-This post also appears over at The Critical Edge
“The level of any civilization can be determined by the extent to which its women have been liberated.” –Charles Fourier
The outcome of the 2010 British general election may come to be viewed as the single worst political event to affect the progress of efforts to achieve gender equality in a generation. The coalition government’s tenure will reverse much of the progress so far made in the name of women’s hard won economic rights. This can be easily deduced by the cuts to the welfare system and public expenditure so far implemented, as well as those planned over the course of the current parliament.
David Cameron himself has made clear that dealing with the nation’s deficit is his top priority as part of his plan for economic recovery. However much Cameron claims his actions will free future generations of a burdensome debt mountain, he is happily overseeing wealth redistribution from (largely female) citizens to pay for the vast fraud committed by banks and their elaborate Ponzi schemes. Cameron’s top priority is to bail out the banks at the expense of women working in the home, the public and private sectors.
Unless we accept Margaret Thatcher’s claim that ‘There Is No Alternative’ to neoliberal economic restructuring and financial oligarchy, it would stand us in good stead to survey the global political economy for examples of pro-active and progressive approaches to female economic and political empowerment to disprove said claim. Whilst the UK enjoys an annual GDP of $2+ trillion (6th largest economy in the world), Venezuela (GDP $344bn/35th) is an economically developing country, overcoming decades of vast inequalities and domination by more powerful hemispheric neighbours with the acquiescence of a local oligarchy.
The government of Hugo Chavez (a self declared feminist) in Venezuela has taken a very different approach to the role of women in politics and the economy. Whilst his administration does not have a perfect record, the sentiment that women should have a greater role in the political economy and decision making is strong and has been followed by some major policy breakthroughs. The approaches of both governments will be contrasted, their differences being extremely stark, especially taking into account the relative position of each country in the global political economy and the major internal and external pressures the Venezuelan government has faced since taking office.
The Coalition’s Attack on Women
Without wishing to bamboozle or bore the reader with a string of facts and figures, the following figures are important if we are to fully gauge the breadth and depth of the austerity policies in their effects on women.
The ConDem government set the tone early into its administration when the chancellor George Osborne drew up an ‘emergency’ budget which ensured women were hardest hit. As part of the £8.5bn in cuts in welfare contributions announced, £5.7bn would come from women. With tax and benefit changes as a whole, £16bn was to be raised, £11bn of which would come from women.
Any cut in welfare, including tax credits, child benefit, childcare credits would hit women disproportionately considering they are the majority recipients of such payments (94% of child benefit, 70% of tax credit and 60% of housing benefit). The emergency budget alone resulted in a £1,500 a year cut in help with childcare costs.
Osborne’s very political austerity cuts are directly hitting public sector workers, including local government workers. 25% of all public workers are situated in local government (in England and Wales), 75% of which are women. In the third year of a pay freeze with inflation only recently dropping from the 5% mark, these workers have been reduced to pay levels of the early 1990s.
Hardest hit are classroom assistants, 90% of which are women, as well as care assistants, home care workers, school dinner ladies, social workers, cleaners and secretaries – all positions with a large or majority female presence.
Other cuts to largely hit women and families include;
- The abolition of the Health in Pregnancy Grant, a universal payment of £190 to pregnant women who are 25 weeks pregnant and have received health advice from a medical professional.
- A three year freeze in the value of Child Benefit, in addition to the withdrawal of Child Benefit from women living in a household where one adult is a higher rate taxpayer.
- The abolition of the Baby Element of Tax Credits (worth a maximum of £545 to eligible families) and a reversal of previous Government’s commitment to introduce a Toddler Tax Credit (worth a maximum of £208 for eligible families).
- A cut in the proportion of childcare costs that are covered for families eligible for Working Tax Credit, from 80 per cent of costs to 70 per cent of costs
- A three year freeze in the value of Working Tax Credit.
- Significant cuts to Housing Benefit, which the Department for Work and Pension’s own assessment has indicated will hit families the hardest.
- A cap on the total amount of out of work benefit that a family will be entitled to, which will mean that large families experience greater losses.
On top of these, changes to child tax credits will take £908m from women, with men losing £112m.
Not yet two years into the Coalition administration and the evidence is overwhelmingly damning. However, these kinds of figures do not offer a full understanding of the increasingly aggressive manner in which women and men alike will be treated in the welfare system. This includes increased the pressure and stress caused by means testing, removal of benefits and Victorian era style workfare schemes which see highly profitable multi-national corporations receive free labour from welfare claimants.
Women & the Bolivarian Revolution
“…everyone should be a feminist…to be socialist is to be feminist.” –Hugo Chavez
Let us head south and cast an eye over Venezuela, a country recovering from 500 years of imperialism, the deep social divides and inequality this created historically and the economic and political interventions of the United States.
A far cry from a social traditionalist who aims to offer tax breaks to heterosexual married couples with children (possibly totalling £100 per annum), Venezuela’s counterpart to Britain’s PM has been involved in radical politics for decades and is a self styled feminist. Whilst prone to the odd gaff or oddball statement, since election in 1998 (one of about 10 including re-election, recall votes and referenda) Chavez has gone some way to improving the lives of working and lower-middle class women in Venezuela, in the face of huge political, economic and cultural challenges. This has largely been facilitated by women themselves, pressuring the government as part of wider radical social movements and through the setting up of cooperatives and other alternative means of social organisation in opposition to patriarchy and purely capitalist social relations.
