsellor, or other approved professional to justify her story to, in full knowledge that her claim may be invalidated.
Further, the Government's response of 20th January speaks of guidelines that such third parties will follow to assess a claim of rape. This implies standards of proof in order to judge whether a claim is valid, which again demonstrates a rather profound lack of understanding of sexual assault. Participants in the Government's consultation have already raised the very valid point of third parties having pre-conceived perceptions of what a victim should look like (though, as above, the Government disappointingly responded by brushing off these concerns). Rape cases can be nuanced and complex, and non-conforming with popular ideas of what rape and rape victims look like. This casts doubt on the workability of the rape exception. Indeed, as Nicola Sturgeon has stated: "We can only come to the conclusion that, as well as being morally unjustifiable, the rape clause proposal is completely practically unworkable as well."
As the Government have noted, removing the rape exception would be wholly unfair on victims of rape who cannot claim Child Tax Credit for a child conceived as a result of the assault. As noted here, it does not seem possible for the rape exception to avoid being incredibly damaging to women survivors because of the need for an assessment of their claims, however informal such an assessment is. The rape exception cannot but harm the women it is intended to help, and thus the restrictions on Child Tax Credit cannot avoid putting women in danger.
If the proposed policy surrounding rape exception is the best that can be done to mitigate the danger that such an exception will put a significant number of women in, then there cannot be an ethical argument for restricting Child Tax Credit entitlement. The policy must be stopped.
International Women's Day is about touching base with the current state of affairs for women in the world, assessing what still remains to be done, and fighting for gender equality. Challenging the Government on a policy that cannot but harm women who have already endured rape or a coercive relationship is one concrete action that we can take.
Alison Thewliss MP is still fighting the 'rape clause' and two child policy. Nicola Sturgeon has stated that it is "vital that the Tories hear a clear and unambiguous message that the plans should be ditched - and not just the rape clause itself but the whole two child policy". We can support these women and the hundreds of others across the UK who disagree with this policy or would be harmed by it by making our voices heard on the issue and contacting our political representatives. And, importantly, we can make a concerted effort to keep informing ourselves on, and speaking about, political developments in the field of women's rights.
Ask your MP about the policy, and about what is being done to avoid re-traumatising rape survivors who need to claim Child Tax Credit. Speak up and speak out the ways in which our representatives fail women. Be positive about what we can achieve this International Women's Day, because giving in certainly won't help us fight systematic patriarchal oppression.
Be Bold For Change.