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A balance for the better

Anita Gale on tackling gender inequality in the workplace, politics and society

International Women's Day seeks to tip the scales that remain weighted towards men. This year’s theme is #BalanceforBetter, with gender balance being essential to allow businesses to grow, leaders to govern, and communities to thrive.

But whether it is intimidation in public life, gender based violence or a no deal Brexit, a better balance can only be found by tackling these challenges head on.

Despite last year’s US midterms, when a record number of women ran for office and took their seats in the US Congress, the largest gender disparity remains with political empowerment. According to the UN, only 24% of all national parliamentarians are women. Demonstrating how this new wave of women have broken down barriers and perceptions, first term US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, “women like me aren't supposed to run for office”.

Unfortunately, this belief continues to resonate widely, with intimidation being one of the barriers to participation. Women in politics face an extraordinary amount of abuse on and offline – often for speaking up, or simply because they are women. Amnesty International and Element AI surveyed millions of tweets received by 778 journalists and politicians from the UK and US throughout 2017 and found that 1.1million were abusive or problematic. Equivalent to one every 30 seconds.

Social media companies must do more to protect female users – especially those in elected office – by accepting responsibility for abusive content on their sites and the faster removal of such comments.

But sexism continues to manifest in more violent ways. Gender based violence remains a major public health issue. Rape and murder are used as weapons of war, and women fleeing conflict are left in extremely vulnerable situations. The development charity, International Rescue Committee, states that “girls living in crisis-affected communities are at increased risk of gender-based violence, including sexual violence and exploitation, intimate partner violence and forced marriage.”

The UK must lead the global effort to protect and empower these women, but we must make sure this protection extends to the home. Two women are killed every week in England and Wales by a partner or ex-partner, while funding cuts to women’s refuges leave many with no safe places to go.

Women’s Aid found that one in six referrals to a refuge were declined owing to a lack of space or capacity to support the survivor, and has said the draft Domestic Abuse Bill fails to deliver enough money to address the recent decimation of services.

That legislation cannot come soon enough. Labour welcomes the establishment of a Joint Committee to consider the Bill. We want sustainable funding for refuges and specialist services, with migrant women given full and equal access. We are also committed to spending 0.7% of GDP on development to tackle inequality across the world.

Labour is determined to stop a ‘no deal’ Brexit – something that would be catastrophic for equality in our country. The government’s own impact assessment revealed no deal could leave the UK economy up to 9% smaller, and the Women’s Budget Group said such a downturn would have a disproportionate impact on women. Businesses could go bust, unemployment could rise, and vital government services could be cut.

When money’s tight, women suffer the most.

Baroness Anita Gale is Shadow Equalities Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @BaronessGale

Published 6th March 2019


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