Speech to Sheffield Feminist Network Hustings

fem_network.jpgThank you for inviting me to speak this evening; it’s a real privilege to be a part of the Sheffield Feminist Network’s hustings and I think it’s a fantastic initiative.

I’m a very proud feminist and completely unashamed to use that term, not least because I think it’s important that we use this language that for many people, sadly, has gone out of fashion.

I speak to lots of young people who feel that feminism is an outdated concept, one that belonged in the 1960s alongside bra burning and that those battles have been fought and won.  Yet I’m sure that everyone in this room agrees, that the battles that we face everyday – in our lives, our workplaces and in society are far from over.

And the need to fight these battles is demonstrated very clearly in the fact that we have a larger gender pay gap than the Phillippines – women earn 81p for every £1 that men earn.

1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lives and despite large numbers of domestic violence going unreported, the police still receive a call about it every 39 seconds.

In our top 100 companies, only 20% of board places are occupied by women.

And we live in a country where the biggest selling newspaper, readily available to children and sold in all newsagents, carries semi-naked pictures of women on p3, normalising their objectification.

This is in part due to the lack of female representation in our Government and in our Parliament – we have 148 female MPs and 502 male ones.

But it is at least as much to do with challenging the language, stereotypes and culture that hold women back at the everyday level – where it is most insidious.  That’s why events like today and the work of the Sheffield Feminist Network are so important and it’s why as I say, I’m very proud to call myself a feminist.

When I was standing to be Labour’s candidate for Sheffield Heeley, I was asked over and over again, by all types of people, whether I had children, whether I wanted children, if I was single, married, why hadn’t I managed to find myself a boyfriend.  I am confident that a man in my position would not have been asked the same questions, not least because it would have seemed irrelevant if he had children, because his partner would be looking after them in the house whilst he was doing the serious job of being a candidate.

Because of my age, I was accused of being too ambitious or too professional – qualities rarely associated negatively with my male counterparts.

And when as a little girl I was told off for being too bossy, told to be nice or on the countless occasions strangers in the street have told me to smile, it all played into the idea that a woman’s role is to sit and look pretty.  Indeed, at a recent community meeting which I attended as the Labour candidate, I was told to do exactly that – to sit and look pretty.

These forms of sexism are difficult to challenge and when we do, I have often found myself accused of being hysterical, another gender-loaded term, but it is happening everywhere around us – in our schools where children have examples in their text books of men doing jobs like engineering or medicine whilst women are sweeping the floor.  In pop culture, where body-shaming is rampant and in sport, where recently thousands of people had to sign a petition in order to stop a convicted rapist returning to Sheffield United where he would be hero-worshipped by thousands of local fans.

And over the last 5 years, we have seen women suffer time and time again at the hands of this government.

When Thatcher took on the miners 30 years ago, the battle wasn’t equal, not by any stretch, but both sides were organised so we could legitimately call it a war.  The targets of this government, by contrast, are divided and fragmented, with no voice in the media or political elite.

Nowhere is this more keenly felt than for women facing domestic violence and sexual abuse.

2 years ago the Discretionary Social Fund, which provided crisis loans for people in desperate circumstances was scrapped and replaced by a Local Welfare Assistance Fund, which many councils use to support women fleeing from abusive partners.  Of course, devolved responsibility from central government to local authority-level brought with it a significant cut in funding, which severely limited the resources available to victims of domestic abuse.  But this year, that fund will be scrapped entirely and local authorities will have to find the funding from their core grant – in Sheffield that grant has been halved since 2010 so for many, this support will simply no longer be available.

In the first 2 years of this government, funding for the domestic violence and sexual abuse sector was cut by almost a third.  In 2013, Women’s Aid picked a day at random to conduct a survey and found 155 women with 103 children had to be turned away from refuges across Britain because of a lack of resources.

One of the main factors for women trying to leave abusive relationships is a lack of financial security.  These cuts will be driving women straight back into the arms of their violent partners, ensuring more women and children are killed or hurt as a result.

And it’s not just cuts to local authority funding that have impacted on women but a whole range of Government policy.

Coventry University estimates that welfare cuts have hit women 3 times as hard as men.

Public sector job losses have disproportionately affected women who are more likely to work in the public sector

The abolition of the Child Support Agency means parents now have to pay a fee in order to apply for support, boils down to an assault on single mothers.

Childcare costs are up by 30%

And record numbers of women are out of work or under-employed.

But for me, as a trade unionist, perhaps one of the most deceptive attacks on women, has been the introduction of tribunal fees.  Fees of almost £6,000 can now be charged to people wanting to bring claims against their employers through the courts.  This led directly to a 91% drop in sex discrimination claims being brought last year, effectively pricing women out of justice and undoubtedly creating a trickle-down effect on workplace culture and harassment.

We have gone backwards under this government in terms of gender inequality and women’s rights, after Labour had achieved so much under the last government.

Every single piece of equality legislation, with the exception of gay marriage, has been brought forward by a Labour Government from Harold Wilson’s Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts to Harriet Harman’s Equality Act in 2010.

In government, we reduced the gender pay gap by a third, largely through the creation of the Minimum Wage.

We opened 3,500 Sure Start Centres, providing support for parents and young children in every community.

We increased paid maternity leave to 9 months, doubled maternity pay and introduced paternity leave.

And we legislated against sex discrimination in the workplace and ensured rape convictions increased by 45%.

Our record on gender equality is incredibly strong and I’m happy to say we have equally strong manifesto commitments in this area as well.

If elected on May 8th, a Labour Government will:

Require large employers to publish their gender pay gap

Ban exploitative zero hour contracts, drive up the minimum wage and incentivise the Living Wage because women are significantly more likely to be in low wage work than men.

Expand free childcare to 25 hours for 3 and 4 year olds, on top of tax-free childcare and guarantee wraparound childcare from 8am – 6pm in all primary schools.

And to tackle violence against women and girls, we’ll creat a new national commissioner for domestic and sexual violence, to set national standards for police response and training and we’ll make SRE compulsory in all schools, ensuring it’s not just about sexual health but also about consent, online safety and respect in relationships.

I am incredibly proud of Labour’s achievements in tackling gender inequality, of our strong commitment to ensuring we have greater numbers of female MPs and of our policy commitments for a future government.

This coalition has been a disaster for women in Sheffield and across the country and I hope that makes you as angry as it makes me.  I hope you turn that anger into action and that you vote Labour in 66 days time to stop the coalition turning the clock back any further for women in our country and so that together we can build a better future for our daughters and grand daughters based on respect and above all equality.