Crucial to the political project of ‘Chavismo’ is its intended aim to spearhead a notion of another democracy, distinct from liberal democracy, which it considers exhausted (Lander, 2007). In relation to female participation in this project, Courtney Frantz explains;
“One of the most important aspects of the Bolivarian Revolution is also the most overlooked: that the significant majority -often 90% or more- of its participants, its leaders, and the beneficiaries of its social programs are women…Their organizing strategy of fighting these aspects of poverty reflects an acute understanding of their own economic struggles as being gendered”
There has been a clear transformation in the political culture and in the process of inclusion, as subjects of political and organisational action, of the poor majority, had been increasingly excluded. This translates into the active presence of the ‘dangerous classes’ on the political scene, mobilised, informed, organised and unwilling to return to passivity (Lander 2007).
The Venezuelan government has re-written the constitution (ratified in an election) to give greater recognition to the role of women in the economy, including in the informal sectors. The new constitution is the first in the Global South to recognise women’s housework as a legitimate economic activity producing wealth and contributing to the social welfare of the population;
“The State will recognise household chores as an economic activity that creates added value, produces wealth and social welfare. Housewives have the right to social security according to the law.” (Article 88)
2007 saw the introduction of ‘organic laws’ enacted by the National Assembly of Venezuela offering women the right to live a life free of violence. Special courts and legal units have been set up covering all the country’s regions to handle cases of violence against women. The courts are able to temporarily arrest those perpetrating violence against women, restricting their ability to leave the country and ensuring trials are held within twenty days of the act of violence taking place, with an appeals process in place.
Of course, the government’s actions have not eradicated domestic and other forms of violence against women, which have actually increased in recent years. There are still major issues surrounding domestic abuse and the lack of police training regarding the issue and the need for more shelters where women can escape their abusers.
In 2009 The Ministry for Women’s Affairs and Gender Equality was created, its first activity to organise a congress of women to consult other women on the future work of the ministry
“A key objective of the Ministry is to advise the President on ‘human development with gender equality’ and the ‘active participation in the defence and guarantee of women’s rights in the revolutionary transformation of the country’. Linked to this a key task of the Ministry is to ‘design the criteria for allocating financial and social resources and investments targeting women, especially those who are marginalised and excluded, suffering discrimination, exploitation and violence … in order to promote a socialist production model with gender equity in the socialisation of the means of production’.”
The government has set up a range of ‘misiones’, each aimed at dealing with a specific social, economic and political issue. As Courtney Frantz outlines, some of the misiones deal exclusively with empowering women and overcoming many of the challenges they may face;
“…the government has created several programs exclusively for women. Nora Castañeda heads Banmujer, a low-interest microcredit bank that trains, supports, and funds women starting small cooperative businesses. Inamujer, which has recently become Minmujer, or the Ministry of Women, is a distinct branch of the government created for the sole purpose of generating and changing policy on behalf of women. The Venezuelan government is one of the first in the world to recognize explicitly the need to support women’s voices as a distinct political bloc.”
The setting up of co-operatives and commune councils has been a crucial means of bringing women into decision making processes. This involves direct democracy, not only the more distant form of representative democracy. 70% of commune councils in the country are headed by women.
However, a critical weakness of the Bolivarian Revolution is the fact that abortion remains illegal and frowned upon in Venezuela, this being an issue which undermines much of the government’s work with regard to political and economic rights. This is an issue currently being deliberated amongst women’s groups and in wider civil society (deeply influenced by Catholicism), including meetings involving the President of the National Assembly’s commission for family, women and youth in an attempt to re-write the country’s Penal Code to guarantee the right to abortion.
Whilst the Bolivarian Revolution has not solved the problems facing women in a poor country of the Global South, it has implemented and is exploring new means by which to do so. For these to be truly successful requires a step change in the population’s attitudes toward gender equality and improved economic and political rights and access to the means and mechanisms of power for the female population. Major campaigns and debates must be fought and won on the part of women and allied progressive social forces in order to win and secure the bare minimum reproductive rights, whilst also building on the political economic gains witnessed in recent years.
To bring us back to where we started, it is clear that women face both differing and similar challenges in both countries briefly studied in this article. The rights already won in either, whether they are reproductive rights in Britain, or economic rights in Venezuela are not set in stone and have and will continue to come under attack from reactionary social forces in the future. In the UK this can be witnessed by the recent attempts to change rules surrounding abortion rights. In Venezuela we still witness extremely retrograde views toward domestic violence (although it would be fair to say this can be said of the UK situation also).
What is absolutely clear is the differing intentions of the British and Venezuelan governments, their level of concern and interest in issues predominantly affecting women and what they intend to do about them. Whilst flawed in a number of areas, Venezuela’s government is taking a pro-active approach, whilst in the UK women are facing the single worst attack on many of their rights in generations. Activists in both countries can and should learn lessons from each other about effective means of challenging cultures which continue to treat women as second class citizens in the political economy and deny important rights over their bodies and reproductive health.
Lander, E (2007). ‘Chapter 3: Populism and the Left: Alternatives to Neo-Liberalism’, in Barrett, P et al (eds) The New Latin American Left: Utopia Reborn, London: Pluto Press