Oona King on the shameful decline of gender equality in the UK under the Coalition government
Last week economists at the respected World Economic Forum (WEF) kicked the UK out of the world's top 20 countries for gender equality. Their report, The Global Gender Gap, measures something more intriguing than wealth: the gap between men and women's life chances. In other words, how much opportunity in a given country is governed by gender. You won't be surprised Saudi Arabia didn't make the top 20 either.
In 2013 the UK was ranked 18th for gender equality. Last week we fell calamitously to 26th, ranked below Nicaragua, Rwanda, Bulgaria and Burundi.
So what’s changed for the UK? Perhaps most dramatically, women have borne the brunt of swingeing budget cuts. Gender lays bare the nonsense of the Bullingdon Boys' claim that "we’re all in this together".
According to the same report, average wages for women in the UK fell by £2,700 in a year to £15,400, while the average for men was unchanged at £24,800. But perhaps the WEF is packed with radicalised feminists; in which case let’s turn to a different source: the House of Commons Library. Its figures show that the cumulative impact of George Osborne's spending choices since 2010 have hit women a staggering four times harder than men. Whether housing, work-related benefits and tax credits. In every area women have lost more money than men.
The Coalition government has meticulously and systematically removed the safety net for women. Nowhere is this clearer than in the support available for victims of domestic violence. This was shamefully demonstrated within the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which led to the removal of legal aid eligibility for many women fleeing violent partners. The LibDems – led by their Justice Minister in the Lords – let this happen.
According to one UNESCO report, since the last general election, the funding for local authority support of victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse has been slashed by nearly a third. More than 30 refuges across the UK have closed. The most vulnerable women are forced to walk a tightrope between coercion and violence from their partners; and on top of this it now seems that they have to deal with indifference and abandonment from the state. But it's not just women being pushed onto the tightrope but children too. We know their safety net has gone. We know their emotional development will be smashed to pieces. And we know we'll pay – when it's too late – when we pick up the pieces with an extortionate price tag attached.
An Opposition Debate in the Lords today, which I will open, sets out these disturbing facts. I will press the Minister to match Labour's commitment to find the immediate funding needed to save refuges that are set to close. Specialist knowledge built up over many years is at risk of being lost, and in too many areas it has already gone, replaced by generic centres without accommodation. If we don't help women escape domestic and sexual violence, we fail on so many levels.
We are slipping down the league of nations, jettisoning decency as we go, normalising violence, entrenching the increased sexualisation of women and girls, emotionally disfiguring boys, and ignoring the need for proper relationship education – another Labour pledge – in our schools. Research now conclusively proves that gender equality is good for the economy. Of course it is. How can you succeed if you abandon half the workforce?
Obviously, I never expected gender equality from the Bullingdon Boys. But nor did I expect them to actually accelerate gender inequality so rapidly. I couldn't imagine them speeding away from Iceland at the top of the gender equality index and motoring in the direction of Yemen at the bottom. But the facts, extraordinary as they are, speak for themselves. That's why all decent men and women in our country should join Labour in supporting the Women's Aid campaign: SOS Save Refuges, Save Lives. It's time to act.
Baroness Oona King is a member of the Shadow Equalities team in the House of Lords. She tweets @Oona_King
Published 6th November 2014